As inevitable as taxes, and as unwelcome, the pandemic has pushed death uncomfortably into the public arena. It's beyond distressing, but I believe design can play a supporting role in helping us through it. During lockdown, I have been asked to work on two design projects which deal with death. It's been unsettling and sad, but doing it well has felt critical.
Designing a sympathy card
Covid-19 has been brutal, and one of the most harrowing new rules during early lockdown was that visitors were no longer allowed into hospital. This meant anyone ill enough with the virus to require hospitalization would be going into hospital alone. Death rate was high and, tragically, patients who died would do so without loved ones beside them.
Card design brief
I was asked to design a sympathy card for NHS staff at Bournemouth Hospital to post to grieving relatives. It offered a message of condolence, and contact details with a point of contact for families wanting to find out more about the end-of-life care their relative had received.
A simple A6 folding card with a picture of the flower on the front and a few sentences inside, with NHS logo. A straight forward design job, really, but as I contemplated which flower might be most appropriate and wondered which font to use, I pictured the nurse writing the card, the envelope being delivered, opened... the bereaved relative receiving the card. I thought about how they would feel and if there was some way a small card could bridge the impossible gulf of grief. It was awful.
Card design solution
After researching funeral flowers and finding out about flower meanings, I looked at photographs of lillies (renewal and rebirth), forget-me-knots (remembrance), yellow roses (support), hyacinth (sorrow and regret) and gladioli (strength and character). I sent the client a selection of the card designs with images ranging from colourful and hopeful to muted and sympathetic. We settled on an elegant lily image and paired it with a curvy sans-serif font (Cronos Pro). Clean, contemporary, unfussy.
I wondered, as the death toll rose, how many copies they would need to order.
Designing a book about death
I am now working on a book for a publisher which aims to support people through grief, offering practical steps to survive and find a way through the darkness. It's a kind, gentle and supportive text and covers a depth of feeling way beyond the usual self-care titles I have worked on previously. How do you cope when the love of your life is no longer with you?
I always begin a book design project by reading the start of the book which gives me a feel for the content, the style of writing, the structure of the text. This was an emotional read, beginning the death of the author's husband. I sat at my desk in my coworking office and tried not to cry. Fortunately, after the introduction, most of the following text is practical and supportive ideas of how to cope and find a way to gradually enjoy life again. It's a suprisingly positive read.
Book design brief
Along with the information about the elements of the text, the publisher said 'we think it needs a bit of care and your touch to make it a really lovely book as it needs to be spacious and airy'.
A calm and gentle approach to the typography with two softly rounded fonts which compliment each other while providing enough variation in weight to create a clear visual hierarchy for all the headings, boxes and journal spaces. Delicate black and white line drawings and plenty of white space on the page to create a calm and peaceful reading experience. This book design definitely needs to whisper, not shout.
So, can visual design offer emotional support? I hope so.
I think about the readers of the book, the recipients of the card, people who may not yet know they will need to read them. I hope the clean, spacious and simple book design helps them to navigate the grief workbook, removes any distraction on the page and allows them to absorb the words unhindered. I hope my invisible work allows them to cry peacefully with the author holding their hand. In death, the designer's job is to keep out of the way.