David Rainbird is a UK-born designer and creative director now living in upstate New York. While hunkering in place he created the website 2020 Infodemic, the story of the pandemic told in 366 headlines.
The information and misinformation grew exponentially as 2020 wore on. To manage the multiplying reports from every region in the world, news outlets switched to live-blogging the news. The format is often used for a local disaster or a bad day on the stock market—but now it served to report on a global public health emergency that affected everyone, everywhere.
"I started to collect headlines about the pandemic as a way of making sense of the infodemic," writes Rainbird on his website. "Often it helped to answer my question: 'How did we get here?'”
I asked Rainbird what his goal is, and what 2020 Infodemic (which will be available as a printed poster this month) will contribute to the history of this time.
What triggered you to start this daily diary of horror vis a vis the headlines? At what point did you begin to see it taking shape?
It was during the first New York shutdown in mid-March—life had turned upside down for everyone and I was spending a lot of time doomscrolling, just trying to keep up with the news. Events that seemed unthinkable only a few days before were taking place, and as the news cycle kept moving I wanted to hold onto them in some way—to bear witness. It was clear that the pandemic would create headlines every day for at least a year, and that together they could tell the story.
I lived through the polio epidemic. My memories are vague (other than seeing the posters, getting the shots and sugar vaccine, knowing some victims and otherwise being moderately scared but not scarred). Had you ever experienced anything as cataclysmic as this?
Thankfully, I haven’t. I used to think that 9/11 was the most cataclysmic event in my lifetime, but the pandemic has been a truly global catastrophe.
Had you even thought about the various pandemic predictions and flare-ups (e.g., ebola) before? What was your method for selecting your content?
Initially the news followed the virus as it moved from one region to the next, which made choosing headlines that move the story forward quite easy. By the summer, the news was getting much noisier and the process became much more editorial. I felt a responsibility to cover every region, at least in proportion to the spread of the virus—there’s a strong U.S. bias in the piece, but only because the U.S. became the largest epicenter. I also wanted to include some of the many marginal stories that were never front-page news but were still shocking (Aug. 5: Choctaw tribe hardest-hit by Mississippi coronavirus crisis). There was a lot of other news [last] year too—the George Floyd protests, West Coast wildfires, the U.S. election, and they get mentions in relation to the virus. Compared with a book on the pandemic, it’s quite reductive, so it was impossible to cover everything that happened in the economy, sport, culture, religion—all those canceled events—but I tried.
What was your rationale for selecting your type and typography?
The text itself is horrifying—a friend described it as “the advent calendar from hell”—but I wanted it to be readable without inducing panic attacks, so the typography had to be neutral. For the same reason, I also chose to convert headlines in Title Case to Sentence case. I find Title Case, which is preferred by The New York Times, to add unnecessary weight to the smallest words, and it feels sensational. I was working with black and red type (very calendar), but changed the red highlights, essentially all the numbers, to hazard orange.
Did you decide to record fact and fiction? (In many cases they often intersect.)
I decided to choose headlines from reputable sources, but it’s impossible to know if everything is factual. Often the most shocking headlines were reporting something on the horizon—impending doom, but I chose instead headlines that reported the doom as it happened. For example, “India, Day 1: World’s Largest Coronavirus Lockdown Begins” is more powerful in retrospect than “Modi Orders 3-Week Total Lockdown for All 1.3 Billion Indians” because announcements could always be reversed. There were also headline’s that were factual but were still misleading or unfair. “Couple face charges for boarding plane to Hawaii after positive COVID test” is not the whole story—the couple were on their way back home, with their child, and between connecting flights when it happened. The human part of that story is missing in the headline—so I didn’t include it.
What were you thinking as you read the news day after day—and now …?
During the shutdown my mind was in pandemic fog, and the project helped me make sense of it all. As we learned more about the virus, how it spreads and how to contain it, life—and the news—became more predictable; a new normal.
I see it is 366 days, but are you going to continue this indefinitely?
The pandemic still has a long way to go, and I’m sure there’s a second year of pandemic headlines. This year will also be a long haul but at least there will be increasing hope, thanks to effective vaccines. I don’t know if I’ll continue—it’s certainly nice to take a break from it.
Why a poster as a medium?
I wanted an overwhelming effect—366 headlines in one block of text. The poster is one way to fit all that in one space and still be legible. From a distance, the content isn’t clear; a closer look reveals some familiar events; and then the weight of the whole year becomes clear. It’s a memorial.
What do you want your audience to take away from this?
As with any memorial—never forget. The monthly death totals show the huge increases in deaths. As Al Barlett put it, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."