“May you live in interesting times.” This old adage might sound like a blessing, but it’s actually intended as a curse. And yet, the most “interesting” periods of human history are also responsible for sparking incredible acts of creative expression.

Think of the “British Invasion” and the rock music that emerged from Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s during the height of the Vietnam War, or the free-spirited writers of the “roaring 20s” like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein, whose creativity was sparked during the end of World War I and the Flu Pandemic of 1918.

We don’t yet know what new creative movements will be inspired by this most recent collective challenge to humanity, but creatives have a way of finding their voice through uncertainty and there is no reason for us to expect that to change now. The United Nations has even issued a global call to creatives to help spread socially responsible messages during the pandemic. And right now in the brand world, creatives are trying to find the right balance between being sensitive to this new reality and continuing to advertise.

Brands are needing to flex like never before to realign their purpose around the new global challenges we face and radically-disrupted consumer needs and expectations. Many of the creative teams I speak to are working around the clock – and around the limitations of remote working – to adapt their ads and TV spots to reflect pandemic issues such as social distancing and support for key workers.

I was interested to see new research released last week which confirms their efforts are worthwhile. Lumen Research has found that consumers are indeed looking for different messages from brands – even if on a subconscious level. Lumen found that brands that adapted their ads to reference the pandemic received almost 10% more attention than the pre-pandemic norm. Conversely, unadapted ads that failed to reflect the enormous changes in the way we live and work received 5% less attention. In the first wave of adjusting to this pandemic, consumers are looking to brands to promote optimism, take concrete actions to help society and avoid appearing to capitalise on a crisis.

So how have brands and creative teams risen to the challenge? Here are a few simple, but eye-catching activations I’ve seen in the wild that really stand out, while at the same time serving an important social purpose.

Layouts during lockdown

The New York Times asked a panel of experts to help define the “dos and don’ts” of social distancing in an article entitled “Wondering About Social Distancing.” In the print version, the team used a unique typographic layout to emphasize the importance of leaving distance between one another to “flatten the curve.” The design means that even if readers skip the copy, they can’t miss the message.

Stay home, save lives

Guinness was one of the first brands to demonstrate an ad execution that inspires while remaining true to its own voice and design ingenuity, with a spot dedicated to a very unique Saint Patrick’s Day entitled “We will march again.” Also, while not an official advertisement for the brand, a spec ad by Irish copywriter Luke O’Reilly  for Guinness as part of a One Minute Briefs challenge quickly became a viral sensation for its straightforward, authentic message.

Socially distant logos

In March, as the global scale of the pandemic became clear, brands responded by jumping in and temporarily adapting their logos – Audi’s circles unlocked, V and W separated at Volkswagen and in Brazil, McDonald’s golden arches parted. These creative brand activations helped emphasise government guidance on social distancing, but also the inherent power of these iconic brands where design distancing proves no barrier to immediate consumer recognition.

Iconography in the time of Coronavirus

Part of the challenge of securing social compliance is trying to diversify the message, and educate people quickly on what is and is not acceptable behaviour during the pandemic. The team at FontAwesome has released a set of free, usable iconography for designers to communicate across various forms of media, including icons for “handshake-slash” indicating the importance of avoiding handshakes, and “stopwatch-20” to promote proper hand hygiene.

Source: FontAwesome.com.

Helping by design

Independent designers are contributing informative, inspirational work as well. One that is particularly close to my typographic-heart comes from Olivia Konys, a layout artist, production artist, and graphic designer from New York City. She found herself in quarantine during the COVID-19 outbreak, and used design to raise money to help combat the crisis.

Konys designed and formatted a typeface called “Rona” into a working opentype, and made it available to anyone who emails her proof of donation to any healthcare service/nonprofit, hospital, or local business.

Creativity matters always

Of course, this is just a fraction of the inspirational brand design that I’ve seen from the global creative community, and the list will undoubtedly continue to grow.

The initial brand response to the Pandemic recognised societal need and reflected our shared experience of social distancing by pivoting through design. Creativity matters always, yet in times of uncertainty and rapid change, creative brands serve an even more critical role, helping to visualize information, amplify public messages and bring people together in shared experience. As we surface into a “new normal” – whatever that may look like – it is the brands that are most creative in their response to changing consumer needs that will be the ones most able to capture our attention.