#CombatCovid – The Role of Artistic Designer Posters in a Time of Crisis
In addition to digital media and social networks, nowadays posters are also flourishing. In New York, well-known graphic designers like Paula Scher, Milton Glaser or Jessica Hische are currently taking up the city’s (digital) billboards with their posters of the #CombatCovid campaign. The campaign, initiated by the New York poster museum Poster House and the magazine Print, is intended to show in a colourful and diverse way how best to protect yourself against a corona virus infection, as the state-issued behavioural guidelines are apparently not always clearly understood.
Billboard designed by Maira Kalman
[Photo: Ian Douglas/courtesy Poster House and Times Square Arts]
Posters by Paul Sahre , Zipeng Zhu, Jessica Hische and Joe Hollier.
[Photos: courtesy Poster House and Times Square Arts]
Many of these posters stand in a stark contrast visually, when juxtaposed with the more straight-forward information posters issued by government health departments. It is no coincidence that the official posters might look different yet their contents are often similar. The design and content of government health information is mostly based on scientific findings on effective health communication (evidence-based design) and does not follow the same criteria as a cultural poster.
Official public health campaigns: Functional design determines health communication.
[The Department of Health, Pennsylvania; Federal Office of Public Health FOPH, Switzerland; Department of Health and HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre, Government of Ireland].
Government information posters designed to educate the population about behaviour during the corona pandemic should therefore be judged primarily on their intended effect and not on their aesthetical value. (cf. also Arne Scheuermann’s contribution on visual communication by the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health FOPH on this blog). The information poster is assigned a clear function: as the name suggests, it is primarily intended to inform. Since the whole population should be addressed and understand the government’s message, the information must be unambiguous and low-threshold. In addition, simple visual information in the form of pictograms increases the likelihood that the message will be understood by people who speak a foreign language or with a low literacy level. The widespread repetition of the subjects in public spaces is conducive to remembering the message. High recognizability and the serious look visually refer to the “official” sender. With the robustness of their design, these posters thus fulfil their purpose.
Artistic designer posters have a different demand on aesthetics. And with good reason – especially in times of corona, when visual distraction is desired in everyday life. Comparing the aesthetic effect of artistic posters and information posters therefore only makes sense if their different intentions are taken into account. Designer posters deal with a socially relevant topic in an artistic way and thus complement public health campaigns. Their purpose is not primarily to provide information, they rather prove that the social discourse on measures against the Covid-19 pandemic has reached the wider public. The most important messages (e.g. rules of conduct such as keeping your distance, washing your hands, but also social aspects such as solidarity, #StayHome, supporting health workers) are taken up and thus repeated and disseminated in various ways. This way other target groups are addressed and the actual message is spread through the manifold repetitions. Thus, the posters create a kind of community feeling (“Together we are strong”, “You’re not alone”). Other examples follow a similar path, such as the open letter by Richard van der Laken, CEO of WhatDesignCanDo, the “Stay at Home” poster by French illustrator Mathieu Persan or the pandemic emojis of the New York agency &Walsh.
The #CombatCovid poster campaign in New York is referred to as a “Covid-19 public art show” in the article by Evan Nicole Brown on Fast Company, and is thus positioned more in the broader field of art than information design. Art and culture are essential, even in times of a crisis. Through humour, moments of surprise, beauty or open questions, they encourage us to reflect on our actions and change our habits. Juan Delcan describes the task of artists in this article by Natasha Hitti on dezeen.com as follows: “We artists can help by creating something useful that can make a difference.”.
Artistic graphics and design for health communication are at best mutually stimulating. Bad information design is critically reflected by designers and new design solutions are contrasted with existing ones. The resulting approaches and their effects can in turn influence the appearance of future information campaigns.
In the end, art posters and information posters have the same intention – to motivate people to behave appropriately – but the way to achieve this is a different one.