“The coronavirus is still here.”

On the Visual Communication of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health FOPH (Part 2)

In the second part of our series on the FOPH’s communication campaign, we ask about a rhetoric of demarcation: what will follow an advertising campaign which has followed an information campaign? (You can find the first part here).

The Broad Impact of a Successful Model

The information campaign launched by Rod Kommunikation for the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health FOPH at the end of February 2020 is a success: countless parodies in Switzerland document the familiarity of the visual language in everyday life, and several sightings of these Swiss motifs in Germany indicate that they communicate more robustly (and therefore, in this context: better) than other campaigns. 

Continuation of the campaign at the Kirchenfeld Gymnasium, Bern (17.09.2020)
Parodies and visual adoptions of the campaign for own themes (Illustrations: Facebook 05/2020, public space 06/2020, Twitter 04/2020)
Poster of the Swiss campaign at the entrance of the main station’s bookshop, Darmstadt (02.06.2020)

At the same time, the campaign was used as an opportunity to speak to the public about its graphic design. The campaign’s art director, Ondrej Maczko, anecdotally reports in Das Magazin of the Zurich Tages-Anzeiger on the unusual conditions under which the campaign was created, and concludes: “Wenn ich mir als Artdirector die Plakate anschaue, muss ich sagen: Das ist keine Optik, bei der ich denke: Wow, hänge ich mir an die Wand! Aber das war auch nicht das Ziel. Die Bildsprache brauchte eine gewisse Autorität, ohne Panik zu verbreiten.” [“When I look at the posters as art director, I have to say: This is not a visual that makes me think: Wow, I am putting that myself on the wall! But that was not the aim either. The visual language needed a certain authority without spreading panic.”] (Das Magazin #23, 06.06.2020, p. 4)

After initial uncertainties in dealing with the crisis, the campaign appears to be making a significant contribution to a mild course of the pandemic in Switzerland so far by international standards. A follow-up study commissioned by the FOPH (“Coronavirus: Wirkungsanalyse der Präventionsarbeit des BAG Juli 2020”) evaluates the campaign positively in any case, when it states: “Obwohl sich seit Anfang März 2020 vieles beruhigte, ist die Bekanntheit der Informationskampagnen und das Wissen über die Verhaltens- und Hygieneregeln unverändert hoch.” [“Although much has calmed down since the beginning of March 2020, awareness of the information campaigns and knowledge of the rules of behaviour and hygiene remain high.”]

Apart from some justified and much unjustified criticism of the Swiss Federal Council’s crisis management, one can therefore conclude that the campaign has been successful: it might have done almost everything right – so far. But what about the future?

Changing Threat Situation

Since the relaxation of the measures in early summer 2020, the tone of the campaign has changed: in addition to the urgent warnings on initial and immediate measures, there are now detailed explanations – for example, on contact tracing or behaviour at work. In keeping with the already established colour scheme, the normalised version now uses a strong light blue, which stands out from the warning colours of the traffic light logic and nevertheless generates a high level of attention.

Example of a campaign motif in June: Education instead of warning (10.06.2020)

However, after the first loosening of the rules, the measures relating to the corona virus are increasingly no longer the focus of public attention. In June, David Schärer of Rod Kommunikation and Adrian Kammer of the FOPH present this particular challenge in an interview with Der Bund as follows:
“Schärer: […] Nun beginnt der Kampf gegen die Sorglosigkeit. Vielleicht braucht es jetzt eine neue schräge Idee. […] Für uns ist die Situation noch nicht abgeschlossen. Wir fliegen auf Sicht.” [“Schärer: […] Now the fight against carelessness begins. Perhaps what we need now is a new, weird idea. […] For us the situation is not yet over. We are flying on sight.”] (16.06.2020, S. 9)

In late summer 2020 the situation is different again: The new risks of infection caused by relaxation, on the one hand, such as parties, cultural events, larger private gatherings or holiday returnees, and the adaptation of measures, on the other hand, such as masks in public transport, are to be specifically addressed. On the one hand, this will be responded to with variations of existing infographics, such as the example below of a floor sticker in Bern.

Floor sticker at the Bubenbergplatz bus stop, Bern (14.08.2020)

On the other hand, the FOPH and its agency are responding to the changed situation with a completely new reminder campaign, highlighting existing measures and new types of specific outbreaks of infection. 25 individual motifs are used to make targeted statements on hot spots or measures.

Selection of nine poster motifs from the campaign  “The coronavirus is still here. in the four Swiss national languages and English. All 25 posters are available for download at https://bag-coronavirus.ch/downloads/download-plakate-das-coronavirus-ist-noch-da/ [Status: 18.08.2020]. (FOPH)
More advertising campaign than information design: Adaptation of the visual language in August 2020 (17.08.2020)

It is noticeable that the campaign is now abandoning the look of pure information design and moving towards a less independent – perhaps even arbitrary? – visual language: The headline in the above example “Viren sind wie Stadtmenschen: immer da, wo was los ist. Halten Sie Abstand.” [“Viruses are like city dwellers: always there where there is something going on. Keep distance.”] is placed in the background on a photo almost filling the format. This visual language is typical for advertising posters. The slogan in the form of a sticker with the text “The coronavirus is still here.” and the recognisable colour-typography combination form the link to this spring’s information campaign, as does the white sender bar with the logo of the Swiss Confederation. What is less comprehensible about the series is that the abstracted depiction of the virus comes across in a cheerful, harmless light green: Was the intention here to deliberately defuse the virus and leave crisis mode? In the concert of previous posters, this choice of colour is irritating. It is also noticeable that the choice of motif and the deliberate departure from the information design of the first few months has brought the campaign into line with other regional or cantonal campaigns. One example among many is the campaign “Mit Abstand …” (“With distance …”) of the Sports Department of the City of Bern.

Campaign motif for Bernese open-air swimming pools and the Aare river bank path, summer 2020 (Sports Office of the City of Bern)

One of the campaign’s strengths is that it is tailored to very specific situations and target groups: The new advertising posters will be placed in the appropriate locations: For example, the above-mentioned example “Viruses are like city dwellers.” is placed directly on the pedestrian overpass at Bern’s main railway station on the way from the post bus stop to the city’s party mile, so that the motif can be precisely targeted at young and young-at-heart target groups. Given the motifs aimed at holiday returnees, however, the question arises as to why versions in other languages (Albanian, Croatian, etc.) were not used on this occasion.

What is in Store for us There?

By opening up to a more promotional visual language, the campaign’s “construction kit” will be considerably expanded. We now have a wider range of visual possibilities. It will therefore be all the more interesting in the coming weeks to observe how the control mechanisms of information transfer will develop in the reaction field between panic and crisis fatigue as soon as measures are tightened up again. How – should there be a second wave – can the looseness of a promotional address be transformed back into the rhetorical binding nature of information design? The overall social context is also currently changing. With increasing “measure fatigue”, more and more counterfactual assertions are now appearing in public at demonstrations by “corona deniers”, for example, which will certainly be encountered more frequently in the future.

In an interview with Der Bund in June, David Schärer of Rod Kommunikation answers the question of whether mistakes were made during the crisis with a visual-rhetorical consideration: “Schärer: Wir hätten unsere Farbpalette erweitern müssen. Wir hätten eine Phase Orange gebraucht. Von gelb nach rot in vier Tagen war etwas anspruchsvoll.” [“Schärer: We should have expanded our colour palette. We would have needed a phase of orange. From yellow to red in four days was somewhat challenging.”] It remains to be seen whether the path from yellow to red and violet/pink to blue and finally colourful photographs will also work backwards when the time comes. If, after the colourful reminder, it should suddenly be deep red again telling to “stay at home”, the orange might still be used as an intermediate stage.


Further information about the campaign: 

Impact analysis commissioned by the FOPH: https://sotomo.ch/site/coronavirus-wirkungsanalyse-der-praeventionsarbeit-des-bag-juli-2020/


(Image rights with the author, exceptions are noted) 


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Arne Scheuermann

Prof. Dr. Arne Scheuermann is the head of the Institute of Design Research at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB); he is a co-founder of the research group Health Care Communication Design HCCD, and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Swiss Center for Design and Health (SCDH).

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