It’s Time to Kill the Swoop

by Ben Solomon on 12/08/2020 | 5 Minute Read

Trends in design and branding aren’t just about being cool; they’re a universal recognition of our shared visual language. The color blue makes us feel calm and relaxed, while smooth, clean lines imply directness. Certain types of design reflect stability, trustworthiness, or a sense of ease. 

Whatever form it takes, there is a real value to considering trends, and designers tap into them all the time. By understanding what these choices do on an emotional level, they lean into familiar cues and create a specific motif or feeling. Audiences identify with these themes because they look or suggest something they might have seen before. In this way, designers don’t oversell a product or service and make it into something it is not; they use the familiarity to reinforce the trustworthiness of a brand’s voice. 

However, this also creates unintentional clichés in the design space. The pharmaceutical design world, in particular, is full of these clichés, and none is more emblematic of a lack of innovation in that space than the swoop.

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How We Got Here

Unlike other famous “swoops” like Nike’s, the pharmaceutical swoop isn’t a single specific graphic image—it’s a creative theme represented across logos, animations, illustrations, photography, colors, typography, and more. The swoop—whether embodied by a subtle gradient, an ocean wave, or the curvature of wind-blown hair—symbolizes an easy transition and positive change, and its presence helps consumers accept the science behind the medication without really questioning it.

The idea of the swoop is also popular because it complies with the strict design regulations of the pharmaceutical industry. Pharmaceutical outsiders might not know this, but the industry has plenty of visual rules and regulations. Logos and typefaces must be of a certain shape and size, colors are rigorously regimented, and there must be a specific level of contrast within the packaging itself for legibility. That is precisely why the swoop works—it’s easy to print, easy to read, and is adaptable. It’s not surprising that it now dominates the space.

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When the swoop isn’t there, designers run the risk of stepping outside of a familiar space and being perceived differently by their audience. If the packaging is too flashy, consumers can feel like the brand is being indirect, charging them more money just for fancy colors and type on the bottle. Brands tend to shy away from flashy packaging anyway, as it is less cost-effective for them. I’ve also personally heard consumers say that intricate packaging makes them unsure of the science behind the medicine. If your drug works, why doll up the bottle so much?

There is a lot of pressure from all sides, and pharmaceutical designers already walk a very thin line between choosing a visual language that is either too distinct or too similar to something else. And while the ultimate goal is always to try to increase trust in the brand, designers can feel discouraged that ideas not adhering to the pharmaceutical “look” will be quickly rejected in the approvals process. That is what makes the swoop a classic go-to. But there is also a lot of benefit in going beyond what you’re comfortable with to make something better, and pharmaceutical designers shouldn’t let these barriers stop them from embracing this change.

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Reimagining Pharmaceutical Design

Relying on clichés may feel like the safest idea, but good, fresh design concepts can’t blossom within this space if no one moves past them. Design is a competitive world, and pharmaceutical companies often worry that they will lose medical credibility without traditional packaging. However, there are many ways designers can reinvent their designs, comply with regulations, and still make a real, human impact on their consumers.

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To change, we have to let go of some of our most beloved clichés and look to other sectors that either cross over into the healthcare and pharmaceutical space or exist outside of it entirely. For instance, Vyleesi, a drug meant to boost women’s sex drives, is designed with aesthetics that mimic a cosmetics brand. Tia, a network of virtual and physical clinics for women, took an approach that is usually reserved for traditional consumer brands to appeal to younger women. AI-powered biotechnology company BERG used an algorithm inspired by AI science and DNA to craft its brand expression, an unusual approach that is more at home among tech brands. Even Annovera, a contraceptive brand with a legacy logo (including two swoops), recently launched a much more provocative and empowering campaign, designed with today's aesthetics, that lets the brand speak to a modern audience.

In the middle of a pandemic, with all eyes on how healthcare and pharmaceutical companies will help us navigate our new, shared reality, never has there been a more opportune time for these brands to successfully communicate their value to the world in new, even unexpected ways. They can highlight everything from their services to the overall science of drugs to the mode of delivery—all explored through design—instead of using a generic story of transition and change that the swoop tends to illustrate. When you go in new design directions, it allows brands to differentiate, telling more authentic stories about what makes them unique and how they benefit people.

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The Way Forward

In the branding industry, we’ve learned a lot about how pharmaceutical brands and consumers relate to each other. The brand’s ultimate goal is often to increase their own trustworthiness, and the consumer’s goal is to seek out brands they can trust. Good design will support these goals no matter what, but it’s time to rethink how we get there.

There will always be obstacles, barriers, and regulations we must comply with, but that doesn’t mean that trying to innovate the pharmaceutical design space is a lost cause. If brands and designers can come together and agree to let go of the past and embrace new creative paths, we can create something that changes the face of the entire pharmaceutical design space.

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