Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Graphic design in pharma ads traces the history of healthcare

redoxon.jpgModern-day print ads for medicine are hardly worth a glance, with their universal fine print detailing drug side effects amidst stock-photo graphics and vague illusions to disease. However, such ads would be unrecognizable to their predecessors in the mid-twentieth century. At the time, pharmaceutical advertising was a new frontier for American artists working in marketing. And with a heavy influence from the European avant-garde movement, drug ads became bold, colorful statements for the nascent field of graphic design.

“The industry was just being born, and there was a feeling that this was something new and something really exciting,” says Alexander Tochilovsky, a graphic designer who teaches at the Cooper Union in New York. “It attracted a lot of young designers who were all trained as artists who created really interesting things without too much guidance and restriction.”

At the Cooper Union earlier today, I wandered through ‘Pharma’, a new exhibit curated by Tochilovsky detailing the history of pharma advertising and design — from the penciled advertisements for cure-all snake oil drugs of the early twentieth-century to modern ad campaigns starring ambiguously happy men and women with taboo diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and sexual dysfunction disorder.

In the 1940s and 50s, pharmaceutical design came with a compelling set of challenges. Artists had to visually explain complex medical conditions and drug applications, and they often turned to avant-garde abstraction. The shift to the conceptual also came at a time of changing infrastructure in healthcare, in which medicines were no longer peddled to consumers, but rather to hospital-based doctors. And according to Tochilovsky, artists were thrilled to design for the “sophisticated and highly-educated” doctors, who did not require hand-holding to understand the abstract designs and cultural references.

geigy_irgapirina.jpgFor example, the Swiss drugmaker Geigy (now Novartis) pioneered its own design called ‘Geigy style,’ known for its graphics and color contrasts. In the 1951 mailer for the company’s arthritis medication Irgapyrin (pictured here on the left), designer Max Schmid illustrates the ailment in simple geometrical shapes, with red balls denoting areas of pain in an abstract human frame. To an uninformed observer, the figure appears to be a doll or a dancer. But the doctor’s medical knowledge gave designers greater freedom to experiment with imagery for ailments.

Alas, this golden age of pharmaceutical design came to an end in the 1960s when regulation and controversy struck the industry. The Kefauver Harris Amendment, passed by the US Congress in 1962 in response to the thalidomide scandal, required safety and efficacy data for marketed drugs for the first time, and the design emphasis shifted towards clarity and text. The Swiss aesthetic, with its clear lines and simple typography, appeared “very sterile and very clean,” says Tochilovsky, which “worked extremely well within the confines of how the pharmaceutical small print had to be displayed.” This design aesthetic should be familiar to anyone who’s seen the barrage of text commonly included in modern-day drug ads.

While I’m all for clean lines and Helvetica, these mid-century designs are striking, even if their purpose was to draw doctors to look past the effectiveness of medicines. The exhibit serves as a reminder that there was once a place for the Don Drapers of the world in the pharmaceutical halls. Maybe that day will return and black box warnings will again become the new black.

‘Pharma’ is on display now through 3 December at the Cooper Union’s Herb Lubalin Study Center in New York.

Images courtesy of Cooper Union.

First: Ad for Roche by Aldo Calabresi for Studio Boggeri, photo by Sergio Libis, 1959

Second: Mailer for Geigy designed by Max Schmid, 1951; Courtesy of Display – Graphic Design Collection,


There are currently no comments.