Visualising the invisible

At the time of writing this, the UK is 8 weeks into lockdown, there have been some changes to what ‘lockdown’ looks like in recent days, but that has only brought more confusion and uncertainty. There is no denying that the Coronavirus pandemic is something that none of us have seen before and let’s be honest, many, many people are really struggling to understand what the new normal looks like. I believe a huge part of that is because COVID-19 not a visible thing.

Expressing emotions

Emotions are also invisible, we talk about them, connect them to things and people really quickly, but we always use a visual reference when expressing them. It’s a completely natural, organic process, that’s a central part of being human – we place absolute trust in what we can see – our visual sense trumps every other sense we have, it’s front and centre in our decision making and it’s how we have survived, but this time it’s being challenged! When you can’t see an object, let alone an enemy, communicating the dangers of that enemy, because that’s what COVID is, becomes tricky.

BBC Coronavirus imagery

There are many types of visual for the virus

Every news outlet around the world has gone to town with the 3D renders of little molecules that look sort of stingy and blobby, sorry I’m no scientist. My visual sense has taken over and this is what I see, I understand it’s difficult to visualise, but generic molecules really don’t cut it for me. In many cases the design teams have attempted to make these molecules look intimidating by placing them at jaunty angles, they are also often coloured red, because red is danger. Job done.

Corona molecule visual

Stringy molecule things, set at dynamic angles and coloured red. That’s the image of Coronavirus. I’ve got to be honest, they remind me of every bleach and cleaning product ad of the past 30 years, where we were shown ‘nasty’ germs and molecules that we simply wiped away with the thicker, stronger or more concentrated cleaner. If only it was that simple this time!

Germ characters

A pretty good solution

The molecules get the idea across, but I believe that they miss the most important aspect of this tragedy, I think that’s what it will be remembered as, the human impact. The huge cost of lives in every country around the world. Maybe that’s a conscious choice on the part of the media? After all it’s a fine line between conveying the gravity of this situation and scaring the shit out of people. No one wants to do that. On the other side of the coin, there are those in every country, everywhere who seem to feel that this virus won’t affect them, ignoring all the advice and continuing as ‘normal’. I seriously wonder what it would take for these people to level up, or should that be grow up?

Social distancing measures chart

8 weeks and we are now all familiar with graphs and charts in our News, wherever you get that news, whatever medium, there’s always a chart. There’s been a few new ones in recent days. Graphs and charts are fantastic ways of communicating what’s happening, they clearly show progress and patterns.

Uk Covid chart

Whilst many of them are factually very accurate they are pretty rubbish at telling a story and being understood. The combination of a large data set, visualised as line graphs on TV screens, often results in blurry, overlapping lines that really don’t mean much to many people. I’ve found myself thinking time and again throughout lockdown, there must be a better way to express this virus, should I have go? Is it too early?

We know it’s invisible, we know it’s a killer, what can we do to ‘see’ it?

What can we do? Well I believe in less is more, keeping things as simple as possible. Molecules, charts and graphs all have their part to play but I think we need something simple, that expresses the magnitude of the situation in a simple understandable mark. Something for everyone, wherever they are, whatever language they speak, something human and relatable. As the saying goes…’a picture speaks a thousand words‘, creating an icon, a mark by which we can identify Coronavirus feels important to me. But then I am a designer, working with brands, logos and all kinds of imagery day in, day out for over 23 years now. I’ll openly admit that my mind works much better with visuals, I feel having a ‘something’ to identify the virus with would be useful for many people.

COVID-19 mono icon
COVID-19 colour icon

My solution

Here goes nothing. I say that, but it’s not true, I’ve spent a lot of time developing this, thinking about the enormity of the events and what would be appropriate, understandable and relatable? I’m throwing my hat in the ring, with the identity I have developed for COVID-19. For all of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, I think it’s important.

Is it too early? I don’t know, we are charting new territory right now. What I do know is the importance of expressing something of this magnitude in a way that connects people, expresses the emotion and identifies the invisible. I’m sure I’m not alone in my thinking, I’d love to know what others think, how have you visualised the virus?

