“New Coronavirus. Protect Yourself and Others.”
On the Visual Communication of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (Part 1)
Since the beginning of the corona pandemic, state authorities have been providing information about their measures in the form of infographics. The Swiss campaign is characterised by a robust visual language and creative stringency. This also pays off in the first measurable successes. However, a look at the criticism of the federal campaign from graphic design circles also shows that after Corona, we finally have to talk differently about graphic design in the health care sector.
Designing the state of emergency under time pressure
At the beginning of February 2020 Adrian Kammer invited four advertising agencies to a meeting. The head of the Health Information and Campaigns Section at the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health FOPH is looking for a partner who heads the communication campaign with which the general public is informed about the safety measures that should help to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Kammer needs a big partner. Because any health campaign of this magnitude needs resources. That’s why only the big players come into question, all of them members of the Leading Swiss Agencies industry association. But three agencies – Jung von Matt/Limmat, Saatchi & Saatchi and Wirz – are withdrawing from the call before the first briefing. The Zurich agency Rod Kommunikation remains. And under time pressure they get started.
Under the direction of David Schärer, Rod Kommunikation develops the visual programme within a week, and just ten days later the first posters on display throughout Switzerland. Every day, the FOPH evaluates when the next step is due – the core messages are adapted practically on a weekly basis. With an estimated budget of CHF 100,000 per day so far, this is the largest health campaign in the history of Switzerland. Graphic design in an emergency, if you will.
Navigating through the crisis with traffic light colours
The campaign is run as a classic communication campaign in print and online: Social media measures support the campaign motifs, clips explain the prevention tips, other posters advertise solidarity in general. Like all official communication in Switzerland the campaign is typically communicated in the four national languages plus English. At the heart of the campaign is the gradual communication of the Confederation’s prevention and protection measures. The posters are omnipresent in public spaces on billboards and displays, as print ads and on the Internet, and play a key role in steering the population’s approach to the crisis.
A recurring headline on the print products under the heading “New Coronavirus” is a tab integrated in the top left-hand corner with the slogan “Protect Yourself and Others”. The colour palette uses the traffic light colours red-yellow-green in strong variations. The background of the posters is yellow in the first variant in February – with the intensification of the measures on 05.03.2020, the colour changes to red. Check hooks in green or white on green indicate the prevention measures.
The pictograms have no connecting grid, but are executed in proportionally even line widths, which makes them recognisable as a picture family. The correspondences between picture content and measure are self-explanatory in the first pictograms, only in the pictogram for the measure “Always call ahead before going to the doctor’s or the emergency department” (a stethoscope) the text must be consulted for comprehension. With the addition of the measures for Social Distancing (“Keep your distance”), two stylized figures appear for the first time in a medium shot – here the statement also requires a visual transfer performance, since the distance of two meters that is required and the illustrated distance do not correspond.
The armless figures are strongly stylized. Nonetheless, they quickly assert themselves, as the adaptation of the pictorial language in an information spot of the supermarket chain Denner shows.
On 20.03.2020 the measure “Stay at home now” is communicated in a separate motif on a grey background. A disrupter in the form of a barrier tape with the inscription “STOP CORONA” emphasises the special nature of the measure. On 29.03.2020, the pictogram is also being prominently displayed on the main poster. The “house motif” is also being adapted to the fair weather period and supplemented by a sun; at Easter, from 06.04.2020, a purple sticker in the form of an Easter egg indicates once again specifically, that people should also stay home on Easter holidays.
Successful with building blocks: repetition creates recognition
The modular structure of the campaign is one of its strengths. The repeated use of the (free) pictograms on websites of the authorities, on communication measures in supermarkets and other shops leads to a high media penetration. (On the FOPH’s website, for example, the posters can be enhanced by a company’s own logo and downloaded in order to integrate the measures into the company’s own Coroporate design).
The extent to which the pictograms penetrate public perception quickly and comprehensively is also shown by appropriations and parodies circulating as early as the beginning of March, such as a (then rapidly withdrawn) party-political campaign by the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland or a counter-poster posted in the Basel area in response to the ban on carnival.
A study carried out on behalf of the FOPH on 30.03.2020, revealed that: «Fünf der abgefragten Verhaltensregeln sind jeweils bei über 95 Prozent der Bevölkerung voll und ganz bekannt. […] Es zeigen sich dabei keinerlei signifikante Unterscheide zwischen Altersgruppen, Sprachregionen und Bildungsstufen. Die Botschaft ist annähernd umfassend angekommen.» [“Five of the rules of conduct are fully known by over 95 percent of the population. […] No significant differences between age groups, language regions and educational levels were found. The message has been received almost comprehensively.”] Even if many forces are at work in a communication measure of this magnitude – in addition to the campaign itself, above all media coverage, personal talks, news via social media and much more – one can still assume that the message has been received: The effectiveness of the campaign is extraordinarily high.
Let’s finally start talking about the criteria of successful design
The campaign boasts a robust and simple design. It has a high recognition value and achieves the goals formulated by the client. This makes it successful in the rhetorical sense – and its design, which aims for impact, can be considered successful.
But there is also criticism. In a Facebook post on 25.03.2020, Niklaus Troxler comments on the poster with the words “SWISS GRAPHIC DESIGN 2020. No aesthetics in these days? No comment.” His readers* react promptly: «Design aus dem Bunker!» [“Design from the bunker!”] is the title of the comment column, or ironically «Immerhin nicht Comic Sans» [“At least not Comic Sans”]. However, there is no specific design criticism (e.g. on fine typography or the choice of colours) – rather, the poster is rejected in its entirety.
This misconception stands for an understanding of design which, fortunately, has already been largely overcome. Design research has long been agreed that the aesthetic component – i.e. especially the visual appeal – is only one element of the design argument among many. Other factors are just as important for the success of a design: its information content. Its accessibility. The robust copyability of its message. The comprehensibility of the visual language. The style and design of an information poster that is functionally designed for impact cannot and should not be measured against the aesthetic criteria of the author’s poster.
If design is to make itself useful in the healthcare sector, then this can only be done under the premise of evidence-based design. Design in healthcare is good when it achieves the results it is supposed to. It would therefore be important, especially in the design discourse of experts, to finally have an intensified discussion about the criteria of successful design in the health care system. This could lead not least to an increased awareness of its importance. After all, the fact that three out of four major players in communication turn down a task of such social importance before the first briefing – this should also be discussed in an industry that considers itself socially indispensable.
Further information about the campaign: https://www.persoenlich.com/werbung/hoffentlich-gibt-es-kein-corona-fatigue
(Pictures by author, except where noted.)