The Pictograms of Plague

A picture can paint a thousand words, a saying ascribed variously to “the Chinese”, 1920s American ad man Frederick Barnard, or the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, depending on whom you believe. But the power of the pictogram cannot be underestimated. The facemask as a symbol of protection, or the footsteps plastered on the pavement as a metonym for social distancing, have become ingrained visual shorthand for all of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ireland, the plague palette has been yellow and black.

All of the official informational postering and most of the pictograms have appeared in these two colours. How were they chosen? Well, for one, black on yellow is typographically clear and arresting and the posters contained a lot of information – and at the start of the lockdown a lot of new information – so visual clarity was very important.

A warning from the 1918 flu epidemic

Secondly, we are conditioned to reading these colours as signalling danger from our roads and hazard signage. Ireland signed up for the Vienna Convention on Road Signage – yes, there is such a thing – in 1968 along with 37 other countries, including the US , Australia, Canada and Mexico, agreeing to use warning signs that were black on a yellow background. This colour combination is related to the insect world and our perceptions of it, apparently – think bees and wasps for whom we have a healthy respect lest they sting us, so we associate their uniform with danger.

This may be an old wives tale, but whatever the reason, the colours together have a skull and crossbones vibe about them, so we’re primed visually to brace ourselves even before we get to read the message. This in a world where a whole new vocabulary is in place, or the old one has been repurposed.

Cocoon and vector are part of the new terminology; flattening the curve has shed its weight gain associations. Quarantine, self-isolation, furlough, asymptomatic, working from home and vaccination have taken on a new emphasis since the start of the pandemic – another word that’s bandied about freely now. But as Paul Elie – https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/paul-elie – argued in a piece in the New Yorker in March, we’ve been employing the language and imagery of viruses for many decades, just not to describe literal illness.

“It was there in the computer virus. . . It was there, most blithely, as an expression of the reach and spontaneity of social media. We watched as cat videos, practical jokes, blunders, over-the-shoulder half-court shots, and celebrity meltdowns all went ‘viral’. And it was there in the notion that those who could make things go viral were to be celebrated, cultivated, compensated, imitated. The term devised for them – we realise in rueful retrospect – has a distinct echo of the worst virus of modern times, the influenza pandemic of 1918. They were called influencers.”

But if such language has been lodged in the public consciousness, how many of the iconic images of the pandemic will survive in the collective memory? What will be COVID-19’s equivalent to Rosie the Rivetter? (The bicep-baring worker under the “We Can Do It” banner was created by J Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh in 1942 and became the defining symbol of working women during the Second World War in the US.)

My vote goes to the image at the top of this post created by Israeli designer Noma Bar http://nomabar.com/ – in an initiative organised by Spanish graphic designer Alvaro Lopez and Italian paper manufacturer Fedrigoni to raise funds for the NHS in Britain. Artists were asked to design a series of limited edition posters on the theme of observing lockdown. Bar, who’s resident in London, dedicated his design to frontline workers.

“I wanted the viewers to discover the house shape in between the gap of the mask and the head cover; the eyes are two people in quarantine sitting by the window. I think that you can feel the level of stress in the eyes. They look sideways as if something happened outside.”

With graphic simplicity Bar manages to communicate several layers of meaning at once – the burden on the frontline, the isolation of quarantine, the interdependence of the two, and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, the latter surely the hallmark of our time of plague.