August 6th, 2020

Imagine you are driving somewhere you have never been before. No Apple or Google Maps. In fact, no map for you at all. No co-driver to help you, either. You are on your tod and you are just going to use street signs and a very rough idea of what direction to head in. Now, imagine every road name, every directional sign, every sign you need to complete your journey is a different colour, written in a different typeface, in a different size, sometimes using abbreviations, sometimes not, sometimes in upper case, sometimes lower case, sometimes a mix, sometimes no text at all, sometimes just a picture or an icon. How do you think you’d do at absorbing that information, while keeping yourself and other motorists safe? The reality is, it would be a real challenge. So, why do we expect people to do this with information relating to the fallout of Covid?

This chain of thought has led me to further question, should we have a national (or even global) standard for how we present information that relates to prioritising the safety of us all?

From wayfinding to identification to health and safety to logos, we are absolutely bombarded with signage. And although we often aren’t aware of it, because our brains are spectacularly good at doing behind the scenes work, everytime we see a sign we have to try and understand it, to learn its meaning. We demand our brains process a lot of information, running in the background and not disturbing us while we carry out other tasks. What is really helpful to our brains is when we can take some of the processing power out of understanding something, reducing stress and aiding our concentration on more things or more complicated things. The simplest way to help our brains with processing? Consistency. Our brains like patterns and recognition. Familiarity will also bring us comfort and in a time of such stress we should take every opportunity to add any additional comfort we can.

Implicit pattern learning, also called statistical learning, involves the learning of regular patterns in a particular environment without actively intending to do so. This kind of learning requires extended exposure to a pattern sufficient for unconscious recognition of regularities in an otherwise irregular context, without conscious attention and reflection (Willingham et al., 1989).

– Extract from How People Learn II, Learners, Contexts, and Cultures (2018)

There is a real challenge facing us of how we convey all these new expectations and behaviours to the increasing number of people who have to return to situations that have been heavily affected, in a consistent, easy-to-understand manner? The two most important challenges here are to remove any confusion or ambiguity and stop our brains from tuning out of information that is designed to keep the most vulnerable in our society safe.

This discussion is specific to within the public realm, but can cover both public and private institutions and it merely scrapes the surface of a huge number of challenges that face us all, moving forward. However, because this involves everyone, we have the advantage of being able to call on some of the World’s finest problem solvers. IF_DO and Covid-19 Safer Spaces have been publishing some really interesting thought pieces recently around specific spaces, and I’ve seen a number of other individuals and organisations discussing various design challenges that relate to the pandemic. I’m clearly not the only one that sees how effective good design can be in our current situation.

Let’s take a look at one possible solution, and the more design-led questions we should be asking while putting this infrastructure in place.

The proposed solution

Every store sign is different. Every pub, restaurant, toilet and workplace. I mean not every one, but you get the idea – enough to cause confusion. The burden of keeping us all safe has kind of been dumped on all our laps with not a great deal of help or guidance. One solution – a digital library of content available to everyone, for free, to at least attempt to deliver a consistent distribution of information designed to keep us informed and safe. Along with an approved list of suppliers made up of architects, designers, printers, digital experts, signage experts and so on, that we can call upon to action anything that is required that is more bespoke, or for further clarity, that can also aid those without digital access to the central repository. Big brands have been doing this with all their visual assets for years, from logos to packaging templates to photo libraries. There are many off the shelf offerings, such as Frontify, so a lot of the technical thinking has already been done. Surely, if the science behind what’s happening at the moment indicates we can expect these types of outbreaks and viruses to happen more regularly, we need an accessible, consistent, helpful system in place.

Core considerations

Colour with purpose

Colour holds a lot of power; to stimulate mood and emotion. It also has huge potential to increase visibility. We’re going to need something here that doesn’t blend in, that doesn’t get lost in the plethora of other signs fighting for our attention. We are going to need to think about this and how we achieve contrast in a multi-coloured world. Is it even possible? I would argue, yes.

Let me take you on a trip down memory lane, to different times, way back in 2012. A different year in which we, in most part, beamed with pride for we were Olympic hosts. I was privileged enough to live in London while this great showpiece took place, lucky enough to work in Greenwich which saw a large number of equestrian events take place, and even lucky enough to work on some official Olympic comms. When we think back to anything relating to the Olympics we probably think of the 2012 logo, you know the one where Lisa Simpson is… nevermind. Love it or hate it, in terms of satisfying a communication brief the piece of work as a whole was fantastic. Let me explain why.

The world descended on London with its winding streets and network of transport systems that have a serious disparity between available space and the number of people using it (ahhh, better times when you would happily be wedged in the crux of a strangers armpit for your entire journey). In order to prevent chaos, most of London’s transport network relies on the efficient movement of huge numbers of people. Anyone who has visited our capital has seen how quickly a platform fills to capacity when a train is delayed. Or, the effects on the escalator when someone doesn’t stand on the right. What the clever souls at Wolff Olins recognised is people who weren’t from the area needed a very quick reference tool to indicate where they should go. Cue magenta.

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It’s worth saying I regularly get the piss taken out of me because I’m partial to a bit of magenta. Bias aside, what Wolff Olins had recognised is there was little else out there using magenta on that kind of scale. Probably because it’s pretty full on. But it worked. It turned what could have been one of the most complicated wayfinding systems in an overcrowded environment into one of the simplest I have ever used. It was a stroke of genius. It was so good, it didn’t even matter that the Olympic typeface was not that accessible – words were there for confirmation. It held the detail, but it was colour that solved the most challenging part of the brief.

