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Mark Dalton on helping people navigate a pandemic through design

Design Emergency began as an Instagram Live series during the Covid-19 pandemic and is now becoming a wake-up call to the world, and compelling evidence of the power of design to effect radical and far-reaching change. aking sure that we are fully informed about a terrifying crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, and that we know how best to behave in different situations, is a fundamental role of design in emergencies. The best-designed public information programmes need to be as clear, accurate and memorable as possible.


Sadly, most countries’ Covid-19 information campaigns have been the opposite. But there is one glowing exception, Unite Against Covid-19, which was commissioned by the New Zealand government and designed by Clemenger BBDO Wellington. Alice Rawsthorn spoke to Mark Dalton, creative director of the campaign and Clemenger BDDO, about the development of what she and Paola Antonelli believe is the most intelligently and sensitively designed public information programme in this pandemic.

Alice Rawsthorn: How did the project come about?

Mark Dalton: I think the main reason we were approached is that over the years we’ve done a few, much smaller emergency responses for the New Zealand government. The response to Covid-19 was coordinated across all of government, and the client team leading it had worked with us on some of those previous projects. They reached out to us because they were given a very short time to respond and were looking for people with relevant experience.

AR: What was your brief and timescale?

MD: The brief was pretty broad. We had to come up with a way of communicating clear and helpful messages to New Zealanders across whatever platforms or media channels we thought would be appropriate. And we had to get it to market within a week.

AR: That’s a very short period of time. Was the choice of key themes and tone left to you, or was the government prescriptive?

MD: It was very much a collaboration. We knew that our best result would be to ask people to do something and tell them why. So, we had to work with our clients to work out what we could say that would be effective and useful. There were moments when we had to go away and think about things for a little while, and then go back in to talk about it. I think working so closely with them led us to solutions more quickly.

AR: How many days did you have to complete the concept?

MD: We were briefed on a Thursday morning. I’m pretty sure our managing director Brett Hoskin got phoned the night before, because he grabbed us that morning saying: ‘Hey, there’s some people coming in to talk to us about a rather interesting issue.’ It was still confidential at that point. On the Friday, we had a strategic and creative get-together at 7am and worked until 11am. We presented that strategic outline and plan to our immediate clients and spent the rest of the day finessing it, so it could go further into the government to seek approval. By early Saturday, we were starting to concept the platform and the way we’d bring it to life to show to New Zealand for the first time. We were all in the same space trying to figure out what the platform would be, and what voice the government needed to project to help people and to make them feel calm. As well as doing that, we were starting to sketch out what it could look like in terms of a brand or a design programme. I think by 8pm on the Saturday, we had something we could present to the prime minister’s office in terms of a brand identity. From Sunday, we were working out how we could make things to be in market by that Wednesday. I think that’s probably about as fast as you could do it.

To learn more please visit: Mark Dalton on helping people navigate a pandemic through design