If A Picture’s Worth 1,000 Words, Could It Help You Floss?

April 6, 2014

Would art help remind your kids to brush your teeth? That’s the question posed by Health Axioms, a deck of cards that aims to help people to change their health habits for the better.

“Here’s your eye doctor handing your four or five cards,” says Juhan Sonin, the creative director at Involution Studios in Boston and the mastermind behind Health Axioms. “They may not be what you expected. ‘Get a good night’s sleep.’ ‘Eat more green stuff.’ ”

The 32 cards feature drawings reminiscent of Japanese manga or Soviet propaganda posters (but in a nice way). The messages range from health basics (“Don’t Rush the Brush” and “Wash Your Hands”) to seemingly mysterious mantras (“Know Your Numbers” and “Who Is Your Wingman?”).

I couldn’t have figured out those last two without the info on the card backs.

Then “Know Your Numbers” makes sense. It’s not just about blood pressure and cholesterol, but maybe also that steps-per-day number from your Fitbit. “Tracking your health through data, not just senses, lets you see your health in actionable ways.”

And it turns out the wingman is not your drinking buddy. Rather, he or she is the person who’s by your side to help navigate surgery or a hospital stay. The card not only lays out the medical wingman’s role, but urges you to sign a health care proxy so that someone can make health care decisions for you if you’re incapacitated.

OK, Crazy Eights it’s not.

But the Health Axioms deck, which was illustrated by Sonin’s colleague Srah Kaiser, does exude its own geeky charm. After I spread the cards out on my desk at NPR, all week coworkers stopped to find out what they were. “Health tarot cards!” said one. “But who are they for?” said another.

That’s a good question. One producer brought them home, and her teenagers shrugged. An editor gave her 10-year-old a few cards, and he said, “Cool! They look like comic books.”

Sonin says that two months after the cards’ debut, he’s still trying to figure out how people might encounter them and make use of them. “With any product, the first version of it is going to come out of the primordial ooze stage,” he notes. “I would love for it to proliferate in crazy new ways.”

One way would be to assist with parental nagging. Sonin does have two little boys. “I have the ‘Wash Your Hands’ stuck to the mirror at home. It’s burned into their skulls.”

Another would be for doctors and nurses to hand out health information in a way that provokes surprise and maybe smiles. He’s already gotten calls from health professionals asking for cards about environmental health, sharing personal genetic information, and blood sugar.

And beyond advice on navigating the health system and personal health, the cards also dip a toe into health care politics. “Medicare for All”, trumpets one card. “”Single-payer systems, like Canada’s, eliminate administrative overhead. Money is spent on health, not bureaucracy.”

Sonin doesn’t apologize for the editorializing. “Great art should be polarizing. I want somebody to either love them or hate them. You can’t leave politics out of it, because it infects everything.”

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