As the UK Government launches the next phase of its Coronavirus public information campaign, is contemporary British design culture in rude enough health to defeat the pandemic?
You may have seen it at your local GP surgery. It may have recently popped up on bathroom mirrors at your gym, or come to grace your work kitchenette alongside passive aggressive messages about not stealing food food from the fridge. The Catch It, Bin It, Kill It public information poster, with its simple black text and NHS-blue circular icons, has been a mainstay of the UK Government’s flu-prevention strategy since 2007. And, in the last month, it’s been reeling off office printers in Britain like never before.
The poster’s visual appeal is as simple as its slogan. Stark, clean, and no-nonsense, it embodies the flat, utilitarian style which attracted many to Keep Calm and Carry On, the supposed WW2 PSA that came to represent everything British in both sensibility and aesthetic. Keep Calm and Carry On found its way onto everything from T-shirts to mouse pads, but has risen again as the perfect slogan for Boris Johnson’s Coronavirus strategy.
Curiously, for a Prime Minister who knows the power of repeating simple phrases ad nauseam, the most distinctive aspect of the Government’s current health campaign has been how it looks, not what it says. Like the sneezing everyman of the Government’s swine flu campaign, the Coronavirus pandemic has its own visual identity, sporting a feverish (yet very fresh) luminous green that is popping up at bus stops around Britain, much like COVID-19 itself.
Public health campaigns have a storied tradition. While design sensibilities have changed radically, messaging has largely stayed the same. The slogan for a wartime Government campaign declared “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases” with the advice to trap germs by using a handkerchief. One poster depicts a woman sneezing on a munitions factory line, her fellow colleagues looking on angrily. Another shows a man openly sneezing on the Underground with alarmed passengers in the line of fire. As a recent video of a man licking a handrail suggest, much has changed since the orderly train carriages of 1944.
In line with other wartime posters, the Ministry of Health used contemporary cartoon style to convey a serious message. Featuring illustrations by ex-Punch cartoonist H. M. Bateman, the posters appeared to dissuade people from spreading of coughs and colds but was actually designed to fight absenteeism from the war effort. Is Boris cribbing nudge theory from Winston Churchill?
The explosive depictions of germ-carrying sneeze droplets in the 2009 swine flu campaign took things up a notch. It’s hard to imagine how we ever went back to shaking hands. Although the photography and message “Germs. Out in Seconds, Around for Hours” got the point across, they also managed to blend the melodramatic with the blandly domestic in the same way that Dettol manage so well with their ads.
COVID-19, though, may be the first virus to have its own Pantone. The Government’s public information campaign, emblazoned with the words CORONAVIRUS: PROTECT YOURSELF & OTHERS is a decidedly trendy piece of branding work with a colour scheme of black, white and so-close-to-Spotify-green-it-hurts that treads the chic line between mint and lime so well that it wouldn’t be out of place on an Adidas tracksuit. Or perhaps this is a nod to the cover of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.
Running with such a stark, contemporary look for a public information campaign is a clever move. It’s a nifty piece of design work that cuts through the visual clutter of everyday life wherever you encounter it on the side of a bus shelter or in your Instagram feed. Bright neons command attention and with more people staying at home, catching people’s attention on social media timelines is more important than ever. And as the government’s advice will - inevitably - change over the course of the next few weeks and months, the more the public come to recognise official communications when packaged up in these colours, the better.
But, as Hillary Clinton’s slick campaign showed, bold visuals need a bold message to go with them. If the advice the Government’s giving doesn’t resonate with people—or with experts—the branding will only carry them so far. If the UK is to beat this pandemic, we’re going to need the Government to disseminate advice that will actually make a difference and save lives. Neon green might stand out, but if you don’t buy what it’s selling, then it might be no better than an office mug that reads Keep Calm and Drink Tea.