In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, media companies quickly learned the content and language was dense; doctors and scientists typically talk in their own language, which can be difficult for the layman to understand. The Spinoff in New Zealand decided to pair an infectious disease and scientific communication expert with a cartoonist and illustrator.
The result was a series of simple and informative gifs that quickly and clearly explained complex medical topics dealing with COVID. The project was a major success in helping keep New Zealand and the world safer and even morphed into a bigger project now touching millions of people.
The Spinoff started the project strong by illustrating what was meant by the now-familiar term “flatten the curve.” The Y axis showed the number of cases, the X axis showed time since the first case, and the bell curve showed how important it was to have fewer number of cases and a longer time since the first case. The chart went viral.
The prime minister of New Zealand used it at a press conference. It was shared by The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Wired, and NBC News called it “the defining chart of the coronavirus.”
The Spinoff believed the calming nature of the illustrations, coupled with accurate scientific information, were exactly what the public was looking for. They went on to easily and successfully explain concepts like staying in your bubble, mask wearing, contact tracing, and social distancing.
It was important to The Spinoff to present these illustrations in a way that was easy for people of all ages to understand. So they didn’t just have Dr. Siouxsie Wiles provide scientific info, but had illustrator Toby Morris provide high-quality illustrations that were friendly and accessible at a time when people were scared for the future. Their illustration on alternatives to handshakes and hugs was friendly and compassionate, and a perfect solution as people looked for more peace in their lives.
As COVID got more complex, The Spinoff’s charts became more important. One of the greatest examples of the success of this series was their illustration depicting the symptoms of COVID as compared to flu and cold symptoms. It was commonly used in businesses, schools, and other public places and was translated into seven different languages. It also was used to help educate refugee camps and migrant communities.
The Spinoff went viral again with its Reduce the Spread gif, which showed how fewer cases would occur if people didn’t travel or go to parties. This illustration was translated into many languages and shared internationally by companies like The Guardian, Reddit, NPR, Vox, India Today, and the national broadcaster of Ireland. Versions of the Reduce the Spread gif were used by official government health campaigns in Australia, Argentina, Germany, Scotland, and Canada.
Success beyond measure
Measuring results of this project is impossible to put into numbers, but The Spinoff knows they have helped people better understand COVID and stay safe. They measured their success by the number of times the gifs have been translated into other languages, used in schools and prisons, and even referenced in memes, music videos and tweets.
The Spinoff is now making graphics for the World Health Organisation, which reaches millions of people.