Visual Corona Communication – Dimensions and Physics of the Virus

by Dr. Jan-Henning Raff

This short article is about the communication of the virus’ dimensions and physics, two aspects that are of importance in the second phase of pandemic measures, such as social distancing and wearing masks.

The ‘poster image’ of the pandemic

The image of “the virus” or “the ‘poster image’ of the pandemic” (Long, 2020) is by now a sign that is used in diverse multimodal configurations, its relatively simple construction makes it a graphical element to play with for graphic designers (cf. figure 1):

Figure 1: A collection of “the virus” in the media  [29.04.2020]

In an earlier article about Visual Corona Communication (Raff, 2020) I emphasized the achievement of medicinal science to identify the pathogen, so today we can look at a model virus. This is a great progress compared to the information people had a hundred years ago. The image of the “virus” is distributed with worldwide reach, it can be seen everywhere, so almost everyone should be aware of it.

We can’t see the virus with bare eyes, so its illustration naturally is “larger than life”. In a TV news program, one “virus” appears bigger than the presenter’s head (cf. figure 1, center screenshot). The scale of the virus within most mediated images is unclear. But can we say, “the virus” visualization is an exaggeration to impress viewers? Or is it just displayed in such large scale with the only intention to show its salient features?

As its display is always contained in frames it should be clear that we deal with a representation and not a window into the virus’ “world”. Still, there is this nano “world” which is completely disconnected from our embodied perception. The agency of this thing, whatever size, is known to be dangerous (this can’t be derived from the visualization).

What did the original creators of “the ‘poster image’ of the pandemic” (Long, 2020) intend with its rendering? Did they design it to look like a threat? Besides being “accurate”, the creators say they wanted the rendering

  • to be “tangible” to help understanding, and
  • to “cut through the noise” of (social) media (ibid.)

Which, we learn, seems to be a common practice in medical illustration:

A lot of the time for public health messaging, you’re just trying to get people to look at something for a little bit longer than they want to – and you do that by making something look pretty, or eye catching or bold, because once they’re interested they’re more likely to learn. (ibid.)

Whatever we feel towards medical illustration, the specialists do not want to make it look “ugly”, on the contrary, it is even supposed to look “pretty”.

“At every stage, accuracy is the ultimate aim of the job” (ibid.). Summarizing, the process seems to strive for clarity to present the specific shape of the Corona19 virus (the virion, to be exact).

In the media this semiotic resource has been taken up as a sign in various multimodal arrangements. Visual designers have adopted and adapted its model rendering, and eventually did engage it in rethorics (figure 2):

Figure 2: From Fox news [22.04.2020] – see in my collection

Within this multimodal arrangement (figure 2) – a text layer with news related to the pandemic plus a generic soundscape with ticking rhythms – a swarm of viruses floats towards the viewer in perspective. This could encourage interpretations of a threat: the ugly things are attacking us slowly.

“The virus” is known worldwide and is used as a sign in different designs with different rhetorical intent. Repeatedly it has been used as an indexical sign (that incorporates an icon) for anything related to the pandemic. As such it is not intended to communicate its size.

The dimensions and physics of the virus

In the second wave of pandemic measures with more people interacting again, the actual spread through the air is becoming of interest. Not many viruses are needed to start an infection, anyone with or without symptoms can spread them as they leave the respiratory system as invisible droplets.

First of all, what are the real dimensions of the virus? Its diameter is about 100 nanometers. I explored this by providing the experience of quantity concluding with a comparison to a human hair (figure 3):

Figure 3: EMBED: [05.05.2020]

Are there better ways to make the dimensions of a virus experienceable? The experience of its size (and maybe weight?) can help to understand how it travels through the air. It is in droplets that are mostly invisible although they are much larger than one single virus (cf. figure 4):

Figure 4: “But portions of their exhalations do sneak from each person’s breathing space into the others.” – COVID-19 Update 11: How exactly the coronavirus becomes airborne – Source [05.05.2020]

In a typical(?) droplet of about 0.01mm diameter thousands of viruses can be in, which if landed properly could start an infection. Does it need a visual explanation? Some renderings for news portals seem to distort dimensions:

Figure 5: Single viruses in droplets?
Image from [05.05.2020]

Here, accuracy in terms of scale is not given at all. The rendering rather operates with a fleshy mouth and the ‘poster image’ of the pandemic as mere warning signs. This visual plane is used as a sign of warning, a fleshy index, out of control.

Communication designers face a problem of scale here, a design problem, that could be solved based on some knowledge about actual dimensions and their relations.

Here is an illustration from a research paper that tries to work with different levels of scale:

Figure 6: “Saliva: potential diagnostic value and transmission of 2019-nCoV” – [06.05.2020]

“Large droplets easily fall onto the floor and only set up short-distance transmission” (Xu, Cui, Duan, et al., 2020). It is these droplets that do not reach another person with the suggested distance (recommendations range between 1 – 2 meters). The above graphic (figure 6) also introduces “aerosols”, droplets that are much smaller and that can be carried away with the wind. They also may carry viruses. These aerosols are mostly not taken into account in social distancing pictograms:

Figure 7: Part of a campaign for anti-virus measures from the German Health Ministry –  [09.05.2020]

Here is also apparent the reoccurring problem of communicating distance. In figure 7, two circles of 1.5m diameter (0.75m radius) meet, indeed, establishing a distance of 1.5 meters. This is a nice mathematical operation that certainly is not done in everyday life. Indeed, our embodied cognition is not at all trained in understanding distances expressed in metric measurements.

These issues in public (non)-communication of findings and measures show that communication designers still face some design problems with the pandemic.

Jan-Henning Raff


Dr. Jan-Henning Raff is professor for visual communication at Hochschule für Medien, Kommunikation und Wirtschaft (HMKW), Berlin. His research is focused on use aspects of graphic design and research methods for visual communication.


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