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Survival graphics: How businesses become designers in the fight against COVID-19

Over the last year, you’ve seen COVID-19 signs everywhere. This archive is collecting them.

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In 2020, nearly every person who owned a business or managed a public space suddenly became a graphic designer. Ad hoc signage directing visitors to move this wa”y, or stand here, or stay six feet apart popped up everywhere. Graphic design became more important than ever as managing the flow of people became a matter of public health, and a matter of survival.

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Eventually, the pandemic will end, and the masking tape arrows will be removed. But a student who studied graphic design from Liverpool John Moores University is ensuring they’ll be remembered in a pandemic graphic archive.

[Screen Capture: Pandemic Graphics Archive]
Charlotte Walker, who graduated in 2020, initially started the archive with a print booklet of her own COVID-19 signage photographs in the summer of 2020. After the booklet garnered some interest, she decided to make the archive digital in December 2020 and began accepting submissions in January. It has since expanded to include over 300 signs from everywhere from the U.K. and E.U. to the U.S. and New Zealand.

It includes both posters and floor signs, capturing a range of graphic treatments that visualize the same thing: stay six feet apart, stand here, go there. Some are DIY or purely utilitarian, like black masking tape arrows on the floor. Others are more polished, like a San Diego floor sign in melon orange and yellow, telling pedestrians to “stay a surfboard apart.” Others have images of tomatoes, or a donut and coffee, hinting at the owner of the floor sticker. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority sticker features two footprints of sneakers, etched with their logo. One Hawaiian floor sticker shows two flip flops and says “Mahalo for social distancing.” The archive accepts submissions via email; each caption includes only the submitter’s initials and the location of the floor sign or poster.

Often, wayfinding signs are permanent fixtures in our communities. This archive highlights them as pandemic ephemera—looking at how people quickly adjusted their spaces in real time and preserving this impermanent moment for the future. Walker calls the archive “both an investigation and a social testimony of the time we are living in.”

“At first the archive was initiated by interest, yet the importance of collating such signage is of both historic and design importance,” she says. “It will be a representation of these ‘survival graphics’ globally.”

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Eventually, we’ll move on from COVID-19. But this archive serves as a stark reminder of how the world around us changed.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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