Imagery Evolution: Public Health

We live in the age of infographics. It seems everybody is trying to get into the data viz game, whether or not they know what they’re doing. But the importance of communicating in pictures goes beyond the aesthetic pleasure of seeing beautiful data visualizations. In public health, visual literacy can mean the difference between life and death.

Currently, roughly 17 percent of the world’s population lacks true literacy skills, underscoring the need for information about health to be easily conveyed visually. One of the most salient examples of graphic design aiding public health is found in the fight against malaria, currently the world’s most deadly infectious disease.

There are around 300 million reported cases a year of malaria a year, and half a million deaths occur each year from the disease. But, as science historian Sonia Shah stated in her TED Talk on malaria at last year’s TEDGlobal conference, the disease carries not only an infection but a deadly paradox.

In recounting why preventative measures against malaria have been only moderately successful, Shah states, “People with malaria tend to care about it the least.” To unpack this, she compares the way many people conceive of malaria in developing nations, where it has the most devastating effects, to how most people in western nations think of cold and flu.

During cold and flu season, we expect to get sick, and also expect there to be deaths in the most vulnerable populations. Similar to cold and flu, not everybody who gets malaria dies; most people in the hardest hit areas will have the disease several times in their lifetimes. However, there are enough cases of malaria that the physical and economic effects of the disease put nations who are the hardest hit by the disease at a great disadvantage.

Given the cultural climate towards malaria, designers tasked with inventing ways to impart knowledge have devised innovative ways to tackle this monumental challenge.

One project implemented by design firm Rule29, the non-profit organization Life In Abundance, and students from Kent State University School of Visual Communication Design demonstrates how design paired with ethnographic research can be a useful tool for public health.

The group conducted ethnographic research to create simple visual aids for Kiberia in Kenya, the largest slum in the world. They used this research, which included information on religious beliefs, language, infrastructure and epidemiology, to create simple visual cards.

The cards convey the symptoms of malaria, which are often misunderstood, as well as explain the dosages of treatments. In addition, to reach children, the group created a board game and activity book that can be used in classrooms in order to combat the spread of misinformation and rumors about the disease.

Another visual approach to fight malaria also uses gaming, albeit in an entirely unique way. The production company Psyop produced a video game called Nightmare: Malaria to convey the seriousness of the illness. Voiced by Susan Sarandon, the game was developed in partnership with Against Malaria Foundation and is available for iOS and Android systems.

Nightmare: Malaria is set in the bloodstream of a young girl who is suffering from malaria. Players must navigate through her bloodstream, avoiding deadly mosquitoes and collecting teddy-bear tokens along the way. The creators say it’s not an advergame, but rather an educational tool to impart how dangerous the disease can be.

Given that malaria is often thought of as a daily part of life in countries where it is hardest hit, visually-intense experiences like Nightmare: Malaria may prove to be an effective route in combating one of the worst public health scourges in human history.

Top image via Nightmare: Malaria.

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Imagery Evolution: Public Health