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How social-distancing symbols are changing our cities
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(Credit: Marcella Winograd)
Thousands of variations on social-distancing markers are popping up around the world. They reflect more than just our need to keep ourselves separated.
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In May, parents walking with their children to the local primary school along Rue Poulletier, in central Paris, noticed some unusual marks on the ground. Right next to a zebra crossing, a series of new blue-and-white wave-shaped marks dotted the street and pavement outside the school.

Although the symbols seemed like something from a hopscotch game, they weren’t for fun: the markings are part of a new municipal initiative to encourage social distancing around schools. Near the wave-shaped markers, a sentence painted in blue lets pedestrians know that they are near a school, while the text ‘1m’ serves as a reminder to keep the distance of a metre between people.

Paris-based creative agency Studio 5·5 devised the markings in response to a call issued by the Paris municipality in preparation for the city’s Phase II, a period of partial lockdown-rule relaxation between May and July that included the re-opening of some schools. France has since entered its Phase III, which allowed for all schools to re-open, and the wave-shaped signs have been expanded to another two schools, in a different Parisian district, with more soon to join the scheme.

Children currently making their way back to class in these three schools are now welcomed by the new signs. In a video shot by Paris.fr, the official channel of the Paris municipal government, a boy is seen wondering at the meaning of the wave-shaped markers. “What’s this?” he asks his mum, who points to the “1m” part of the symbol. “Ah, it’s to keep distance between people!” the boy realises. 

The wave-shaped markers in Paris are a nod to the city’s motto “Fluctuat net mergitur”, or “floating but not sinking” (Credit: Studio 5•5)

The wave-shaped markers in Paris are a nod to the city’s motto “Fluctuat net mergitur”, or “floating but not sinking” (Credit: Studio 5•5)

“I have observed parents stepping away from each other after looking at the markers,” says Vincent Baranger, a brand designer and co-founder of Studio 5·5. “Kids are also drawn to these signs and like to remind parents to respect them.”

The white and blue waves – a visual reference to both the Seine river and Paris’s motto “Fluctuat net mergitur” (“floating but not sinking”) – are just one of the many examples of a new visual code that is appearing all over the world in response to a need for social distancing in order to keep the Covid-19 pandemic at bay. In Bristol, large heart shapes have been sprayed on grass to outline safe distances; in New York City, white circles dot New York’s public parks; leaf shapes appear on Boston’s public grass; and painted outlines are showing up on the pavement of many Indian cities, from New Dehli to Pondicherry.

These signs, symbols and markings are the hallmark of a pandemic-changed world – one that not only functions differently, but now looks it, too.

Evolving organically

This is not the first time that pandemics have shaped the cities we live in. For example, in the 15th Century, Venetians re-purposed an entire island to quarantine plague patients, and the then city-state of Milan erected an entire block dedicated to plague patients. But, for the first time, multiple cities across the world are concurrently adapting to the same challenge – and doing it in different ways that reflect their priorities, values and cultures.

According to Harold Takooshian, a professor of urban psychology at Fordham University in New York City, social distancing signs around the world can be divided into three broad categories: government signs, organisational signs and citizen-created signs. Paris’s wave-shaped markers were the product of a government-led initiative, as were the white-painted squares in Vicchio, Tuscany, where the cobblestones of Piazza Giotto have been marked to create a social distancing grid. But most of the social distancing signs that have popped up across the world are part of the other two categories.

The cobblestones of Piazza Giotto in Tuscany have been marked to create a social distancing grid (Credit: Francesco Noferini, Caret Studio)

The cobblestones of Piazza Giotto in Tuscany have been marked to create a social distancing grid (Credit: Francesco Noferini, Caret Studio)

Singapore, for instance, is full of them. Authorities there introduced new laws mandating social distancing, but issued no guidelines for how to mark that distance. “The design of the markers was not defined from the top down,” says Berny Tan, a Singapore-based artist who has been collecting images of social distance markers around the city. “Social distancing rules were announced, and people had to respond to it within just a few days."

This absence of guidance resulted in a maze of symbols that businesses and citizens put together with various materials, including tape, cardboard, plastic and paint. Tan has been meticulously documenting the markings in an Instagram called tape_measures. The account, which works as a sort of digital archive for what she calls a “community-driven” visual language, now features hundreds of signs, from the basic yellow-and-black tape to ad-hoc stickers made by local design agencies. Her account has captured a range of signs, such as chicken feet shapes used by a fried chicken restaurant, and polka dots in the style of artist Yayoi Kusama.  

Takooshian finds these kinds of self-made signs especially interesting. “People are reacting to a stressful situation with a lot of creativity,” he says, adding that self-made signs can create a bond among people. “Government signs can be perceived as coercive,” he explains. “When seeing a self-made sign, we understand that a business or a person is, like us, trying to comply with the rules.”