With a little bit of research, we could achieve the same for a national signage system.

Accessible, clear, recognisable typography

The ability to not only display characters and numbers into coherent formations, but to create personality through typography is often overlooked. While this is not the time for an abstract typographic experiment, it probably should be an exercise in legibility. That doesn’t just mean, is that a lower case ‘l’ (L) or an upper case ‘I’ (i) – you see? It means how do we make these formations understandable to different abilities and nationalities?

Over the years I have advocated the use of a typeface called FS Me (by Fontsmith) whenever I’ve had a project with accessibility as its driving force. Here are a few words from the Fontsmith website that explain why:

“When most of us go about everyday tasks, we take for granted the reading that’s involved, on instructions, labels and so on. For people with learning disabilities, reading is made much harder by certain fonts. FS Me is designed specifically to improve legibility for people with learning disabilities.

The font was researched and developed with – and endorsed by – Mencap, the UK’s leading charity and voice for those with learning disabilities. Mencap receives a donation for each font license purchased.

Every letter of FS Me was tested for its appeal and readability with a range of learning disability groups across the UK.”

A specific font can also be as recognisable as a colour, giving instant brand recognition, even if in this case that brand recognition is public safety notices. There may be scenarios where we can’t use colour, so we need all of our assets to work and be recognisable in isolation as well as together. Could we develop our own national warning system typeface that takes accessibility into account, while satisfying all these other challenges?

Imagery and iconography that has meaning

A picture paints a thousand words. Not only that, it transcends language. “‘Emoji’ the fastest growing language with 80% of Brits now using symbols to communicate” was a leading headline from The Drum, way back in 2015. We’re five years on now and emojis dominate the landscape of most of my messenger apps. Why? Because they are able to add subtlety to words, to convey sentiment. I’m able to convey sarcasm. I can demonstrate the level of hilarity I attribute to ‘that meme’, by deciding on the angle of the laughing/crying emoji face. Tone, as we discussed earlier, is important and so is context. Symbols and icons can often work at greater speed to give the desired outcome than words and have the added advantage of being less language dependent. It’s not perfect and can be ambiguous – is anyone actually using the aubergine emoji to talk about aubergines? – but with the right level of thought and combined with stripped back typography, this could be an effective solution.

A suite of icons that can be a more effective method than words should most definitely be at the heart of the repository. Arrows, masked zone, keep your distance and so on. Words should be there in a supportive role, to deliver complex messages or remove any ambiguity.

Instructions in an informative, unbiased, unpatronising tone.

Let’s be honest, most of us don’t like to feel like we are being told how to behave. It’s even worse for some reason when we feel it’s an official government voice. Maybe it’s the anarchist inside. We can get into the psychology of that (and if this train of thought was ever adopted as a government project, I would strongly suggest they get into the psychology of it) but let’s just assume for now that a little bit of common sense would go a long way. Content must remain informative, unbiased, with any ambiguity removed. It can not take a patronising tone. It needs to be easily understood in terms of its instruction, but not shouty, officious or patronising. It can’t be so soft it is deemed to be optional (if it isn’t). And, it needs to transcend generations, disabilities and language barriers. Basically, it’s a really tough brief but there are some fantastic strategists and copywriters out there that would relish that challenge.

If we expect the public to engage in consistent behaviours then when we set the tone, once again, consistent application will be key. There are many signs we experience in our day to day lives that want to achieve the same outcome, yet are very different in their approach, often with very amusing results.

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Wider considerations

Additional factors will need consideration in order to look back and consider this a successful project. We have a responsibility to reach everyone and make the impact on our planet as minimal as we can.


This runs deeper than the ability to quickly identify letterforms. Specifically, what about those people who are unable to access visual data as easily as the majority of us? Those suffering with visual impairment should not be forgotten when we consider colour, contrast, scale and when conveying information with no visuals at all. Braille is a tactile form of communication and is not ideal for public spaces concerned with limiting what we touch. So perhaps we need to consider innovative alternatives? What are these? Who can help? An initial response should be to create a bank of downloadable audio messages as part of the repository. We have speaker systems in shops, workplaces and public transport. Let's put them to good use.

Environmental factors

We must consider the environmental impact of implementing such a project. A lot of the repository will be designed to exist as physical assets. Some assets will require a more hardy choice of material. For example, floor signage that encourages distancing or flow around a public space can’t be printed on your A4 office printer. These need to be able to tolerate vast footfall, weather, spillages and so on. We need to use an appropriate material for that. These currently seem to be, in most instances, vinyl. This is likely to end up in landfill at the end of its lifespan. What circular materials can be used, recycled and reused. Where can we adopt a template based system that can be used over and over, for example where we can spray eco friendly inks, or implement even more unusual solutions such as clean graffiti. There should also be questions regarding scale. Even font weights can be considered – lighter weights will use less inks. There are so many ways we can make improvements.

Whatever the solutions, we need to have thought about how we minimise their impact on our planet. This should extend to sourcing locally, considering the energy used in producing chosen materials and using circular materials wherever possible. This isn’t an exercise on cost or convenience.

What next?

There is definitely more to be considered than what has been outlined above, but in order to start assessing all the challenges this needs to be discussed in a political space, with the addition of design industry experts. There needs to be a balance between speed and carefully considered solutions. We must move quickly but accept the solution won’t have all the answers from the beginning and will be capable of evolving.

Ultimately, it is unacceptable that the burden of responsibility to deliver information that protects our health and prolongs our existence has been dumped on those who lack the resources, support and expertise to deliver it effectively.