A meme inspired us to flatten the curve

Now we need memes more than ever

Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk, “How great leaders inspire action,” is something I keep coming back to over and over again. I think his talk is especially valuable to return to in these sad and honestly sometimes hopeless and uninspiring times.

In this video, Simon explains how leaders inspire action by communicating the "why" and not the "what." He explains that instead of telling someone to jump, they need to know why jumping is necessary in the first place. They need to want to jump based on their own conclusions.

A meme inspired us to take action

At the start of the pandemic, like most people, I wasn’t taking it very seriously. Like any previous flu or a cold, I thought it would probably just subside once the weather got nicer. But then, one day, I came across the Flatten the Curve cartoon that by now, everyone’s probably seen. This gif is our defining cultural icon, much like the “We Can Do It!” poster of WWII.

When I saw it, the message immediately struck a chord: “flatten the curve, and you’ll help us save our healthcare system.”

caption: A comic by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris shows the idea of "flattening the curve."

Source: @siouxsiew

It was the first time I’d ever seen the graph or heard the phrase, but apparently the graph had floated around in various forms since the CDC published it in a paper in 2007, called Interim pre-pandemic planning guidance: community strategy for pandemic influenza mitigation in the United States: early, targeted, layered use of nonpharmaceutical interventions. (CDC). In this paper, they laid out guidance on how to plan for a pandemic before it happened. It also included a familiar graph:

Source: Fast Company, CDC

But this graph is different. It says the same thing, but it feels boring and academic. It feels hard to grasp emotionally, but why? How did the cartoon version turn “flatten the curve” emotionally synonymous with “save our hospitals.” Let’s see what they did:

  • Their gif only takes a few seconds to understand.

  • They used an eye-catching cartoon format that can easily be shared.

  • They used friendlier, pastel colors.

  • They equated being nonchalant with overwhelming hospitals.

  • They equated being cautious with easing the burden on hospitals.

  • But the most important change was the dashed line — this line showed us why we needed to flatten the curve.

All these changes worked — the resulting gif clearly explained how to flatten the curve, and why flattening the curve mattered.

The graphic instantly became a cultural icon, and it undoubtedly inspired people to stay at home and wash their hands more often.

Post image

A nurse counter-protesting stay-at-home protestors. Source

But now we’re getting restless

It’s been a month and we’ve gotten the message. We’re sheltering in place and flattening the curve. But sheltering in place also shelters people from the outside. Most didn’t realize they might have to stay at home for weeks to months, and coronavirus starts feeling like a conspiracy. And people are getting restless: many are protesting in the streets of Michigan, North Carolina, and Colorado. Those who stayed at home will soon get bored and complacent.

Many are losing sight of why they stayed at home in the first place. And as the weather is getting nicer, people will be going outside, and we’ll be staring down a second wave of infections.

At first, design inspired to flatten the curve. Now, we need inspiration for what’s to come.

Memes are more important now than ever

We need design and illustration RIGHT NOW to remind people WHY they need to stay at home, and what they can do to help those on the frontlines. We need memes and posters and videos and songs about what people can do to help. Just saying “wash your hands” and “stay at home” isn’t enough anymore. People need to feel like what they’re doing is important, and staying at home and waiting is the opposite of that.

Image may contain: one or more people

Source: Adam Boxell on Facebook

We need more images like this go viral on Facebook. As constant barrage of reminders of what the world looks like out there right now. Here are a few ideas of what kind of memes to make:

  • Stay the F* at Home: Hospitals are running out of money, equipment, and doctors and nurses

  • If you crash your car, tough luck, hospitals are full. Fend for yourself

  • You feel great! But those around your are dead from getting infected from you

There are PLENTY of things to do if you want to get out there:

  • Stay at home doesn’t mean stay at home. Go volunteer. Go become essential.

  • Make home-made masks for frontline staff

  • Coordinate mask dropoffs at hospitals

  • Volunteer at hospitals

  • Volunteer for a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or food drives

  • Don’t want to stay at home? Become an essential worker: Work at a grocery store or warehouse (Costco, Amazon, Kroger), drive for Instacart or Uber Eats

If I were any good at illustration and graphic design, I would be making these memes right now (unfortunately I’m a UX designer so my design skills lay elsewhere…).

I know there are plenty of amazing illustrators out there looking for work right now. This is how you make your mark. Go make a poster viral, and remind people why they need to work together to fight the virus.