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If graphic design can save your life, it is eminently capable of killing you, too. That’s the conflicted message at the heart of a powerful new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, which explores graphic design’s complex relationship with health, medicine, and the world of big pharma – and the different ethical positions that designers choose to take.

The show opens with a hard-hitting section on smoking, where creatives’ seductive and lucrative attempts at selling tobacco over the years are paired with their equally clever efforts to encourage people to kick the habit. We find the iconic Lucky Strike roundel by Raymond Loewy – reproduced on T-shirts and baseball caps – alongside the Silk Cut campaign masterminded by Charles Saatchi in the early 1990s. The glossy billboards, featuring luscious photographs of skeins of purple silk being slashed and sliced, were an ingenious response to the growing constraints on tobacco advertising, which explicitly prohibited the naming of brands. Instead, the increasingly surreal and impenetrable compositions of silk and polished metal offered a reward to the cognoscenti capable of deciphering the coded message. Silk Cut sales soared, their loyal customers enticed by the prospect of collecting the artworks as miniature cards along the way.

By contrast, we are then shown the result of market research agency GfK’s quest to find “the ugliest colour possible” with which to wrap Australia’s new plain cigarette packets, following the government’s 2012 ruling prohibiting the branded packaging of tobacco. They settled on Pantone 448C – AKA “opaque couché” – a queasy shade of greenish brown. The muddy hue is now used to cover the 25% of the packet not already taken up with gory photos of tar-addled lungs and rotting gums. It seems to have had the desired effect. An Australian government report estimated that the number of smokers fell by more than 100,000 in the three years following the introduction of the new sickly brown packets.

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Image Anti-smoking stamps. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

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The Guardian

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