• 11.03.11

A Look Back At The Groundbreaking Drug Ads Of 50 Years Ago

You wouldn’t know it by looking at Cialis commerials today, but for 20 years, beginning in the post-war 1940s, the pharmaceutical industry owed its visual aesthetic to the cutting edge of fine art.

Pharma,” an exhibition of pharmaceutical-focused graphic design that opened at the Herb Lubalin Study Center at Cooper Union on November 1, traces this evolution of visual trends using more than 60 pieces, some from as far back as 1898 and as recent as this year. But the bulk of the material comes from the fertile period of experimentation (in design, not drugs) between 1940s and 1960s.


The show’s curator, Alexander Tochilovsky, says the show highlights a few consistent themes in pharmaceutical design. One constant challenge is trying to depict how drugs work. “It sounds simple, but over the years, designers have had to constantly be challenged by the visual representation of sometimes invisible processes,” he tells Co.Design. (Anyone seen that erectile dysfunction ad where the rancher “pulls his truck out of the mud”?) Another challenge lies in depicting the condition for which the drug was meant to help relieve, and to do so in an interesting and sensitive manner.

Visually, though, the most interesting pieces from the 1940s were influenced by cutting-edge artists. Alex Ross, Paul Rand, Will Burtin, and Lester Beall were working under the influence of the new avant-garde movements coming out of Europe. Some of the designers for the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Geigy, like Nelly Rudin, were part of the Concrete Art movement in Europe. “Many of these designers were trained as artists and continued to be interested in fine art during their careers and to inject the fine art ideas into their work,” Tochilovsky says.

But the more conservative approach that drug companies use today isn’t so much a turn away from a more artistic influences, but because of regulations imposed by the Federal Drug Administration. “The energy and freedom exhibited by the designers in the 1940s was due to it being a relatively young industry with a lot of freedom,” says Tochilovsky. “That has changed quite a bit since then.”

“Pharma” opens on November 1 at The Herb Lubalin Study Center at The Cooper Union. More information here.