Saturday, January 29, 2011

Beautiful AND Smart

Standard prescription bottle
As someone who makes a living with words it pains me to say this, but here goes: one picture really is worth a thousand words. This is especially true in my line of work, medical and scientific communications, where pictures and graphics are necessary to reach audiences with low literacy, low vision, or impaired thinking due to age, strokes, or even getting up in the middle of the night to tend to a sick child.

I am so impressed with all the good design being applied to medical issues these days. For example, Wired magazine recently ran a competition to re-design some of the most common laboratory test results. The amazing team at Information is Beautiful was the winner for its remarkably useful re-dos of some of the most common lab reports into graphics that not only clearly explain the lab findings, but tell you what they mean and what you can do about them, if say, your triglycerides are higher than they should be.

Redesigned tests results. Wired magazine

Target prescription bottles
This application of design know-how to practical health products is not only a visual treat, it is a potentially lifesaving tool. Deborah Adler, the designer behind Target's re-imagining of the prescription pill bottle,  was inspired to take on this task for a school project after her grandmother accidentally took her grandfather's medication. Target's nifty system of colored rings, one color for each family member, is designed to counter that problem, which is amazingly common - a poll conducted for Target found that 60% of prescription drug users have taken their medications incorrectly.

The Grocery Manufacturing Association is releasing new food labels that are much clearer in their declarations of saturated fat, sugar, calories, and so on. Unfortunately, these labels, while a great improvement over the current ones, fall short of what the FDA suggested. But still, in an area as crucial to health as food labeling, I'm willing to take some innovation and hope that future iterations will be even better.

Grocery Manufacturing Association's new food labels

Expanding out from graphics to interactive applications, web sites are getting better at incorporating plain language and snappy illustrations to allow low-literacy users access to the information, and the use of video and audio podcasts enable concepts to be demonstrated or spoken, which is useful for visually impaired or non-literate individuals. The US government has an ongoing plain language initiative, which should result in its websites, forms, and information being delivered in a more accessible way.

So hats off to the communicators of the world who are applying their technical skills to some tricky problems. Medical knowledge is no good if the patient does not understand it, is confused by complicated protocols, or can't read the name on a prescription bottle.


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