The Wellcome Collection’s latest show, Bedlam: the asylum and beyond, explores the changing face of mental health, tracing the rise and fall of the asylum and how this reflected the attitudes of society. From the 18th century madhouse to today’s chaotic marketplace of pills and treatment, the exhibition analyses how mental health care has transformed, and asks what the future might hold.
For the show’s identity, the Wellcome Trust’s graphic designers had the delicate task of developing visuals that communicated the subject matter while remaining conscious of the representation of mental illness. The team had mental health awareness training and took part in workshops with the Bethlem Gallery, linked to one of the oldest psychiatric hospitals, to help with awareness of the subject.
“There is a whole “anti-head-clutching” movement that we wanted to steer clear of,” explains the exhibition’s graphic designer Lindsay Pentelow of common clichés. “We had to respect the changing attitudes to the asylum as an institution, and be measured, balanced, considered and fresh whilst acknowledging the history.”
As a result the identity is simple and type-lead. “We quickly ruled out the use of any objects from the show, as there wasn’t just one that could do it justice,” says Lindsay. The background is a pale blue textured concrete, referencing the architecture of the asylum, lending a subtle and sensitive colour palette. “Rather than a flat colour, this brings warmth and texture,” she explains. “It helps the type stand out and works well with the contrasts and shadows, but still feels positive.”
Martin McGrath Studio worked on graphic design for the exhibition and designed the lettering for the identity, which is based on considering the asylum as a place for rest and recovery. To bring it to life, Lindsay and her team made a 3D version of the type from spray-painted MDF. “We wanted the letters to have as much depth as possible, so we had flexibility in playing with the light and shadows when we shot it,” she says.
“We made it 3D to create a real presence and feeling of space, reflecting the content of the exhibition that references the asylum as a space. By building and photographing the letters, we could cast shadows and create more drama for a more impactful campaign image. Although we could have tried using 3D renders, the quality of the shadows and the hand-finished approach comes across in the shoot – you can see it’s a true object, and creates a much richer image.”
Bedlam: the asylum and beyond opens 15 September – 15 January.