Health Literacy

Using Graphics and Humor to Convey Healthcare Essentials

By Helen Osborne, M.Ed., OTR/L
President of Health Literacy Consulting

Jan Potter, a communications specialist at the Partnership for Health and Accountability (PHA) in Georgia, once overheard some colleagues talking about their plans for a poster presentation. They were figuring out how to put all their charts, graphs, and text on standard-size pieces of paper that they wanted to staple together.

Potter, meanwhile, was thinking: No one will read the poster if it has too many words and diagrams crammed on one page after another. With her background in technical communication, she knew the poster needed some type of a “hook” to draw people in. This could be graphics, color, humor, or a combination of visual and text elements meant to engage the intended audience.

Not long afterwards, Potter was asked to create materials for an educational series about patient safety and decided to apply the advice she had wanted to share with her colleagues that day. She put her ideas on a series of bulletin boards and used both graphics and humor to draw attention to the message.

The bulletin boards were so successful that Potter has been designing them ever since, creating dozens on topics as wide-ranging as firework safety, hand washing, immunizations, and health literacy. In a recent conversation, Potter passed along some of the lessons she’s learned and identified some helpful resources all healthcare professionals can use.

Instill the spirit of patient empowerment

Potter says patients need to feel empowered before they will speak up about some issue or take action on it. It’s not enough just to tell them that it’s their “right” or their responsibility. To instill a feeling of empowerment, Potter often designs bulletin boards using the theme Adventures of Super Patient.

Similar to comic books, these bulletin boards are designed as a series of sequential panels. Working with eight panels, Potter will use the first three to set up the problem. In a bulletin board about healthy eating, for instance, this may be three panels showing someone choosing unhealthy, high-salt items such as corn chips and canned soup, concluding with a panel depicting a television announcement about the need to monitor food labels. The fourth panel is punctuated with the word Kapow! Then the fifth panel declares, “This is a job for Super Patient.” The last three panels show Super Patient reading food labels to select healthier items.

The comic is a way to get people’s attention without “hammering the message home,” Potter says. Rather than saying “you need to do this or that,” her Super Patient–themed bulletin conveys the same health message in a more engaging and empowering way.

Combine graphics and humor

Whenever possible, Potter includes humor, visual jokes, and sometimes sarcasm in her educational materials. For example, rather than describing people who don’t exercise as “couch potatoes,” she draws potatoes with legs lying on the sofa, watching television. “We all know to eat right and exercise,” Potter says. “If I catch them with a joke, it will stick in their brain.”

Admittedly, it is easier to find humor in some topics than in others. One challenge Potter faced was creating materials about Georgia’s new advance-directive law. She persevered and added humor by drawing two young, attractive women sitting in a convertible talking about who they would (and, even more importantly, would not) want to make healthcare decisions for them.

Beyond bulletin boards

Bulletin boards are only part of the story. Potter says when it comes time to design materials for Patient Safety Week in March, she pulls out “all the stops.” The materials include not only a bulletin board but also T-shirts, table tents, bookmarks, bumper stickers, payroll stuffers, buttons, and even screen savers.

One of Potter’s biggest projects started as a bulletin board about the early warning symptoms of stroke. It has huge lettering along with three simple graphics of figures who look like sport referees. The message encourages readers to ask three questions if they think someone is having a stroke: Can the person raise both arms over their head? Can the person talk in the usual way? Can the person smile normally? At the bottom, the text reads, “If the answer to any of these is no, call 911.”

One woman who saw this bulletin board had just lost her mother from a stroke. She thought her mother might still be alive if the symptoms had been noticed earlier. Because this woman wanted others to know the early-warning signs of stroke, she arranged for a local business to put this information on three highway billboards. A reporter at a local television station saw the billboard and featured the message on a nightly news program. Now the same information is displayed in the woman’s public library, too, along with links to local resources. Potter is amazed and delighted that a “simple, straightforward graphic can mushroom to this proportion.”

Bulletin boards are free for your use

All of Potter’s bulletin boards are free for you to use. The only request is that you acknowledge that these materials are from the Georgia Hospital Association.

New bulletin boards, for both hospital staff and the public, are added almost monthly and older bulletin boards are frequently updated. Each comes as a series of PDF files that can be downloaded and printed on regular-size paper. You are welcome to use them together as posters, Potter says, or individually as separate signs.

Create your own bulletin boards

Most of Potter’s illustrations are adapted from clip art or other computer images. Her favorite sources include Microsoft clip art, the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalogue , CDC’s Public Health Image Library, and a search of Google images. Potter says it is essential to confirm that each graphic is legal to use. This means making sure the image is copyright-free. If it isn’t, you’ll need to obtain proper reprint permission. “Don’t steal someone’s art to make a point,” says Potter.

While there have yet to be large-scale studies about the effectiveness of bulletin boards, Potter’s goals are more personal. “I’ve succeeded and met all my needs for the year if even one person sees a bulletin board and then takes action.”

To learn more:

Jan Potter works for the Partnership for Health and Accountability, a division of the Georgia Hospital Association.

Helen Osborne, MEd, OTR/L, is president of Health Literacy Consulting. Her column appeared regularly in On Call. You can contact her by e-mail at

Article reprinted with permission from On Call magazine and published by a division of Boston Globe Media.