As an essential business, Nashville-based architecture firm Hastings went back to work in the office months ago. It was immediately clear to principal David Bailey that even their recently renovated office, a former main library branch in Nashville was not designed to be a workplace in pandemic.
So Hastings adjusted. The firm developed a staff policy for how to deal with clients and construction sites by March 23, based on research from the Centers for Disease Control. They brought the same policies to their homebase in preparation for the office’s May 4 reopening. They brought nurses into the office for morning temperature checks and health questionnaires, devised plans to redirect foot traffic with social distancing and ventilation in mind, and then realized that they needed signage to tell people where to go—around 60 signs. They tried handwritten signs, but they didn’t fit with the space, and it turns out, they were much too temporary. Bailey couldn’t find any well-designed alternatives on the market. So he made a call to a longtime collaborator, Geoff Cook, a partner at global agency Base Design, and together, they created Way Forward Signage, which offers clear, well-designed signage to a range of businesses. Much as branding helps companies distill their value proposition to consumers, these signs create a uniform message around health and safety in the COVID era.
There is obviously a need. You’ve probably seen the confusing (if endearing) makeshift signs in your own neighborhood in the windows of restaurants and stores. They entreat visitors to wear a mask and observe social distancing, and they were probably printed on 8.5 x 11 paper with an inkjet printer; they’re not exactly built to last. Worse, all those different ways of communicating the same message can confuse consumer behavior, rather than encourage best practices.
And it’s not like citizens are receiving clear directives from the federal government. In the absence of any coherent national strategy or guidelines (Trump wore a mask for the first time only last week), cities, and by extension, local businesses and organizations, have had to step up and do the work of encouraging compliance themselves. Bailey and Cook’s work helps that mission.
“Initially, the approach was very homegrown,” Cook says. “You know the crooked piece of paper, sometimes handwritten, sometimes printed out, in a plastic sleeve or taped to a door. At the outset, people felt this was temporary. And what’s very clear is that this is not temporary. This is signage that’s going to be with us for a long, long time. And so, we started asking ourselves, ‘If that’s the case, then what criteria are we using to develop this?'”
They came up with a simple formula: The signs had to convey accurate health and safety recommendations, they had to be beautiful and positive (not scary), and they had to be easy to understand. The final product includes a range of curated sign packages for workplaces of different sizes, including spaces like corridors, break rooms, bathrooms, and shared space. They are visually simple, with black, rounded line drawings on a white background reminiscent of pedestrian signage iconography you might already be used to (Base has some familiarity with designing for public spaces—the firm designed the wayfinding in JFK terminal 4). “It will help others get back in an orderly fashion,” Bailey says. “People want to avoid a guessing game and feel safe coming back [to work].”
Clear messaging is going to be crucial for companies both big and small, according to Bret Sanford-Chung, VP and CMO executive partner at marketing and analytics firm Forrester. Sanford-Chung is also a founding faculty member in the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts. “Protection and keeping customers safe are a piece of what customers are going to start to look at. It’s a piece of the larger discussion around, ‘Does this brand have my interest in heart?'” Sanford-Chung says. “People want to do business with brands that share their values.”
And hygiene theater—messaging around just how furiously businesses are scrubbing surfaces at their newly opened stores, even when surfaces are no longer believed to be the primary route of transmission—is not the way to do it. (Nor is it actually keeping people safe, as The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson pointed out recently). That leaves many companies in the position of having to quickly and clearly inform customers about how to behave on their premises.
“I absolutely do think there’s an opportunity for clarity of communication to enable clarity of action,” says Sanford-Chung. “The question is, unfortunately, the topic has become so goddamn politicized at this point that that becomes an issue. We understand that there’s a decentralized system, so we don’t have a federal public health system per se, and it’s leading to lots of things, including a politicization of the issue.” Because of that, companies that use signs such as these could face backlash in parts of the country that skew red, she suggests. Clear visual communication obviously won’t solve all the problems related to politicization. But it’s a step in the right direction. And at this point, the United States needs all the help it can get.