On her Instagram account @tape_measures, Berny Tan has been documenting citizen-made signs, such as these in Singapore (Credit: Berny Tan)

On her Instagram account @tape_measures, Berny Tan has been documenting citizen-made signs, such as these in Singapore (Credit: Berny Tan)

A new standard

As the pandemic continues, these improvised social-distancing symbols are slowly starting to evolve into more standardised markers – a kind of evolution that has precedent. For instance, before most cities eventually adopted the zebra crossing, each town marked pedestrian crossings in different ways. Britain mostly used metal studs and poles on the side, while Detroit used tennis-court lines. Eventually, the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic established uniform traffic rules across countries and most cities adopted the now iconic zebra crossing sign.

A similar process is at work with social distancing signs. Aradhna Krishna, a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, is currently working on a universal social distancing symbol with a team of international experts at the University of Lucerne. “An ideal symbol is one that gets noticed and that triggers a natural response in viewers,” she explains, adding that, so far, she has not come across any symbol that could work as a universal marker. But based on her decades-long research on the psychological impact of road signs, she thinks that some current examples can be more effective than others.

Signs with too many words tend to be ignored, while simple signs with bright colours, such as yellow, tend to stand out more. Stimulating other senses, like touch, can also make a sign effective. In Elblag, Poland, architect Ada Kotyńska, director of art gallery Galeria EL, mowed the gallery’s garden into a checkerboard pattern to create a tactile social-distancing demonstration. “Visitors are intuitively drawn towards the un-mowed parts,” explains Kotyńska.

Architect Ada Kotyńska of art gallery Galeria EL in Elblag, Poland, mowed the gallery’s garden into a checkerboard pattern to promote distancing (Credit: Lukasz Kotynski)

Architect Ada Kotyńska of art gallery Galeria EL in Elblag, Poland, mowed the gallery’s garden into a checkerboard pattern to promote distancing (Credit: Lukasz Kotynski)

Incorporating an “emotional component” can also make a marker more effective. “The Paris wave-shaped mark is playing on people's loyalty to Paris,” Krishna explains, adding that a reference to a shared community can be an effective tactic.

Emotions are also at the core of the effective white circles now used across New York City’s parks to mark social distancing. Domino Park’s director Mike Lampariello, who came up with the white-circle idea, says that visitors have been appreciative of the markings, and understood intuitively how to use them from the start. According to Krishna, that’s due to the feeling of safety the circles convey. “A circle marks a private space that others will not cross,” she explains. “People can feel safe and cocooned within it.”

However, emotional messages conveyed by social-distancing symbols may not be the same across countries – or even within them. “In the US, social-distancing markers are contentious,” says Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a professor of urban policy and health at The New School in New York City, referencing the way that masks and social distancing have been at the centre of a heated debate on civil liberties in the country. “They can be a source of comfort to some, but irritate others.”

This is especially true for what Krishna explains as “voluntary” signs, which are not coercive, but instead rely on a person’s choice to take on a behaviour. “The Paris wave is a voluntary sign and it relies on loyalty to the city,” she adds. Non-voluntary signs, on the other hand, tell you exactly what to do. “When we mark a cross on the floor saying this where you should stand, that’s a non-voluntary sign.” She believes a mix of these two types of signs may be an effective solution.

In New York City's Domino Park, visitors have taken to setting up inside the white circles to socially distance (Credit: Marcella Winograd)

In New York City's Domino Park, visitors have taken to setting up inside the white circles to socially distance (Credit: Marcella Winograd)

For now, business and designers are taking it upon themselves to create visual codes, with solutions such as “beach rings” and “social-distance tape” among the innovations. Caret Studio, a design agency based in Florence, has developed a free and easy-to-assemble kit that anyone can download and put together with A4 paper, tape, paint or chalk. The team crafted markers for different contexts – benches, lobbies, cashier desks and more.

“We believe that the current use of symbols creates stress for users who need to identify and decode a new system of signs each time,” says founding partner Federico Cheloni, who oversaw the ‘Proximity’ project, in collaboration with Forte Design. His hope is that the project will help create a standard visual system that can be easily understood across contexts, such as train stations, public gardens and beyond.

Building bridges

As social distance markings paint the world, designers and academics are also wondering if these new shared visual languages can do more than just enforce a safety rule. They may be able to connect societies, too.

“When we designed the wave-shaped sign there was a lot of anxiety in France,” says Studio 5·5’s Baranger. “We designed a friendly sign with a touch of poetry that could remind people of social distance, but also bring some hope.” Many online accounts across the US also report the healing power of social distancing signs, with residents creating chalk signs to remind people to social distance but also to stay positive.

In collaboration with Forte Design, Florence-based Caret Studio's has created a free and easy-to-assemble kit for standardised social-distance markers (Credit: Caret Studio)

In collaboration with Forte Design, Florence-based Caret Studio's has created a free and easy-to-assemble kit for standardised social-distance markers (Credit: Caret Studio)

Fullilove, who has studied the impact of 9/11 on New York City civil society, thinks that local governments should work with organisations to co-create symbols that can bring a message of hope and possibility. “If people feel part of a community, they tend to play their part,” she says. “That’s a known fact about how social groups work.”

And that may be what ultimately makes a sign effective. “The best signs are the one that actually make people want to respect a rule,” Krishna says. “We need to understand what can push people to want social distance.”

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