Coronavirus illustrations win Symbol of the Year Vote for 2020

CDC image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, aka the "spiky ball"

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

STANFORD, CA - Affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program at Stanford University have chosen illustrations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as the Symbol of the Year from 2020, in their ninth annual vote for notable symbols.

The most common illustrations of the virus used in the U.S. were public domain images of SARS-CoV-2  provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its newsroom image library. The CDC noted that the familiar "spiky ball" illustration "reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses," and called attention to "the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically."

The winning symbol was nominated by nine members of the Symbolic Systems community:

  • Khara Ramos (B.S., 2001), who wrote: "Invisible to the naked eye, SARS-CoV-2 brought the world to its knees for much of 2020. This tiny trigger of chaos galvanized scientific prowess around a heroic vaccine development effort, and laid bare the strains in America’s uneasy and unequal relationship with science and public health."
  • Julian Oscar Alvarez (B.S., 2017), who wrote: "Identified by its characteristic crown of proteins, this deadly virus forced people to change numerous ways of living such as work, socialization, traveling, and health. Its death toll has been estimated at almost 2 million over less than a year, and disproportionately many of those infected have been people of color and essential workers."
  • Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "Nothing has defined this year more thoroughly than the Covid-19 virus, fundamentally changing our way of life, and shaping every aspect of our lives for 2020."
  • Joanna Salgado Liwanag (B.S., 1996), who wrote: "COVID-19 has been at the top of the world’s focus for the vast majority of 2020. The spiky ball image has become emblematic not only of the virus, but the disease and its physical, social, and economic repercussions."
  • Deena Weisberg (B.S., 2003), who wrote: "2020 was defined by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic."
  • Jeff Wishnie (B.S., 1992), who wrote: "Nothing was more on the minds of the world than the corona virus. This image, with the unique 'spike' protein is now universally known. And thank goodness for that spike as a target for vaccines..."
  • Neal Harris (B.S., 2005), who wrote: "The coronavirus has turned the world upside-down in 2020."
  • Emma Garforth (B.S., 1989), who wrote that the illustrations were "a Symbol of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic." And
  • Al Sargent (B.S., 1991), who called them "a representation of the molecule that drove much of this year's events." 

One hundred and seventy-two alumni/ae, students, faculty, and staff affiliated with the Program cast ballots in a system in which each voter could vote for any nominated symbol as Symbol of the Year, Other Notable Symbol, or neither. All of the program's alums, current students, and faculty/staff were eligible to vote. The ballot stated that the purpose of the vote was "to recognize the important role that symbols play in our world" ("as affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program").

"Images of the spiky ball became ubiquitous, and made the novel coronavirus look hideous and menacing," said Todd Davies, associate director of Symbolic Systems, who has administered the Symbol of the Year vote each year since 2012. "I think the grotesqueness of the visualizations played a role in making people fear the virus, which aided public health messaging,"

In addition to the Symbol of the Year, voters also chose 21 other Notable Symbols out of the 41 nominated symbols, which were submitted between December 18th and 27th, 2020, with voting taking place December 29th, 2020, through January 3rd, 2021. Nominations appeared on the ballot in the words of the nominators. Selection indicated only that the symbol had been significant during the year, rather than an endorsement of any point of view associated with it.

Other Notable Symbols from 2020 chosen by voters for their significance were:

