Reuters

They range from simple spray-painted circles on the ground in a Mogadishu market to bright and breezy floor stickers in a Dubai mall, which blow a kiss and urge: "Hey there beautiful, don't forget to keep a safe distance."

The markings that will oblige us to keep apart in busy social settings, in order to prevent transmission of the new coronavirus, are appearing on shop floors, city pavements and train or tram platforms the world over.

Social distancing signs Dubai2

A man walks on a social distancing marker at Mall of the Emirates, as part of preventive measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on 5th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah

As people emerge from weeks of lockdown, they face an array of new measures to try and keep the virus in check and protect society's most vulnerable.

The signs mounted so far went up at speed - but look likely to become commonplace and could be in use for years. 

Dots on the ground, lines, squares within squares, love hearts and smiley faces are being used around the world. The markings need to be impactful enough to be adhered to, but also, ideally, to reassure people without making them feel cattle-driven.

"Anywhere where there are graphics at the moment, it is because people have had to react super quick and put something in place - speed has been of the essence. We are now at the point where there is a bit of breathing space," said Chris Girling, Head of Wayfinding at CCD Design & Ergonomics in London.

Social distancing signs Athens

A commuter walks past a notice promoting social distancing, posted on the floor at the entrance of the Syntagma square metro station, as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus disease in Athens, Greece, on 4th May. The notice reads "I keep a distance, we move around responsibly, we stay safe. PICTURE: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

We have a hotchpotch of styles, colours, terminology, scale and placement strategies, he notes. "This means every single time a member of the public enters a different space they are having to relearn the rules."

There is a balance to be found, he said. "People want to feel safe, reassured and at ease. If you can do that, they are in turn going to be more likely to shop, feel relaxed and return. The message needs to be clear and consistent...and absorbed."

Levels of politeness vary in the places where retailers, city and transport authorities have been able to afford to print special signs. 

"For your safety please stand 2 metres from other people," reads a floor sign in a Shell petrol garage in Britain.

Social distancing signs Bangkok

Social distancing markers are seen in a train during the coronavirus disease outbreak in Bangkok, Thailand, on 6th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun a

"Please practice social distancing," reads another alongside footprints in Santa Monica, California. 

"Stand here" is written in English on a red circle floor sign in a grocery shop in Beirut.

"If we are using words like 'stop' and 'go' and more abrupt language, then that is more associated with hazard and prohibitive signage. This (COVID-19) is a very different type of situation and one that people have never experienced before, so it warrants a different tone of voice," said Girling.

"It is definitely worth trying a more friendly and inventive touch with how you talk to your customers or the general public as they are likely to be more receptive... there is even a bit of space for humour." 

 Social distancing signs Sanaa

A man walks on social distancing markers reading "We care for your health. stand here" at a shopping mall, as a preventative measure amid concerns of the spread of coronavirus disease in Sanaa, Yemen, on 4th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

Footprints have proved popular so far, in signs from Bury in Britain to Abidjan in Ivory Coast, but as Girling points out, the best sign systems would also encourage linear movement and give a visual understanding of direction.

Asked how he would design a social distancing system, he suggested a line of tape to show a pathway, which changes colour every two metres.

"The instinct to follow a line from childhood naturally stays the same as we become adults, and you subconsciously pick up on these visual cues as you walk around environments."

Signs related to COVID-19 should also ideally have their own distinctive colour, which will become instantly recognisable.

Social distancing signs Ronda

A customer walks next to a social distance marker on the floor of a supermarket reading "Keep the safety distance + 2 meters", during a lockdown amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Ronda, Spain, on 6th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Jon Nazca.

  Social distancing signs Santa Monica

A social distancing marker is seen on the sidewalk outside Whole Foods supermarket, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease continues, in Santa Monica, California, US, on 4th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

 Social distancing signs Abuja

People stand on social distancing markers at an automation teller machine at First Bank Nigeria Plc, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, in Abuja, Nigeria, on 6th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

 

Social distancing signs Beirut

A social distancing marker as preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus disease is seen at a supermarket, in Beirut, Lebanon, on 30th April. The marker reads: " We care about your health, please wait for your turn on the black". PICTURE: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir.

 

Social distancing signs Nice

A social distancing marker is seen during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Nice, France, on 5th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Eric Gaillard.

 

Social distancing signs Nairobi

A social distancing marker as preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus disease is seen inside a pharmacy store in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, on 5th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya