Designing the National Health Service


Today is the 70th anniversary of the creation of the National Health Service. One of the defining moments in British political history, the creation of a public health service is undoubtedly one of the Labour Party’s greatest achievements — it’s even described as such on their website.

I’ll leave the history behind its creation and the current, austerity-induced issues it faces to others because I want to focus, predicatably, on design within the health service.

It had no universal branding to speak of when it launched on 5th July 1948. Until the launch of its now-ubiquitous brand, it was widely reported that there were over 600 logos in use across the UK. Although the series of bills ensuring its creation are now iconic, even its name wasn’t widely acknowledged or accepted — most referred to it as the “new health service”, as shown in the 1948 public service announcement below.

It wasn’t until the 1997 New Labour government that a unified brand identity was introduced. It’s now impossible to imagine a world without the blue lozenge logo.

The logo — created nine years prior to its universal rollout — is a rectangle with a background of blue Pantone 300, with white writing spelling out the service’s acronym in Frutiger, described as the “best general typeface ever”. Although green is the colour most often associated with medicine, in the UK blue Pantone 300 is the colour of health.

But 19 years on and branding development seems to have paused. The insides of hospitals are clean, white, with blue highlights — often clinical but in the pejorative sense — so what’s in line for the future of the NHS, and does it need to update?

Given it’s a project of national importance, no major rebranding could take place without wholesale buy-in from the public. As Nigel Lawson said, the NHS is “the closest thing the English people have to a religion”. However, there are some interesting experiments taking place, using design as a way of reimagining our interactions with the health service.

The Wellcome Gallery exhibition “Can graphic design save your life?”, on earlier this year, highlighted work undertaken by designers PearsonLloyd in 2012 on behalf of the Department of Health and the Design Council. The goal of the design was to reduce patient aggression in Accident & Emergency departments. Moving away from the traditional colours of the NHS, a combination of slate greys and bright yellows presented a patient’s journey through A&E. The colours were chosen so the signs could be easy on the eye, a calming influence in the busy hospital environment, with key information clearly highlighted. The language on the signs was specially crafted to be read by anyone.


The trial was a success, reducing aggression against staff by up to 50%, even saving the department money as a result. As PearsonLloyd explain on their website, 75% of patients felt the signage had reduced their frustration with the service and improved their experience of A&E. In these austere times, stories of improvements in the way the NHS functions are extremely heartening, and this experiment proves there are ways to improve the care patients receive without increasing the burden on those who provide it.

When the NHS was launched by Nye Bevan in 1948, he spoke of three core principles that should guide its future:

As our society changes, and the need to present information clearly and coherently becomes more integral to our daily interaction, so the NHS should take hold of good, functional design, rooted in simple psychology, to ensure it stays true to the first principle and truly does meet the needs of everyone.

Software developer. Graphic Designer.