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This post was contributed by Picture as Portal® cofounder, Tami Tolpa. Tami has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Medical Illustration from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Greetings from Seattle, Washington! By now, we’ve all seen many pictures of the novel coronavirus, and that includes visual communications about how to protect ourselves from infection. The slide below was used in a May 12th press conference by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, as he launched his statewide contact tracing initiative. I took a snapshot of the slide with my phone because I knew I’d want to return to it as a case study in visual communication.

The original slide

The designer of this slide did several things well. I immediately understood that the intent was to show the virus being contained. I like this “Box in the Virus” message. The numbering and the use of icons are effective. But there was something about this picture that bothered me. I thought about it on and off for weeks, between working on projects and continuing to adjust to life during a pandemic.

In S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science, we teach the importance of building your picture around a clear narrative path. In fact, the P in S.P.A.R.K. stands for “Plan a Path.” We provide a chart of familiar, easily recognized patterns—such as linear, circular, and divergent—that can frame just about any scientific or technical picture.

The S.P.A.R.K. path pattern chart

When I first looked at the original slide from Governor Inslee’s office, I interpreted the 5 arrows arranged in a circular narrative path as a cycle—a process that repeats over and over for someone who’s sick. However, upon closer inspection, I saw that this wasn’t the message they wanted to send. This slide provides an example of the importance of choosing a path pattern that matches your message! I realized that what they were describing was really not a cycle at all, but a linear process. I sat down to sketch out a way of conveying the message more accurately, while still retaining the “Box in the Virus” theme. 

Some early ideas
My makeover of the slide

I decided to tackle this project by rethinking the path pattern while keeping the icons and colors from the original image.

As you can see, I’ve explicitly laid out the tracing process in a linear path. Yet, I’ve retained the idea of “boxing in the virus” by creating a house shape around the virus. The sides of the house are the same colors as the steps in the path. The house reinforces the “stay at home” message and is clearly associated with the testing process through color, but the confusing, circular path has been removed.

My makeover slide is quite different from the original in several ways:

  • My path is linear, not circular, and does not use arrows. Therefore it does not imply a repeating cycle
  • The lines of my path are much thinner and less dominant than the original arrows
  • The lines that make up my house’s walls have no gaps between them—unlike the arrows—so the virus is better contained.
  • My color-coding includes not just the icons, but also the numbers and lines associated with each step.
  • The virus color is changed to neutral gray to keep the emphasis on the steps.
  • My typography is more streamlined.

These may seem like small adjustments, but they’re intentional decisions that were made, based on core principles of visual perception. And as you can see, they can significantly enhance the message for the audience. 

For more information about path patterns, check out our online course about the visual communication of science. We’ve got discounted pricing right now, to support those of us staying home and looking for alternative professional development resources.

Stay tuned for another blog post featuring this image, where I’ll talk about the iterative process in the creative development of visual communication.


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