Mental health in design and communication - The Mind Map
By Nick Booton

Mental health in design and communication

“Close links have been studied in both those experiencing depression and excelling in creativity.”

Published 17/05/2018

For me, the worn out stereotype of the suffering artist as some romanticised lifestyle where tortured souls live a life on the booze to awaken their masterpiece within, is a tad misleading. But there may be a certain truth under the hood. Close links have been studied between levels of adrenal steroids (known as DHEAS) in both those experiencing depression and excelling in creativity, meaning the more creative among us can be prone to intense negative emotions. Who better then to tackle the issues surrounding mental health than the designers and visual communicators explored below.  

Tishk Barzanji

Kurdish illustrator Tishk Barzanji’s dream-like architectural landscapes present us with an abundance of choice and freedom as our eyes travel through the multitude of staircases, alleyways and arches in his complex universe. Yet as we scratch the surface of the illusion, there is a deeper sense of entrapment Tishk is sourcing from past experiences with anxiety.

He overcame severe isolation brought on by the condition and was able to turn the experience on its head as he became drawn to the influence our spaces can have on us. Aiming to capture the human side of isolation, his characters explore infinite space, and in doing so potentially explore themselves, climbing mental ladders, every turn offering a new insight.


Mullen Lowe

There is no denying the integral role graphic design plays in our modern lives, seamlessly interacting with us at every turn of our daily commute. Whilst we find it easy to cast a cynicism towards the garish advertising begging for our attention, this just makes the moment sweeter when that same advertising spot is replaced with an idea that just hits home. I can’t think of a better example than London based ad agency Mullen Lowe and their ‘We Listen’ campaign for Samaritans. This minimal design concept pairing compassionate photography with encrypted typographic statements cut straight through to the heart of their message.

Their research studies revealed that 23% of people in the UK feel they can’t talk when something’s on their mind, a problem that they hope to overcome as they offer a welcome ear to the nation. This smart execution displays the power of design to simplify complex information and communicate meaningful solutions, justified by their awarding of a prestigious D&AD Pencil.




Fe Rebeiro – still from ‘Pathway Through care’

Allen Laseter – still from ‘Transitions’

Canadian design and animation studio Wonderlust deliver a masterclass in beautifully rendered storytelling for Teen Mental Health, a charity relying on strong scientific input to provide information and improve the mental health of youths. With illustrators such as Fe Ribeiro and Allen Laseter jumping on board, Wonderlust have delivered several moving image campaigns to help visualise the ambitions and incentives of this invaluable organisation with tasty animations under the creative direction of Ryan Rumbolt. Oozing with charm and playful transitions the studio succeeds in providing a contemporary and up-to-date identity, helping drive positive youth engagement to the vast online resources. This seemless marriage of world class illustration, animation and creative direction paired with highly credible and in-depth mental health resources is surely the winning combination if we want to bridge the gap between isolated sufferers and their new support network.


Sara Lopez Ibanez

At 17 years old Sara Lopez Ibanez found herself battling severe depression and seeking support from mental health services, unfortunately finding the process couldn’t answer to her individual needs, such is the diversity of conditions. This personal experience led Sara to use her design mind to problem solve whilst studying an MA in Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins.

Collating vast amounts of data from clinical professionals, Sara designed ‘Mindnosis’, a social enterprise self-help kit that lets those experiencing mental health issues determine their individual emotions, providing clarity at times of need and allowing users to best identify the help they need and where that can be found. This intimate approach assures a unique empathy that may be lacking in many medical services, with the potential for one-to-one meetings and a voice of personal understanding only achievable through direct experience.


Emily Briselden-Waters

Listen up and take note – UK based designer Emily Briselden-Waters commands our attention with her ‘Circus of Anxiety’, a life-size, tangible experience designed to involve the viewer in an induced space of anxiety.

Understanding that anxiety has become an inherent difficulty burdened by many women, Emily’s substantial research collects accounts from medical professionals, mental health activists and first-hand sufferers to reveal common frustrations. The lack of tangibility or physicality associated with anxiety has compromised our abilities to understand and react competently to resolve these issues and it is ultimately this idea that Emily has challenged in her project.

With a focus on physicality and form this adaptable Circus finds a visual playground for mental health to cling to, undeniably present and absolutely real. Combining sculptural set-design with moving-image and performative dance, Emily is able to offer a unique experience for her collaborators as much as her audience, each participant taking away an individual understanding of the piece and it’s communication. Not only does this piece help visualise the unknown but it also reaches back into history to tackle stigma head on. The name is a reference to past times when women suffering with ‘hysteria’ were made to perform live for paying audiences under the guise of male doctors. This seemingly ancient practice reveals a cynical stigma attached to mental health that we may not have fully shaken off. But as designers such as Emily continue to dig their heels in and demand courses of action through communication, participation and first-hand realisation maybe we can start to understand our conditions –  building a community based upon support and care for those struggling.