The unmitigated chaos of America’s attempt at colour-coded Covid guidance

By Caity Weaver
In California, the colour of suffering is the juicy purple of seedless grapes. In Alabama and Alaska, it’s blood-coloured. Blue signifies safety in many states, unless the blue is navy and you’re in Utah, in which case it communicates total catastrophe — the worst conditions possible. In New Mexico, nothing is better than green except for a colour the governor’s office used to call “green-plus”,  before it was changed to turquoise.

The paradox of the many different colours of the nation’s many different coronavirus alert tiers is that they matter both so little and so much.

If you live in one of the roughly 20 states that signal coronavirus restrictions with hues (often in direct relation to infection rates), the colours have exerted greater influence over your life than almost any other authority, dictating whether your neighbourhood bar is open and how many people in a nearby town are permitted to get haircuts simultaneously.

If you live in a place where the colours represent tiers of “guidelines” rather than mandatory constraints — Oklahoma, for example — it’s possible you never got into the habit of paying attention to them. Residents of other states — Maryland and Georgia, for instance — might be surprised to learn that some parts of the country are doing anything with colours at all.

The colourful maps of COVID-19

Even in places where colour-based rules are law, the hour draws near when widespread vaccine availability will curtail the coronavirus’s spread. The colours, stripped of relevance, will fade from memory like pigments from an 18th-century celestial atlas — except that they will go much more quickly.

The past is littered with the forgotten minutiae of crises. In truth, hindsight only seems to provide a circumspect understanding of history.

In short, it is too soon to know if the country’s idiosyncratic COVID guidance maps will assist future attempts to combat a pandemic or merely exist as useless curiosities.

But there is already something meaningful preserved in hues that stretch from creamy corn-silk yellow to screaming candy-apple scarlet: a wildly colourful — abstract, and at times contradictory — portrait of a land in chaos.

Purple mountain travesties

From state to state, the frameworks’ particulars (how the hues are ordered, what they mean, the degree of authority they convey) could be said to display either rhyme or reason but not both.

For example, many places evaluate coronavirus metrics (cases per 100,000 people, say) on a county-by-county basis and distribute colours they have assigned to those values accordingly.

But other states forgo counties for larger internal “regions”: Connecticut uses towns; Idaho uses seven autonomous “public health districts” that set their own standards independently; and beginning last fall, New York state, reportedly without much input from the State Health Department, assigned colours to so-called “microclusters” that eschewed “traditional boundaries such as ZIPs, town lines” and “county borders”.

It is unsurprising, then, that the most basic questions — What colour conveys safety? Or danger? — received no consistent answers.

Karen Cheng, a professor of visual communication design at the University of Washington, said over Zoom that “the most sensible” option for conveying safety information to the general public in the United States — in every state — would be via a red/yellow/green tricolour palette.

This is, after all, the nearly uniform colour scheme of the nation’s traffic lights and road signs.

No state currently uses that. But a handful of places, including Alabama, use red/yellow/green plus a middling orange level: red/orange/yellow/green. Orange, Cheng said, is the hue she would recommend if four were needed — because it has a logical place in our mental colour spectrum. We understand orange as a mix between yellow and red.

Cheng also praised Alaska’s map, which features a three-tier red/orange/yellow system, for incorporating changes in value (that is: the relative darkness or lightness of a colour) as well as hue (which tells us, for instance, whether a colour is blue or yellow) to convey escalating alert levels. Because Alaska’s levels exist on a dark-to-light continuum (red not only red but also the darkest colour; yellow not only yellow but also the lightest), its map is easily understandable, even in black and white.

Many maps’ issues were simply matters of taste. Oregon’s shades appear to have been chosen from a smoke-damaged Crayola set. Hawaii’s Kauai County introduced what Cheng described as a “useless problem” by employing yellow text on a white background in its COVID tier tracker. (“Yellow never reads against white,” she said. “Kids always do that, all the time: ‘It looked good on my screen!’ Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t work.”) Landlocked Utah’s decision to render every transmission level a different shade of blue gives its all-county map the appearance of a Utah-shaped ocean of varying depth. (Cheng still praised the state’s use of a straightforward dark-to-light continuum.)

The most frustrating maps were those that, at first glance, might appear the most organized, with a wide array of colors.

Rainbow maps are “known to be ineffective,” Cheng said, because the hues do not “map consistently and logically for everyone.”

For instance, adding blue to the red/yellow/green color mix can throw internal motion gauges out of whack.

“There’s a moment where you’re like, ‘Well, what’s blue mean?’” she said. “It’s very hard to violate your internal schema.”

Even those states that incorporate blue disagree on whether it connotes conditions better or worse than green: On North Dakota’s colour dial, blue (“new normal”) represents the safest tier, one level below green (“low”). Colorado reverses the hues, placing the safest tier — green (“protect our neighbours”) — a rung below blue (“caution”).

Colorado’s map presented other issues for Cheng. For one thing, in addition to blue, it incorporated a surprising wisteria (“purple” — a level worse than “red”), bringing its total divisions to six — twice the number she recommended as ideal, based on common mental models like the three-part phone number format.

And, she said, for a map meant to convey danger and urgency, Colorado’s Easter egg colours were a confusing choice: “It’s very sweet,” she said.

Good job to Kyle

But Cheng’s greatest ire was reserved for New Mexico’s display — a map that, in its original red/yellow/green form, was the only state-wide alert system that met her ideal criteria. A mid-pandemic redesign incorporated what was, for her, the biggest misstep of any state’s map: turquoise.

“I just don’t think that’s the logical end point of this spectrum,” she said.

Tripp Stelnicki, director of communications for New Mexico’s governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, advocates turquoise for the simple reason that it’s New Mexico.

Turquoise, he said in an email, “as both a mineral and colour has deep cultural resonance in our state, having been mined here for centuries,” and is “often associated with a certain authentic New Mexico-ness.”

The idea to allow counties to progress to a fourth tier, even less restrictive than New Mexico’s original highest green tier, was a topic of internal discussion for weeks before its design and rubric were finalized, Stelnicki said. Around the governor’s office, staff referred to this level with the unofficial name “green-plus.”

Lujan Grisham’s use of the vague term in a February news conference hastened the need to identify exactly what colour green-plus was. The idea for “turquoise” came from a member of the governor’s legal counsel, Kyle Duffy.

“There was no debate at all,” Stelnicki said. “It was the kind of suggestion that registered as sensible on its face with everybody here. So good job to Kyle for thinking of it.”

Cheng chuckled and grimaced over Zoom when she realized the state had chosen the illogical colour in a moment of New Mexican pride.

She wasn’t surprised the official guidance fell short of ideal visual standards. Government in the United States “has been traditionally a source of terrible design,” she said. “They just don’t have the resources. They don’t prioritize it.”

But, she added, “maybe rightfully so.” Legislative budgets are finite, after all. “Maybe they need more social workers, not graphic designers.”

Effective design, she said, is not something Americans have come to expect from the federal government.

-New York Times


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