Academic journal article Visible Language

Visual Communication for Medicines: Malignant Assumptions and Benign Design?

Academic journal article Visible Language

Visual Communication for Medicines: Malignant Assumptions and Benign Design?

Article excerpt


An area of visual communication that might be classified as a 'design failure' is the visual presentation of information about 'prescription-only medicines' for patients. This information is provided on packaging, leaflets, brochures, labels and websites. The practical issue is that there are problems in convincing patients to take medicines appropriately and effectively. Some of the assumptions that underlie the development of visual information for patients could be incorrect. A visual rhetoric framework is applied to help this article answer two questions:

* is the current visual information about medicines a 'communication failure'?

* can visual rhetoric be used as a framework to indicate failures?

The results show that visual rhetoric can be used as a basis for describing communication failures, but it needs to be incorporated into a larger 'visual argument' structure. 'Visual rhetoric' should be augmented by 'visual dialectic' (dialogues between commissioner and designer, and interactions between patient and artifact) and 'visual logic' (fundamental visual relations). The analysis indicates that visual information about prescription-only medicines for patients is-in general-not optimal and can therefore be seen as a failure. Application of some of the visual rhetorical principles indicates possible ways forward.


In order to clarify the scope of the issue, and before an analysis can be made, it is necessary to consider a few facts about medicines. Four groups of figures can be used as indicators:

1) The number of mistakes or errors leading to casualties and harm. The publication of the report, 'To err is human,' in 2000 lead to an increase in research interest in 'error rates' (IoM, 2000).

2) Poor effectiveness (compliance, concordance, adherence). Although there are large variations between different types of medicines, there is a consensus that it is a major problem to persuade people to acquire certain medicines and take them as directed.

3) Increasing costs. Every year, the total costs of medicines increase by about ten percent.

4) Increasing use of medicines. In general, elderly people use more medicines and demographic trends indicate that this population is increasing. Furthermore, there is a trend that the use of preventive medicines - medicines that are used to avoid or delay health problems - increases too.

The literature on these issues is substantial and the figures related to these four areas vary considerably according to definitions, area, medicine type and data-gathering methods. However, the trends are clear in all four groups. They are likely to continue despite the fact that there are many initiatives that try to reverse them. Although these trends are worrying and need attention, it is beyond doubt that most medicines are used successfully: they cure and improve the quality of life.

The aim of providing information about medicines to patients is clear: to enable patients to make decisions about medicine use and to enhance appropriate and effective use. It is close to impossible to take medicines without information and this information supply has therefore a direct influence on effectiveness and error-rates.

The information about prescription-only medicines is in most situations a combination of aural and visual sources. Doctors and pharmacists provide aural information. Visual information comes from several sources, such as the pharmaceutical industry, health advocacy groups and health magazines. [This article focuses on 'prescriptiononly medicines' that are used by patients at home. Other groups of medicines, such as the 'over-the-counter medicines' or medicines that are only used by professionals in hospitals are not further discussed.] The information that is supplied with one single medicine is shown in Figure 1. When a patient sits at a kitchen table and considers the use of this medicine, all this visual information is available. …

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