As the coronavirus pandemic reshapes huge swaths of society, the design world is responding by doing what it does best: grabbing our attention with striking images.
Illustrators, artists, graphic designers and poster specialists are banding together in improvised coalitions to create public service messages — some inspired by World War I and World War II posters — with new artwork promoting health, fighting bigotry and thanking emergency medical workers.
An alliance comprising the nonprofit organization Times Square Arts, the Poster House museum, Print magazine and the artist-run platform For Freedoms is plastering digital images on some 1,800 Link NYC kiosks as well as on electronic billboards in Times Square and one on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel.
In an unrelated move, the Seattle-based nonprofit Amplifier has projected messages of appreciation to the medical community on the sides of two hospitals, NYU Langone in New York and Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., featuring the work of artists including Shepard Fairey, who created the “Hope” poster for Barack Obama.
The artists involved said their participation was part altruism and part therapy.
“It’s a way for us to be able to safely connect and reach as many other people as we can,” said Ms. Millman, who hosts the Design Matters podcast. “It gives a sense of being heard and seen.”
A few Times Square billboard owners have donated ad space to make way for works like “Love in the Time of Corona” by the illustrator and author Maira Kalman — a depiction of two people separated by what she called “a big pink blob with rays coming out” representing the virus itself.
“Once you get past the terror, you have to get to the love part quickly,” said Ms. Kalman, whose image is shown at regular intervals, with others in the campaign, on the wraparound screen on the Edition Hotel, at 47th Street and Seventh Avenue.
Jean Cooney, the director of Times Square Arts, leveraged her connections with the companies that run the area’s billboards to help spread the messages. Her group is part of the Times Square Alliance.
“Artists are uniquely equipped to synthesize information and complicated emotions,” said Ms. Cooney, who pointed out that while quieter than normal, Times Square still has some 30,000 people a day coming through.
One early seed of the New York project came in March from Poster House, where two in-house designers at the museum, Rachel Gingrich and Mihoshi Fukushima Clark, created downloadable images for use on social media and elsewhere.
Ms. Clark’s designs — including “Quarantine Bigotry” and “Swipe Right on the Facts” — use simple shapes, bright colors and the easily recognizable language of emojis.
The bigotry messages are deeply personal for Ms. Clark, who had an anti-Asian slur yelled at her in Times Square several years ago.
“I thought, ‘I can’t believe this,’” said Ms. Clark, who is originally from Kanazawa, Japan.
In mid-January, when the coronavirus crisis began to make news in Asia, she began to worry again. “We were starting to see racism against Asians everywhere,” she said.
Some of the designs being produced have common roots. “A lot of the work I am seeing references World War I posters,” Angelina Lippert, Poster House’s chief curator, said of the era that produced the iconic image of Uncle Sam saying, “I Want You.” (J.M. Flagg’s 1917 recruitment poster was used for both World War I and World War II.)
She noted that another famed illustrator of the day, Howard Chandler Christy, got his peers to lend their graphic talent to the war effort in a group collaboration not unlike the current one.
Michael Bierut, a partner in the design firm Pentagram and a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art, said he admired the new efforts but also had some “skepticism.”
“Many of them are beautiful and many are done with professional skill but they all come to a 21st-century moment with an early-20th-century response,” Mr. Bierut said, noting that his pick for the single most influential graphic of the era was the Washington Post’s colliding-dot simulator showing how infections spread.
He added, “There’s something remarkable about the sheer mass of posters being done now — the 10,000 images from this pandemic, that’s a great book.”
Not all artists who are getting involved in today’s pandemic graphics are established. Amplifier is sponsoring a global open call for designs that promote health and public safety. Its jury of guest curators picks new images every week and gives the winning designers $1,000 each. Judges include Mr. Fairey; the chief curator of the Guggenheim, Nancy Spector; and the artist Hank Willis Thomas.
“Once people see these artworks, they become part of their unconscious,” Amplifier’s executive director, Cleo Barnett, said.
Mr. Fairey’s own image for the project shows a woman holding a torch à la the Statue of Liberty, with the words “Strength in Service/Strength to Overcome.”
He said he was also inspired by Rosie the Riveter, the famous World War II poster figure promoting women entering the industrial work force, and the same era’s caution against unguarded talk, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”
“Things like ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ people still reference these for a reason,” Mr. Fairey said. “These posters are powerful, emotional, and somewhat universal. It’s a really tough combination to pull off.”
The signature image of Amplifier’s open call, “Global Forefront,” was created by the Los Angeles artist Thomas Wimberly, who works for Mr. Shepard as an art director at Studio Number One, Mr. Shepard’s advertising agency. It depicts a female medical worker whose face mask has a map of the world on it.
“I wanted to create an image as a thank you to the workers deemed essential during this pandemic, and I thought that the mask was a good place to start,” Mr. Wimberly said in an email.
It is a reminder that the response to the pandemic is hardly limited to the United States. A creative duo from London — James Hodson and Jason Keet, who work at the advertising agency Engine — started a personal side project called War on Covid-19, a website showcasing cheeky, retro-flavored posters of their own design, including the stay-at-home image “Keep Calm and Bake Bananas.”
Mr. Bierut said that their approach — “make it funny and make it shareable” — was the winning one.
The London team’s work is seen at some 90 locations around the United Kingdom.
“We were watching Boris Johnson give a speech about Covid,” Mr. Hodson said of the pair’s aha moment, referring to the British prime minister, who later got the disease and is now recovering. “We thought, ‘This a wartime speech. So let’s go.’”