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The Challenge of Creating Universal COVID-19 Signage

Situational Analysis: How many times has it occurred that we see a sign in a certain location, but we are left with a confusing message? Push or Pull, Ladies or Gentlemen, Left or Right, these are brands that intend to convey a message and end up doing the opposite. Examples abound.

When we look for information in a sign and the signal we receive is unclear or plainly contradictory, a short circuit of sorts is fired up our minds – we are paralyzed for a few seconds trying to decode what we see and we do not know how to act. The famous and dreaded gap between the Sender and the Receiver builds upon this incomprehension before an ambiguous message. These situations are present both in the offline world and the online ecosystem – unfinished buying processes, products that are not found, unclear information, abandoned shopping carts.

Users, consumers, audience, general public, we ALL need to be oriented and guided in any type of process. We need to be given CERTAINTY.

Being a simple click or a right turn on a curve. When conceptualizing information and communicating it in a clear and effective manner, we intervene directly to bridge the gap, ensuring the delivery and comprehension of the message, guiding the ACTION.

In particular, I want to refer to this new pandemic paradigm in which we live now.

Due to the speed in which COVID-19 propagates, signaling elements have been generating spontaneously with the intention to convey the new rules and protocols to move safely in different environments: public spaces, retail businesses, shopping malls, educational institutions, hotels, offices, hospitals, airports. The list continues. These first signs created randomly and without any prior process for conceptualization or normalization gained over spaces exponentially, as coronavirus spread.

The design for these signs was governed only by the liking of whoever produced them, and that is how we find different signals to follow the same message.

That is to say, the same message with different graphical resolutions proposes different interpretations and, therefore, different results when taking action.

“Social distancing” as a new worldwide slogan has accelerated the improvised creation of new communication signs without any manner of regulation. Today, signage can be found all around featuring different colors, styles, media, arrows, icons, typographies, models, etc. Each time we face a new sign, again our brain must decode and interpret it, and act accordingly.


The world is in such a massive process of change that it demands creative solutions to resolve new problems.

Countries are closing their frontiers to prevent people from moving around, which is key for any form of sanitary control. However, if we understand that each individual is part of a whole, and that the world will soon return to being fully hyperconnected, we can’t let the new rules of social distancing imposed globally to be open to interpretation.

The information about new protocols on social behavior that were improvised throughout several pieces of signaling designed by government, institutions, businesses, offices, hospitals and public spaces resulted in turning circulation spaces into a visual chaos that evokes confusion, stress and fear. That is to say, it is the opposite of the intended effect.

This problem requires a universal and strategic communication solution that is well designed, implemented and standardized by specialized professionals in the field. Professionals that later shall convey precise definitions at government level and, from that area, facilitate the information and material to the different sectors, organisms, institutions and other actors in the public and private sectors who will be in charge of implementing such signaling. This solution must also generate a dynamic that expedites the adaptation processes to the new normal as social, commercial and cultural activities are being resumed in each city and country.

The challenge relies in finding a universal, simple and effective language, one that every person can decode instantly and effortlessly, while clearly understanding behavior protocol instructions, regardless of location, country or language.

Fulfilling this objective shall accomplish a direct positive impact in the experience of the same individuals that, apart from following the new rules, might feel relaxed and safe in every environment and situation.

It is now time for communication and design to work in unison, thus complementing one another in the service of the greater good. In other words, they shall work as a universal sociocultural organizer, providing precise information to generate trust, so people can move safely in this new and dynamic normality.


By Nat Mark

Graphic Designer, branding specialist and strategic design consultant. Partner and Creative Director at MW Cultural Branding, a design agency specialized in projects for the culture, architecture and arts sectors.

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