Thanks to a CHH Fellowship, Stephen Hickson has been appointed as a research assistant to work on a cross-disciplinary research project investigating how verbal and graphic language is used to communicate COVID-19 health messages.

The dire need to curb the spread of COVID-19 has led to a proliferation of public health notices.

Life-saving recommendations – issued by the government and national agencies (wear face coverings indoors, sanitise hands regularly, maintain social distancing) – have been interpreted and disseminated not only by professional communicators, but by lay people, resulting in diverse examples of verbal and graphic language.

As a preliminary task, printed notices belonging to 47 high street premises in Reading and Wokingham have been photographed and examined to identify attributes that describe and classify material. Verbal attributes include scales of formality, specificity, complexity and directness. Graphic attributes consider different approaches to layout, typography, colour and iconography.

Despite displaying broadly similar messages, initial observation suggests that COVID-19 notices are differentiated by subtle shades of meaning or expression asserted by the interplay between verbal and graphic language. These interrelated strands elicit emotional responses that impact public behaviour and have direct consequences on people’s lives.

Capturing and analysing the abundant ephemera created during this remarkable period will provide insight that can enhance future health communication. In particular, it will be beneficial to discover what professional communicators can learn from ordinary people (and vice versa).

The next step is to create a digital exhibition that demonstrates the assortment of COVID-19 notices found in the local area (Reading and Wokingham) in a didactic and engaging way. Beyond this, the ultimate aims are to cement an approach to the analysis of verbal and graphic language in health communication that can be used for future research, and to develop lay-orientated guidelines for creating effective health messages.

Collaborators and contributors:
Stephen Hickson (Postgraduate Research Assistant)
Professor Sue Walker (Typography & Graphic Communication)
Dr Matthew Lickiss (Typography & Graphic Communication)
Dr Sylvia Jaworska (English Language and Applied Linguistics)
Anya Herman (Undergraduate, Typography & Graphic Communication)

Images shown: a selection of retail and hospitality public health notices found in Reading and Wokingham in March 2021.