  • the face mask - nominated by four affiliates:
    • Harshitha Ramesh Holmes (B.S., 2015), who wrote: "The mask is required at a bare minimum to be safe out in public this year, whether one is visiting the grocery store or loved ones. It is ubiquitous as COVID-19 rages on in every nook and cranny of the world, but is nonetheless controversial as misinformation is as viral as the disease itself."
    • Eleanor Selfridge-Field (Adjunct Professor of Music), who wrote: "Remembering to carry a mask at all times has been one of the challenges of this past year.  The mask symbolizes all the disruptions and sad consequences of the past year, as well as all the accommodations we have had to make."
    • Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "A symbol of protection, a political flashpoint, a symbol of protest: the face mask defined our idea of personal protective equipment, highlighted social divides over herd safety vs personal freedoms, and nevertheless became a constant in our lives." And
    • Michael Lipman (B.S., 2014), who wrote: "As the coronavirus spread across the world and the US this year, masks slowly became ubiquitous in many public places, a constant reminder of one of many changes this year, some of which have become routine. And the public places where masks did not become popular showed some of the political showdowns that coincided with the pandemic."
  • #blm and "Black Lives Matter" - nominated by five affiliates:
    • Jonathan Berger (Denning Family Provostial Professor, Music), who wrote: "The 2020 murders of Ahmaud Arbery, followed by the killing of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and far too many others rekindled the poignancy and importance of the phrase, galvanizing the country and the world."
    • Julia Meltzer (Class of 2022), who wrote: "The fight for Black lives and against police murders is centuries old and far from resolved. This year, in part due to the controversial role of social media (aiding awareness, but exacerbating trauma porn), Black Lives Matter and its call to defund the police has risen in prominence, becoming a ubiquitous topic and movement."
    • Deena Weisberg (B.S., 2003), who wrote: "This year, the Black Lives Matter movement defined our conversations about race and racism, in the wake of a series of violent killings of people of color by the police."
    • James Landay (Anand Rajaraman and Venky Harinarayan Professor in the School of Engineering, Computer Science), who wrote simply that there was "Nothing more important." And
    • Lester Dorman (B.S., 1996), who wrote:  "As recently as 2018, sentiment on 'Black Lives Matter' was largely negative. In 2020, the callous killing of George Floyd by police officers changed this radically.  A global movement protested the systemic racism present in the criminal justice systems of much of the world, prompting symbolic acts of protest across many facets of society."
  • images of George Floyd - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "George Floyd’s death reignited a protest movement, compelling people to take to the streets despite the danger of pandemic."
  • "flattening the curve" - nominated by two affiliates:
    • Griffin Young (Class of 2021), who wrote: "In a year fraught with messaging failures from the scientific community, 'flatten the curve' and the associated graphic was a concise and effective way of communicating the importance of social distancing and other preventative measures to keep public health infrastructures from being overrun." And
    • Lester Dorman (B.S., 1996), who wrote: "It became very clear in 2020 that unless we act to protect ourselves, natures forces can do us great harm.  Be it global warming or infectious disease, our own past and present behaviors are jeopardizing our very own well-being, and we need to do something about it.  This year, we all learned how to 'flatten the curve'."
  • "I can't breathe" - nominated by Jordy Mont-Reynaud (B.S., 2004), who wrote: "A phrase used by over 70 people who have died in police custody. George Floyd said it over twenty times before his death on May 25, 2020. Three simple words became the rallying cry for the largest protest movement in US history, igniting a wave of police reform and turning Black Lives Matter into a global rallying cry."
  • social distancing signs - nominated by two affiliates:
    • Sunshine Weiss Pooley (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "To optimize safety, businesses posted social distancing signage on the ground to show customers where to stand. Circles with footprints or the reminder '6ft apart' help everyone stay safe." And
    • Sarah Jasper Epstein (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "The phrase 'social distancing' quickly entered into our lexicon in or about March 2020. Almost overnight, public places adopted a pictogram to visually represent this concept, urging people to maintain 6 feet of distance as a way to slow 'community spread' of COVID-19. In addition, the phrase is now used as a verb and adjective."
  • "social distancing" - nominated by Mark Lemley (William Neukom Professor in Law and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research), who wrote "'Social distancing,' a concept no one had heard of at the beginning of the year, defined this unique year."
  • the raised fist - nominated by Clayton Kunz (B.S., 1995), who wrote: "The Black Lives Matter movement gained massive traction both domestically within the US and internationally after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. The raised fist has been used by protestors as well as in imagery to reflect solidarity with the movement."
  • a wooden sign warning people to wear masks and stay safe engulfed in the blaze of a California wildfire - nominated by James Kung (B.S., 2005), who wrote that the photo was "a fitting synopsis of 2020 in a single snapshot."
  • orange skies - nominated by Alexander Muller (B.S., 2010), who wrote: "The orange skies over California and other parts of the western United States, caused by widespread, devastating wildfires in the summer, were a symbol of the increasing threat of climate change, and of the bizarre, catastrophic year that 2020 was in general."
  • the Zoom icon - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote "Communication has been redefined in times of pandemic, and Zoom became the ubiquitous video platform for all areas of life. It has its own rules, etiquette, and video language as well is zoom bombing and pranking."
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci - nominated by Sunshine Weiss-Pooley (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "Dr. Fauci symbolizes reason and hope as he tirelessly delivered scientifically grounded, rational and heartfelt guidance to a nation who needed his expertise and a president who didn't want to hear it. He symbolizes the selfless spirit of public health workers and the courage to speak truth to power."
  • social media fact-check banners - nominated by Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "Big Tech information gatekeepers, in an attempt to cultivate establishment narratives, started displaying 'fact check' and 'clarification' banners next to content that presented minority viewpoints.  While some minority viewpoint content was simply tagged, other such content was completely removed from the Big Tech platforms."
  • "Defund the police" and "Abolish the police" - nominated by two affiliates:
    • Julian Oscar Alvarez (B.S., 2017), who wrote: "In the wake of this summer's Black Lives Matter protests following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor (among others), police abolition reached the mainstream. 'Defund the police' encompasses many different policy proposals from de-emphasizing law enforcement in government budgets to complete extirpation." And
    • Nawaf Alnaji (B.S., 2017), who wrote: "In the biggest protest year in American history, 'Defund the police' became a central slogan and policy demand. And unlike 'Black Lives Matter', which was widely embraced by institutions, 'Defund the police' remained controversial, being used as a rallying cry for republicans during the election and a divisive topic within the democratic party."
  • wear-a-mask signs - nominated by Barbara Tversky (Professor of Psychology, Emerita), who wrote: "NYC was hit hard by COVID in the spring. Signs popped up all over and under the city, advice like wearing a mask, humor, encouragement."
  • boxes in a grid - nominated by Barbara Tversky (Professor of Psychology, Emerita) and Todd Davies (Associate Director), who wrote: "As educators, much of our waking lives since March has been spent in a grid of boxes in Zoom. The grid seemed democratizing -- instead of all eyes on the instructor, standing before them, we were all boxes in a grid looking at each other, and that seemed to encourage student participation. Design patterns can change our perceptions and behavior."
  • Anthony Fauci's facepalm - nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director), who wrote: "The facepalm is a cross-cultural gesture signifying exasperation, frustration, and related emotions. Dr. Anthony Fauci's use of the facepalm during a news conference by President Donald Trump in March 2020 expressed how many of us felt this year."
  • "WFH" - nominated by Emma Lozman Plumb (B.S., 2000), who wrote: "Working from home suddenly became the norm for millions worldwide under lockdown. The term, signified by the symbol 'WFH', took on a new meaning and prominence as our collective understanding of work changed: work is now newly recognized as a thing you do rather than a place you go."
  • "lockdown" - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "No word has better defined the pain of a year of global isolation at every level of society: locking down borders, travel, and ultimately, our communities and homes in the name of safety."
  • "essential" and "nonessential" - nominated by Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "Due to the Covid pandemic, the world’s governments divided jobs into two categories: essential vs. nonessential.  Workers were forbidden from performing 'nonessential' jobs.  The result was a sharp increase in unemployment and economic hardship."
  • "You're on mute" - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "While Zoom became interchangeable with social interaction this year, we had to adapt to remote social behaviors, with varying degrees of success and comedy."

