‘The Art of Public Health’: Pictures meant to save a thousand lives

Julian Bittiner, a critic in the Department of Graphic Design at the Yale School of ArtHow do you translate abstract health concepts into provocative messages that will resonate with the general public? At Yale, students from the School of Public Health turned to colleagues at the School of Art to find the answer, and together they developed visually powerful posters to educate and motivate broad sectors of society about some of today’s pressing health issues.

The posters created through this unique collaborative effort will be on exhibit at the Yale School of Art, 1156 Chapel St. April 13–24.  The gallery of the School of Art is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no charge for admission.

The idea for “The Art of Public Health” was first conceived last spring at the conclusion of a course taught at the Yale School of Public Health by assistant professor Catherine Yeckel. She challenged the class to apply and translate theoretical scientific knowledge into a public health campaign to educate the public on a specific health topic. This led to a collaboration with Julian Bittiner, a critic in the Department of Graphic Design at the Yale School of Art, who guided the visual communication process.

Poster design was chosen because it has a long tradition and allows sophisticated ideas to be communicated in a way that is creative, visual, and very focused on a single message, notes Bittiner. 

“The traditional poster still has an important role to play as it is experienced on the street, and as it is increasingly experienced and distributed online. It functions as a kind of visual shorthand for large and complex issues, and also as … a kind of ‘freeze frame’ which can then be expounded upon and extended to other media,” says Bittiner.

In the inaugural project, 14 pairs of students were charged to come up with compelling designs to provoke awareness, stimulate thought, and perhaps change behavior on such pressing health issues as obesity, breast cancer screening, self-respect, and child development.

The student teams met for one-on-one sessions together and with faculty mentors throughout the academic year, during which they discussed their particular health issue and how it might be captured and represented visually. Students considered several elements: 1) What is the issue, and why are we addressing it now? 2) How will this problem benefit from visual communication? 3) What are some potential difficulties in understanding this issue? 4) Is there a specific target audience for the issue? Within the framework of the answers to these questions, the pairs began working out a visual idea for their project. Helped by regular open discussions with the larger group, and by the expertise of Yeckel and Bittiner, the creative teams continued to hone the work to fit the message for their target audience.

“This intimate exchange of knowledge and skills reflects the opportunities for new ways of working and thinking afforded by our increasingly interdisciplinary environment,” notes Bittiner. 

The Connecticut Office of Health Reform and Innovation will sponsor a showing of "The Art of Public Health" exhibit at the State Capitol in July. Yeckel and and Bittiner are hopeful that the posters produced in this collaboration “The Art of Public Health” will go on tour following the Hartford exhibition.