Diane Higgins Design

‘Good Design’​ or Design for ‘Good’​ in a Global Crisis?

Over the past few weeks, my social media feeds have exploded. In a time where many are working from home, creativity and productivity seem to be up. Community spirit is at an all time high. Our Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s St Patrick’s Day address to the nation “asking people to come together as a nation by staying apart” [i] has been taken on board in more ways than imaginable. I have seen so many brands and individuals getting involved with helping others in many creative ways.

So what about Design and Marketing?

In the space of a few short weeks, one brand has become the most recognisable brand to all of our Irish eyes, appearing across all of our news feeds, practically every website we engage with and in our now limited offline interactions- that is of course the HSE yellow, black and white corona virus identity.

Here’s an example of one of the HSE graphics[ii]

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This is a twitter graphic encouraging people to stay home, available on the HSE website for free download. There are posters social media graphics, pop-up banners, videos and leaflets available in 20 different languages.

This design, provided by the HSE provides a number of benefits:

  1. It’s instantly recognisable as information about coronavirus.
  2. Yellow is a colour that is not used much online, due to the lack of legibility on screen, however the blocking of colour used in this design is very striking, and due to a lack of yellow online, it stands out against the backdrops of websites, social media platforms etc where it is most used in this new, predominantly virtual world.
  3. Due to the varied formats and the ease of access to different languages, there is little need for organisations to try to do their own versions, allowing for the HSE to drive the message to the public through other organisations keeping their official message, based on HSE guidelines and WHO recommendations rather than poorly researched or false information.
  4. As the branding varies by country, and we live in a global community, it is easy to recognise which information is the Irish information online.
  5. The simple icons are easy to understand, perfect for conveying information.

The NHS in the UK have a similar approach (although less striking in my opinion) with a multitude of assets in print or screen ready formats available for free download[iii]

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Images on canva.com with information sourced from the World Health Organisation have the ‘edit’ function switched off, to ensure that these graphics are not being altered from the official message of the World Health Organisation.

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The ‘Nudge’ Theory

The nudge theory, originally introduced by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their bestselling 2008 book: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness[iv] is described by the Harvard Business Review (2016)[v] as a marketing method of influencing what consumers choose, either to increase sales or to make what marketers believe are the ‘right’ choices. Within the current crisis, there is much application of this theory in the worlds of design and marketing. An example I came across on LinkedIn was the redesign of identities of major brands in order to give various messages about what to do in the corona virus climate. An example of this is the McDonald’s logo simply split in half to promote the message of social distancing.[vi]

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Even as I research this article Google was showing me their ‘stay home’ identity at the top of my SERP (search engine results page).[vii]

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Or closer to home, the Guinness poster designed by Luke O’Neill[viii], encouraging people to stay home.[ix]

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These are great examples of the nudge theory in action- brands and designers using creativity to encourage people to do the right thing. However, there can be a down side to this kind of creativity.

Harvard Business Review’s article: Why Nudging Your Customers Can Backfire refers to nudge marketing as having the potential for damaging a company’s reputation and credibility. I saw in the comments underneath the LinkedIn post about these clever marketing ideas how this might play out, with comments questioning the motives for these adverts calling out the organisations as self-serving, not being the priority for their resources, and their actions not backing up what they say. A Fast Company article[x] about the issues says that ‘Consumers aren’t looking for marketing gimmicks; they want to see companies support workers and help fight against the virus.” According to Fast Company McDonald’s Brazil were the most hypocritical, having initially not paid sick leave to its workers, although that policy has now been revised for employees in self-isolation as a result of the virus. Just because McDonald’s are seen as global villains, does this make the gesture of nudging customers to do the right thing a waste of time, and what does this mean for Guinness’ attempt, when they recently donated €1.5 million to aid bar staff in Ireland and the elderly charity Alone as a way of assisting in the crisis?[xi] According to dezeen.com[xii] The Guinness advert was designed by freelancer Luke O’Neill, who gave them permission to use the advert. Does this justify the motivations of the brand?

The Harvard article discusses how nudges can be condescending in nature, putting the customer’s ability to choose for themselves in doubt, as well as having too narrow a focus and thus unable to produce outcomes that really matter, through single action behaviour.[xiii] In the context of the current climate, I would have to disagree. If the message of social distancing from McDonald’s altered identity got across to some of the younger generation, who were slower to adopt the WHO recommendations for social distancing to ‘flatten the curve’, then with an exponential rate of spread, who knows how many lives have been saved by this gesture, regardless of the motivations. Surely that’s a pretty good outcome.

