Pandemics and Pantones: The Role of Color in Clear Communication

by Kirsten Modestow on 03/30/2020 | 2 Minute Read

The importance of color in graphic design is an obvious one—its role in a pandemic-induced panic, however, is not. 

Color is a tool designers have at their disposal, but its power often gets overlooked. Regardless of the words you’re using, color has an incredibly strong effect on how viewers digest and react to information. 

Bright, warm colors help you process that something is urgent and attention-worthy—‘Fire Engine Red’ is emblematic of this. On the other hand, subdued, cool blues and greens elicit a soothing response, evidenced by the nurses and caretakers that often wear these colors. 

As designers, it's our responsibility to make sure that every element of design supports the delivery of information. But right now, many of our jobs and responsibilities feel insignificant in comparison to the pandemic our world is suffering. This has left many of us searching for ways to help, and it is why, when we stumbled on a widely circulated graphic that tracks COVID-19, we wondered if design might be able to contribute.

Editorial photograph

This tracker is first-and-foremost an incredible tool. It was created by Johns Hopkins, who is simultaneously working on the front lines of a health crisis that is likely to define this new decade. We are immensely grateful for the tireless work of Johns Hopkins, the WHO, CDC, and every organization and individual sacrificing their well-being to control this pandemic and help each other.

Now, let’s look at this tool through the lens of design. The map leans heavily on design elements that are historically associated with anxiety, panic, and fear. The color palette was likely selected to communicate urgency and a solemn, heightened tone. However, culturally speaking, red and black are more closely associated with horror films like 28 Days Later and psychological thrillers like Us. Similarly, the map lays out life and death information using gamified charts and techie graphics that feel cold and war-like, even though the goal here is to be neutral, data-rich, and objectively informative. 

Consider the same graphic, updated below, with a wellness color palette we developed.

Editorial photograph

Instead of a wall of red dots and complex charts, users can now easily parse confirmed and recovered cases, alongside total deaths. Not only is this more neutral, but it allows for a broader range of information to be processed and, more importantly, absorbed by the user. Now, color is working in tandem with the data to support transparent and effective communication.

Trackers, maps, and graphics like this are critical tools that keep our public dialogue clear, fact-based, and well-informed. And though color may be the last thing you think about during an emergency, its role in communicating facts is clearly worth considering.

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