A Visual Essay
During the Corona Crisis, communication by politicians, experts, journalists, played an important role. Visual communication had its share disseminating their messages. I want to analyze three phenomena:
- The visualization of the virus,
- the communication of counter measures (hand washing, social distancing),
- and the diagrammatic reasoning for them (the “flatten the curve” diagram).
My analysis is based on a small collection of visuals from the media, with a focus on Europe/Germany. As will be seen, the discussed design problems may escalate quickly into serious political issues; the latter are not discussed here. The goal of the analysis is to raise awareness for the features and shortcomings of the visual communication.
1. The visualization of the virus
The virus can not be seen with bare eyes, but there appears to be certainty about a typical look of this virus. The overall shape qualifies as a “Good Gestalt” e.g. it is easily understood as a small ball (a sphere to be exact). This is one of the “Gestalt principles” that describe our basic “pattern recognition”. There is an inner spherical (ball-like) shape that seems to be stable which structures and constrains the whole “design”. The generative principle is the radius of the sphere, and these strange … spikes can be derived from it:
Although hard to grasp, the spikes form a group by similarity (another Gestalt principle). They distort the sphere but preserve its shape. It is the spikes that vary the visualizations:
The coloring is either dominated by stark contrasts (e.g. red–white) or is finely modeled by 3D-shaders. This imagery seems to have its roots in medical microscopic techniques and their post-production:
Indeed there are no (can’t be — yet?) 3D images of real viruses. But its shape qualities make it an easy job for 3D simulation: a sphere plus some tubes across its surface etc. — resulting in a clean simulation of a virus in front of a vaguely uniform background.
Based on this rendering the adaption and adoption of “the virus” by the public begins, here, a case of “personification”:
The simplicity of its shape has favored its use as an element for visual rhetorics by graphic designers. Round things are replaced with “the virus”, for example, the ‘infected’ world gets virus-shaped:
During the shutdown the visualization of “the virus” became convention, in terms of semiotics, it solidified into a symbol, that indicates all things related to the corona crisis:
What is achieved when such an image of “the virus” circulates?
The cause for the new disease can be experienced as something that is identifiable, potentially controllable. The ability to look at it, is of course just the first step towards its control as a threat.
Furthermore, the canonical visualization shows the virus as something not actively living, a dependent form of life. The spikes could be interpreted as extremities, but they do not move, they rather behave like hairs in this regard. They are neither arms nor legs. “The virus” is passive, it does not move by itself.
Illustrations for kids render “the virus” into a somewhat dissatisfied “fruit”. Eyes, mouth, arms, and legs render it more human-like:
But even with those attributes it doesn’t seem to have much agency — “the virus” looks rather helpless.
The conventional visualization is not suitable to work as an effective image of an enemy. It can’t be demonized or blamed as such. Still, its rendering could be qualified as ugly. The sphere seems distorted by the spikes. Their repetitive arrangement across the sphere turn it into a pimply surface. As such, it seems to be a bizarre thing, that is at least beyond the normal.
The visualization of the virus shows us a simple, bizarre thing that:
- is identifiable,
- and dependent, not having agency by itself.
The communication of counter measures
Rarely mentioned is the size of the virus. Its diameter is ~100 nanometers, i.e. 0.0001 millimeters. In a millimeter you could have 10,000 viruses next to each other. The virus is incredibly small. Its microscopic observation takes place in laboratories, but in the wild the virus can’t possibly be seen. We know its identity and it still moves around like a ghost. We can not actually perceive the virus, we only know it might be here.
A lot of people know that viruses can be killed with alcohol (cheers!). But can they be washed away? This feels almost magical, we rinse them from our hand into the drain where they die. Wether we believe it or not — this routine has been built into our everyday life.
We see hands and (soaped) drops of water in pictograms that existed before; some got combined and refined. As it is often the case with pictograms we see an observable action. In the context of the pandemic these pictograms say: “Remember, do not spread the virus that may be on your hands, wash them!” — no design problem here. We only have to believe that we can wash away the virus. This is rarely explained.
The virus can be on our hands — this reminds us that the virus is dependent on us, it lives with us and can multiply in us. The medium for the virus are liquids around and from us. An exchange of infectious liquids is physically impossible with just enough distance, “social distance”.
This is so easy to understand but proved to be very difficult to accomplish. What were possible design problems here?
- First of all, we rarely experience this exchange of liquids in everyday life, because we can’t see it. Again, we are dealing with something we can’t perceive. Also, our everyday understanding of physics does not foresee movements of almost massless things.
- So we hear recommendations: 1.5m! — but how far is this? Our embodied perception does not routinely deal with such measurements.
- In cities, people often can’t distance themselves as recommended, the richer the better. Infrastructures are often not spacious enough.
A lot of design problems (besides the political ones)! Far easier to say is:
Staying at home, of course is the most radical way of “social distancing”.
The diagrammatic reasoning for the counter measures
“Washing hands”, “social distancing” — this is what the public was recommended to do to contain the spreading of the virus. One could hear about a possible exponential rise of Covid-19 cases and hospitals that were not prepared for this.
Diagrams appeared from strategic papers, that were indeed depictions of possible outbreak scenarios — brought together with concerns about the capacity of the health care system.
Then a journalist(?) added a horizontal line to indicate the capacity of the health care system and named this “Flattening the curve”, which became #flattenthecurve.
These elements of the diagram can become part of a multimodal reading:
- There are two time-to-cases displays that result in two Gestalts: a tall mountain and a flat hill.
- These hills are compared to a horizontal line. The tall mountain clearly overshoots the line. The flat hill’s slope reaches the line and goes down again. Often, active red is used to color the tall curve, which gets more attention.
- In conjunction with the imperative “flatten the curve” the diagram becomes actionable. The line (as a fact) is reframed as a goal that must collectively be aimed for.
The pandemic has to become readjusted to the health care system. I would call this a diagrammatic form of persuasion. At the pre-attentive level of visual perception it operates with some visual comparison—steep vs. smooth curve, active red vs. a more calm color—that support the rhetoric for “flattening”. As diagram it is a genre of expert communication, that suggests trustworthiness. It can be called opinionated as it does not work with real data. Also, the capacity of the health care system appears as a “constant” as if this could not be changed.
This review of three visual communication phenomena during the Corona crisis points out some interesting features and problems. The visualization of “the virus” does not not seem problematic. Only in connection with the counter measures, contradictions arise when the identified but invisible thing can just be washed away. This would have needed more (visual?) explanation.
Distancing, although a simple spatial operation, too needed to be learned. Maybe, awareness for the ‘behavior’ of droplets emitted from our mouths needs to be raised? The ‘physics’ of viruses in the air could be shown. This is of importance as it also relates to the reasoning for wearing masks which will become relevant in the second wave of anti-virus measures.
Finally, diagrammatic persuasion seems possible, but it should be accompanied with education towards critical ‘diagrammatic literacy’.
We can see, that visual communication design played an important role during the crisis, and will continue to do so, because the whole world now needs effective communication.