Brands That Are Doing ‘Good’ Marketing

A March 2020 Ad Age article presents Budweiser’s recent gesture of redirecting $5million of their budget, originally destined for entertainment marketing, to the Red Cross to aid in the crisis[xiv]. This is a major donation of course, but does this make them a better corporate citizen than McDonald’s? Yes it will go a long way to relieve efforts, but in this age of social marketing as the new marketing, is it also a clever marketing ploy, perhaps better spent in terms of brand awareness and goodwill towards the company than its initial entertainment target? If actions speak louder than words, then this action of putting their money where their mouth is should certainly be recognised in the marketplace. How does this recognition come in to play? Amidst this crisis when the sales of beer for take home consumption is increasing, and drinkaware.ie[xv] are warning of the risks to your immune system from drinking alcohol, which could factor in the severity of the virus for individuals, is Budweiser now a ‘good’ brand having redirected its marketing budget?

Google, a brand that has received much push back for the ‘big brother’ manner of tracking our movements has even released data in its mobility reports https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/, where it shows how people are moving around across the world in an effort to assist with decision making globally in the crisis. The reports are broken down geographically by country and further into regions. The report below is for County Cork, but you can access the full reports from the link above.

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If Google are trying to help through using data intended to retarget ads to us and find out our purchasing behaviours, can we forgive them the data collection in the first place?

Design Thinking

Open Ideo, a social change organisation[xvi] are using design thinking strategies to run a global public campaign to find solutions for empowering communities to stay safe in the crisis. If you have any ideas, you can get involved here https://www.openideo.com/challenge-briefs/covid19-communication-challenge Many other organisations have put out a call for designers or engineers to help with projects such as 3-d printing visors for the front-line or designing ventilators.

Local Designers

Local designers are also coming up with some fantastic creative work. Here’s one of my favourites from a Cork designer Liam Scannell[xvii]

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Yes, graphics like this serve to promote the message of staying at home and social distancing, however more importantly, given that this message is now widely known through the great work from the HSE and the general public, this brings a smile to people’s faces when looking on social media, which in this climate is a great service to the community, where someone uses their skills in a certain field in order to make a tough situation slightly better through design and social media.

My husband is an essential front line worker, being a full-time fire fighter with Cork City Fire Brigade and I can see first-hand how, even the smallest of gestures helps to get them through these tough times. A number of local businesses have dropped food to them. People on social media have been very kind with messages of support, and in general, there is a great sense of appreciation for their services. In my opinion, anything that you can do as a brand or as an individual to help others, be it with your design skills bringing a smile to others or producing a 3-d printed visor, a major brand encouraging people to keep their distance or an individual offering a kind gesture to a neighbour or a front line worker, do it and forget about what people say about your intentions.

These times are unprecedented. This virus knows no boundaries. Most of us are anxious for what is going to happen in the coming weeks and months, locally and globally. Perhaps we should stop pointing the finger at everyone in terms of what brands are doing right and wrong. The communications teams are, like everyone else, just trying their best to work, from home or otherwise. We are all in this together.


[i]Full transcript here: https://www.thejournal.ie/leo-varadkar-announcement-covid-19-coronavirus-5049376-Mar2020/

[ii] Available from https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/news/newsfeatures/covid19-updates/partner-resources/

[iii] Available from https://campaignresources.phe.gov.uk/resources/campaigns/101-coronavirus-/resources

[iv] Available here https://www.amazon.com/Nudge-Improving-Decisions-Health-Happiness/dp/014311526X

[v] https://hbr.org/2016/04/why-nudging-your-customers-can-backfire

[vi] Image source: https://www.facebook.com/McDonaldsBrasil/photos/a.293025867402637/3032441983460998

[vii] https://google.com 05/04/2020

[viii] https://twitter.com/redballoonluke

[ix] Image source: https://twitter.com/GuinnessGB/status/1243487987545051136/photo/1

[x] https://www.fastcompany.com/90486395/6-ways-to-learn-a-foreign-language-for-free-while-youre-sheltering-in-place-for-covid-19

[xi] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/coronavirus-guinness-announces-fund-to-help-bar-staff-and-elderly-1.4205364

[xii] https://www.dezeen.com/2020/03/31/ikea-guinness-vw-and-nike-encourage-social-distancing-and-staying-home/

[xiii] https://hbr.org/2016/04/why-nudging-your-customers-can-backfire

[xiv] https://adage.com/creativity/work/budweiser-one-team/2246436

[xv] https://www.drinkaware.ie/facts/alcohol-and-covid19-coronavirus

[xvi] https://www.openideo.com/challenge-briefs/covid19-communication-challenge

[xvii] https://www.linkedin.com/in/liam-scannell-66a32b23/?miniProfileUrn=urn%3Ali%3Afs_miniProfile%3AACoAAATag_IBaQhcSaKBs7DV8g90f18EmN3rL3A