Corona virus colour icon
Corona virus icon mono

Single word – landscape

Coronavirus long word mark options

Single word – landscape – reversed

Coronavirus long word mark options reverse

My thinking

This is a global event, it affects everyone, so I spent a lot of time looking at circles. Coronavirus has encircled the earth. Circles are powerful devices for holding things, expressing things – there’s an opportunity to use negative space in the design.

I looked at lots of letterforms looking for a C that felt like it connected with what’s happening. I couldn’t find anything that felt right, so I started developing my own – always tricky, but it felt like the right direction. I needed a C with an element of menace, with bite and that’s when I started developing one circle eating another. Kind of PacMan esque, something clicked, it has felt to me like COVID-19 has been consuming the earth, invisibly taking bites out of everyone, latching on and infecting them.

COVID-19 world mark

What type of bite should my C have? Anger and aggression are often depicted with jagged lines, rough torn edges and other graphic expressions of violence. COVID-19 isn’t like that, it’s silent, stealthy…unseen, wrapping itself around you and taking hold. So I went towards the smoother curved shapes, when you put them against the circle of the globe they create the angst, show the bite without the vicious ferocity of battle. Don’t get me wrong, I understand it’s very much a battle that we’re facing, but I wanted something that encompassed the severity of the situation without encouraging more aggression, because that’s the last thing we need in the world right now. I’m pleased with the visual dynamic, there’s tension there, without being overtly aggressive.

COVID-19 country icons
Coronavirus country icons

A war of words

Visuals are powerful, they connect with our visual sense and feed our brain with messages without us reading a single word of text. Visuals and text together are an incredibly powerful mix. I believe that part of the problem in what we’ve seen is a lack of connection (not to mention lack of clarity), we need to convey the fact that spreading the load, working together, supporting one another is the way forward, encouraging everyone’s combined efforts to beat the disease. I’ve got to admit, I love a bit of alliteration in messaging.

Work Together Protect Together

What have other people done?

I know I’m not on my own, artists of all kinds have created things to express how they feel about the virus, the lockdown and much more. Banksy has donated his to the NHS, it’s an awesome interpretation of lockdown life and a really noble thing to do. Other artists have been just as vocal, using humour to great affect. Here’s a few of the COVID-19 works that have inspired me.

Making my contribution

I’ve sat along time working on this project and really wanted to give something back, support our amazing frontline services and help people. I’m a designer, my skills are in communicating, taking things that are invisible, like COVID-19, and making them visible, connecting them with people.

So my question to you is pretty simple, would this icon be useful to you? Whether it’s for a memorial, an information poster, on PPE, an email footer, anywhere online or anything else? If it would you can have it for FREE, all I ask is that you make a donation to my Just Giving account, supporting the NHS Heroes. In return I will provide you with all the assets – vector files, social files etc.


As the rules of lockdown have changed, there’s even more of a need for clear messaging, here’s a couple of thoughts about how this could look, following the English rules – don’t get me started on why we have different rules for each part of the United Kingdom, talk about making a bad situation worse.

If there’s something that you have in mind but need some help crafting the message or the application, message me, I’d love to help you and together we can support great causes and get the vitally important messages of the moment out to people around the world. Stay safe.

Face Masks – the science and the psychology

Part of the new normal? Or not? There is so much conflicting advice online it’s hard to know if you should or shouldn’t embrace this huge societal change? I’ve found this feed really useful. Why? Because it’s real science, genuine experiments by someone who knows and understands the area, I’m not alone, Rich Davis’s Twitter follow count has skyrocketed in recent weeks as he continues to show the benefits of face masks.

Of course there’s much more at play here than just the masks, the psychology, emotion well being and unconscious bias’s that are at work, big time. It’s something that I’ve covered in a recent DressCode Shirts blog, about the Changing Face of Fashion.

Will people do the right thing for the here and now? Will established ideas and concepts of health and beauty change? These are massive societal shifts, not just in fashion, but across every aspect of modern society.

Can we make the change? Take the leap to the next level? I’d love to think that we can and we will, let’s face it, if we don’t we won’t survive. As motivations go, that’s a pretty strong one so I’m confident that we’ll get there, my question is how long will it take to reset our collective thinking?