As the old saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words” – so what might this mean for a medical writer whose focus is traditionally on the written word? A well-chosen graphic or thoughtful visual design can help to keep prose as it should be – simple, concise and engaging. There are plenty of examples online and in print that show how adding pictures to words can, not only help to make complex medical or health information more salient, but may also compel readers to pay more attention to the text and take positive action.

Take, for example Health Canada’s anti-smoking campaign, initiated over 10 years ago and still going strong. To get the message of the dangers of smoking across, Health Canada was the first organization across all countries to place disturbing graphic warning labels on cigarette packs. The assorted graphic images of serious diseases – which now include a diseased tongue and a glimpse of a young woman dying of cancer  – portray the horrors of tobacco-related illness and the plight of its sufferers. Along with each graphic image is a written health warning which gives chilling context to the picture: “Remember this face and that smoking killed me” and “You can quit [smoking]. We can help.”

It turns out that including a graphic, disturbing image on a cigarette pack might actually compel people to read the corresponding written health warning. A recent study based on eye movement tracking found that compared to people shown a cigarette pack with only the standard text warning, those shown the photographic warning label1:

  • Were quicker to turn their gaze to the written health warning
  • Dwelled on the written health warning longer
  • Were more likely to remember the graphic health warning label correctly

The graphic images on cigarette packs seem to be effective for not only in getting the written warnings across, but Canadian longitudinal data2 suggests that the photographic warning labels may be helping to reduce the prevalence of smoking3.

So how is a medical writer to know when it’s best to supplement prose with an eye-catching image or other form of visual design? Incorporating visuals may be an advantage when:

  • Describing spatial relationships, processes, categories and sequential information
  • Offering perspective on health risks in relation to other conditions
  • Reaching  a target audience with low literacy levels
  • Highlighting key concepts and essential points
  • Evoking an emotional reaction in the reader

These are just simple rules of thumb, but there’s no question that there’s lots of potential mileage for leveraging good visual design to help make the written word more engaging, salient and inviting for your target audience.

Dr Geula Bernstein


  1. Strasser AA, Tang KZ, Romer D et al. Graphic Warning Labels in Cigarette Advertisements : Recall and Viewing Patterns. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2012;43:41–47.
  2. Statistics Canada. (2009). National Population Health Survey Household Component. Retrieved from
  3. Azagba S, Sharaf MF. The effect of graphic Cigarette Warning labels on smoking Behavior: evidence from the Canadian experience. Nicotine & tobacco research 2013;15:708–717. Available at: