Designing During Uncertainty: A Visual Response to COVID-19

Visual design created in reaction to specific moments in time is always interesting to examine on its own merits. At the moment, many of the ads or visual content on our airwaves are doing their best to react to the unfortunate events of the last few months. Themes that recur often here include that of community, adversity, preservation, and hope (this last theme typically highlighted in support of whatever product is paying for the ad space). “It’s a sweet gesture, and a novel one too. Of all the things Taco Bell has given me over the years, a hug is not among them.”

Visual Design During COVID-19

At the same time, a lot of commercial work is sidestepping the crisis of the day entirely, and (understandably) leaning hard into escapist sentiments where they can. Particularly if their product is a new video game or season of TV. We won’t be examining these particular kinds of commercials in great detail here, but it is worth noting that just because a work avoids the topic of Covid-19 doesn’t mean it isn’t responding to it. In fact, it can be defining itself by presenting a contrasting message to stand out. For the moment, however, we will look at designs that have been appearing around the topic of COVID-19 itself. This can range from a direct approach, where the main topic might be presenting helpful or cautionary information, to a more indirect approach, where the topic acknowledges current events while also presenting their products or services like how they typically would.


What, So What, and Now What

Backing up for a minute, these visual design approaches to COVID-19 all tend to have one thing in common: They are all a synthesis of, or reaction to, information that is initially presented (in large part) as tables of numbers and other data. “[This] doesn’t inspire much action among the public because tables are dense, our brains don’t process them well, and nothing meaningful pops out.”[ii] Graphics created here are thus meant to touch on three general questions: 1. What 2. So, What? and 3. Now What?[iii] Essentially, we need to know what is the big issue at hand, why it matters to us, and what we can do about it (or what it will lead to if we do nothing about it). Ultimately, in a globally-impactful situation like Covid-19, “we need to take action quickly. Public health officials should take note of successful data visualization and designs used in other awareness campaigns. And we, the public, should ask for the data, presented with clear messaging and strong visuals.”[iv]


The Drawing Board

Many of these topics were addressed during the initial visualizations of COVID-19 itself. As the virus emerged as a newsworthy issue over the past few months, a group of designers was asked to create the initial graphics that would accompany media coverage. Drawing upon a range of backgrounds and expertise spanning both the medical and illustration fields, “one of the key things [these designers] had to keep in mind was to use colors that would communicate the gravity of the situation to the public.

[They didn’t want it to be too playful, but [they] didn’t want it to be scary either. [They] also wanted the structure to have a realistic feel to it.”[v] The compositions and renderings for the Coronavirus model were carefully considered, so as to make the final image “relatable, visually coherent for even a layperson, and of high design quality.”[vi] Colors therefore were chosen “to make sure they would harmonize with any published collateral. [Red] on gray, with orange and yellow accents, was the most arresting, [as] it just really stood out.”[vii]


Common Motifs

Following this development stage of the look of COVID-19 itself, designers naturally turned to creating supporting materials. Certain designs are fairly straightforward, the above graphic being a good example. “Graphic-wise this is fine,” if overly minimalistic,” according to one designer.[viii] The reds and blacks convey themes of urgency and somberness, and the iconography is both serviceable and straightforward. This kind of design has been used in many similar kinds of contexts over the years, generally as a warning or other cautionary visual design device. According to a report by Applied Ergonomics, “the salience of a visual warning can be enhanced using large, bold print,  high contrast, color, borders, pictorial symbols, and special effects like flashing lights,”[ix] all of which appear here save for the final item. Put another way, ““The simple visual aid of the color red in the United States will get some Americans to perk up and pay attention.”[x] In short, not necessarily the most inspired design, but there is some thought that went into its creation.


Another Take on This Approach…

This particular graphic uses a lot of the same visual design vocabulary, but in a much more detailed fashion. It organizes its information in an almost-flowchart style and likely falls on the busier side of the design spectrum. Whereas the previous design was minimalistic, this design, feels a lot more cluttered. That said, the content is useful, and as one designer states, “This graphic has some information. This is probably too much information, but seeing as how none of the text is too small to read, it’s a great graphic. I’ve learned a lot here.”[xi] Ultimately, this may speak more to whether your audience is experiencing your graphic by choice or by necessity, but it’s generally helpful to at least make the attempt to display  the information in a presentable way.


Many recent designs on this topic are a mixed bag, visually speaking. This particular image presents both distinctive visuals and helpful information, but much of the information here is only helpful in a very general sense. As one designer observes, “Nobody touches their face like that. You don’t have to tell me not to place my open palm over my left eye. I was never going to do that. Please revise the illustration to depict someone picking their nose right here, so that way I’ll actually learn.”[xii]


Simpler Can Be Better

While individual designers have a certain amount of discretion in crafting their images, it is interesting to examine how more official sources are visually presenting information related to COVID-19 topics. Above is a graphic currently used by the CDC.[xiii] It is a very clean approach. Everything is neatly arranged, with complimentary colors being used to highlight key bits of information. The composition is well-balanced, and simply presents facts that are likely on most people’s minds like how to avoid the virus if possible, what the symptoms are, and where to go for more information. Even the graphics here are simple, yet specific. The designer had very specific goals for these graphics, which were achieved quite effectively.


Different Approaches

Finally, there are some other recent (unofficial) ad spots using visual approaches that are worth discussing here. One campaign presents spoilers from streaming TV shows, the implication being that if you were staying home (and watching said TV show), you would not have been spoiled in the first place. “The concept seeks to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic by using the threat of spoilers to stop millennials from being tempted to [socialize] and encouraging them to binge on Netflix instead.”[xiv] It’s a very light-hearted, almost escapist approach, and stands out as an effective and unique call to action among a great many more grounded efforts.

Visual design aside, the motivations behind all these approaches are clearly good ones. The intent is to provide helpful information in a way that is easy to understand and implement. However, what is also clear is that solid design choices are just as important here as they are anywhere else. If a set of infographics is undercutting its message by presenting vague or contradictory visuals, that is unfortunately not going to be nearly as helpful as a commercial that is memorable, accurate, and well-staged. Please share some of the effective visuals you have recently seen in the comments below!

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[i] Schwartz, Addam. “Great. Now the Coronavirus is Infecting TV Commercials, Too.” N.p., April 2020. Web

[ii] Evergreen, Stephanie. “How Design Can Stop the Spread of the Coronavirus.” Fast Company, Inc. January 2020. Web.

[iii] Evergreen.

[iv] Evergreen.

[v] Kallingal, Mallika. “Meet the Illustrators Who Gave the Coronavirus its Face.” WarnerMedia. April 2020. Web.

[vi] Delbert, Caroline. “How Illustrators Created the Iconic Coronavirus Image.” Hearst Communications. April 2020. Web.

[vii] Delbert.

[viii] Kulwin, Noah. “Coronavirus is Causing Some Real Code-Red Graphic Design.” Bustle Digital Media. March 2020. Web.

[ix] Wogaltera, Michael S.; Conzolaa, Vincent C.; Smith-Jackson, Tonya L. “Research-Based Guidelines for Warning Design and Evaluation.” Applied Ergonomics 33. 2002. p. 221. Web.

[x] Evergreen.

[xi] Kulwin.

[xii] Kulwin.

[xiii] “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – Communication Resources – Graphics and Images.” N.p. April 2020. Web.

[xiv] Ormesher, Ellen. “From Guinness Genius to Netflix Spoilers: The Best Coronavirus Spec Ads.” N.p. April 2020, Web.