Cutesy TV ads for Zoloft aside, it’s still not OK to be mentally ill in this country. Formerly stigmatized medical conditions like AIDS, alcoholism, and even obesity are often regarded with the proper respect in polite society nowadays, but if you suffer from depression, OCD, or agoraphobia… well then you’re just plain crazy, aren’t you?
Actually, no. Mental illness is just like any other illness: it’s a (usually treatable) condition, not a definition of a person’s character. Which is just what these tasteful, minimally designed posters by Patrick Smith convey.
Of course, the poignant irony of these conditions is that they can feel completely consuming and defining to the person experiencing them. (I’ve had clinical depression: boy, let me tell you.) Smith’s designs might come off a bit pat to some — reducing complex psychological symptoms to a simplistic visual interpretation — but I think their broad use of negative space and, yes, oversimplified iconography simultaneously captures and critiques the complicated, even antiquated attitudes that many of us have toward mental illness (including those experiencing the conditions themselves).
Take Smith’s interpretation of gender identity disorder. A blue square stuck within a pink circle satirizes our too-simple visual language of gender (blue+sharp edges=boy! pink+soft=girl!) while also starkly depicting the undeniable “wrongness” that anyone with this condition must feel being trapped inside the a body that doesn’t match their real identity. Of course, even using words like “condition” or “disorder” (or even “real identity”) in this context is itself too simple, and very controversial.
Do Smith’s graphics take this controversy into account, or do they fall prey to the very sort of over-reliance on pat definitions and labels that we need to move past? I can’t be sure, but the very fact that his deceptively simple designs raise these questions at all makes them valuable.