The idea for a "Symbol of the Year" was inspired by the many annual "of the year" designations and awards that are put out by various organizations, especially the American Dialect Society's annual "Word of the Year" vote. Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program focuses on human and computational systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information.

For "Criteria", the ballot stated the following:

"The Symbol of the Year need not be new to this year, but should have achieved widespread cultural importance during the year. A symbol is both used and understood to represent a concept, object, location, event, or linguistic unit. Types of symbols include the following:

  • a flag or emblem (e.g. the Olympic flag, the AIDS awareness ribbon, a police badge, a union label)
  • a costume or garment (e.g. a graduation gown, a cowboy hat, the Guy Fawkes mask)
  • a grapheme, written character, or glyph (e.g. the '+' sign, the lowercase 'e', the Helvetica 'A')
  • a hand signal or gesture (e.g. the 'A-Okay' sign, a military salute)
  • an iconic object or animal (e.g. the Statue of Liberty, the black cat)
  • a symbolic place (e.g. the agora, the Kremlin)
  • an ideogram (e.g. the peace symbol, the caduceus symbol of commerce)
  • a logo (e.g. the Red Cross logo, the Apple Inc. logo)
  • a shape (e.g. the crescent, the upside-down triangle)
  • a pictogram (e.g. the International Symbol of Access, the Universal Recycling Symbol)
  • a screen icon (e.g. the magnifying glass/search icon, the trash icon)
  • an auditory symbol or acoustic signal (e.g. the train whistle, the Intel bongs, the SOS prosign)
  • a tactile symbol (e.g. a braille character, a TSBVI Standard Tactile Symbol)
  • a symbolic action or event (e.g. the lighting of a candle, the sun setting)
  • an iconic photograph or image (e.g. Migrant Mother, Guerrillero Heroico)
  • a symbolic work or performance (e.g. the Star Spangled Banner, Romeo and Juliet)
  • a color or pattern (e.g. Navy blue, the Royal Stewart tartan)
  • a posted sign or signal (e.g. an exit sign, a red light)
  • an abbreviation or acronym (e.g. 'lbs.', 'USA')
  • an iconic person or group (e.g. the Pope, the Freedom Riders)
  • a name or nickname (e.g. 'Betty Crocker', 'Joe the Plumber')
  • a word or phrase (e.g. 'email', 'Win one for the Gipper!')
  • a mascot or mythical/imaginary character (e.g. Ronald McDonald, Aphrodite, Yogi Bear)"

"Lots of things can be symbols," said Davies, after the first Symbol of the Year vote eight years ago, "but relatively few things actually are. Being a symbol is an acquired status, that gets established through use. Symbols can obviously become notable because the things they represent are notable. But we wanted to draw attention to the significance that symbols themselves have, as symbols, beyond what they represent, and to get ourselves and others thinking about the role they play in contemporary life."

Previous Symbols of the Year were:

  • 2012 - the percent sign ("%")
  • 2013 - the equal sign ("=")
  • 2014 - the hands up gesture
  • 2015 - #BlackLivesMatter
  • 2016 - the MAGA hat
  • 2017 - #MeToo
  • 2018 - #MeToo
  • 2019 - "quid pro quo"