Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Medicine Display Activity

Learn more about medicine display activity.

Damien Hirst, the well-known British artist, and art collector, has exhibited a variety of intriguing installations including a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde (methanal, HCHO) and a series of coloured dots in ordered rows.

In addition, Hirst produced a variety of works centred around using pills, capsules and packaging to create ‘medicine cabinets’. He is not alone, for example, Jason Mecier has crafted some spectacularly detailed, mosaic-like pictures of celebrities simply using differently coloured tablets. We hope that this will inspire you to create your own artwork using common household medicines.

The following ingredients will be required:

  • A selection of tablets, such as vitamin supplements, throat lozenges, cod liver oil capsules, and/or pain relief medication. If you have none of these to hand, try using mints and/or cough sweets.

The following items will be required:

  • Any aids to the artistic effect that you envisage, such as backlights, glass cups, mirrors, or other props.

The arrangement of the medicines is up to you. Be as creative as you like in your arrangements. You could take inspiration from Hirst or more general streams of art such as abstract geometry where geometric shapes are arranged to express meaning without forming recognisable real-world items.

Can you guess the significance of the picture we took or what it symbolises? Remember to post your own artistic pictures on our open Padlet (we have included some examples from previous courses to help inspire you) and/or on Twitter or Instagram hashtag #FLchemistry.


  • Take care not to ingest any tablets or medicines. We advise not to consume or re-package any of the medicines used during this activity and dispose of excess medicines in food or general waste bin.

Viagra Pills Are Blue While Nexium Pills Are Purple. Does the Colour of the Medicine Matter?

Research shows it does! Multiple trials (some with placebos, others with active medicines) show that patients’ colour-effect associations can impact a medicine’s efficacy by measuring physical signs like heart rate and blood pressure. Pharmaceutical companies are aware of these associations and carry out extensive research in this area when developing new products or rebranding old ones. For example, apparently, blue pills act best as sedatives, and red and orange are stimulants, while green reduces anxiety and white soothes pain. Brighter colours and embossed brand names further strengthen these effects – a bright yellow pill with the name on its surface, for example, may have a stronger effect than a dull yellow pill without it. Colour also has a more practical role in medicine manufacturing – with light-sensitive medicines, coloured tints can ensure opacity, keeping active ingredients stable. Colour, together with shape, also aids medicine recognition, to help ensure that medicines aren’t mixed up during production or packaging, and when the patient is taking them. The fact that colours are important explains why manufacturers ferociously guard their designs and colours with patents, and generic companies try so hard to resemble them.

Shelf Life

Many pharmaceutical products are sensitive to light and so it is crucial that they are protected from direct sunlight and certain artificial light. Hence light-sensitive drugs in tablets are coated with a coloured film to protect the product from light and prevent degradation. Interestingly, researchers in the Netherlands have been investigating if antibiotics can be deactivated after use so that they no longer accumulate in the environment (and encourage the emergence of resistant bugs). They have demonstrated a way to switch off antibiotic agents after just a few hours using warmth or sunlight.

Temperature is also a concern – any medication, unless it specifies that it needs to be refrigerated, really needs to be kept at room temperature in a dry place away from heat (also humidity and light). In the heat, a medicine may lose some efficacy. This is probably not going to be harmful, but a small change in dose can sometimes cause a change in the way the patient is feeling.

Price Matters

An interesting study showed that people who thought they were using an expensive anti-itching cream experienced more pain than those who used a cheap cream, even though both were completely fake. Two groups of people were given a fake anti-itching cream and told that it may cause increased skin sensitivity – the group that tried the expensive-looking cream reported much higher levels of skin sensitivity. This phenomenon, called the nocebo effect, relates to a person experiencing a negative response to a fake treatment just because they’ve been told that the medicine may cause side effects.

Interestingly, if a person taking a medicine knows that it’s expensive, this tends to boost the placebo effect (a fake treatment producing a beneficial response), and this study suggests it also increases the nocebo effect (a fake treatment producing a detrimental response). Presumably, people don’t experience the nocebo effect when taking a widely-used painkiller like paracetamol, aspirin, or ibuprofen because they don’t read the side effects on the box or in an accompanying leaflet.

Do you read the ‘small-print’ that comes with any medication you use?

This article is from the free online

Exploring Everyday Chemistry

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now