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COVID-19 Timeline: Critical Moments in the First Year

Written by: Lydia Hooper

Jan 29, 2021

covid-19 timeline

Looking back on 2020, it’s crystal clear that the world has never experienced a year like this before. As of publication, COVID-19 has impacted more than 200 countries, with more than 100 million cases and two million deaths so far, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As the platform for communicating about complex information, we wanted to look at how people are communicating about the events that have taken place over the past year. Many have listed the key events, like The New York Times and ScienceNews, while others have created interactive timelines which are a bit cumbersome to navigate, like NBC News and the World Health Organization.

Here at Venngage, we believe visual communications can be both smart and simple, so I created a COVID-19 timeline infographic to show the most critical moments to date. I collected data and information related to the virus’ spread, scientific discoveries, as well as political and economic events, and then I used our design tool to create an infographic.

Take a look:

covid-19 timeline

Creating a data-driven timeline: the process

Naturally, this is not the only situation in which a timeline infographic can help tell a story. These infographics can connect events and information in exciting new ways, for example in:

  • Project timelines
  • Process timelines
  • Historical timelines
  • Planning timelines

Yet I have found that there are many timelines that are still created that look like this:

covid-19 timeline


Or this:

covid-19 timeline


Or this:

covid-19 timeline


You don’t need to be a professional designer to make a timeline infographic, but you do need to know how to start and what to pay attention to as you put the pieces together. So I will now break down how I created the infographic above, from scratch.

1. Finding data

The first step was finding good data sources. News outlets are generally a good source, and a review of different ones quickly revealed that they were reporting on different events and in different ways. There were also some non-news reputable sources from the health and medical community who were able to contribute more nuance and depth.

2. Selecting events

After reviewing the numerous events to potentially include, it was important to ask: “What events are of greatest interest to a general audience?” I began listing these events and it became apparent that most of them were related to a few different themes: scientific, political, and economic.

covid-19 timeline

covid-19 timeline

I decided that mapping them by these themes might offer a way for a reader to navigate the information based on their interest and also still be able to consider how these events related to one another. Next, I cleaned up the copy that would be used in the infographic and prepared for the design.

3. Deciding on layout

Keeping in mind that I wanted to tease out these themes, I considered the best layout for this infographic. After reviewing our timeline templates, I thought about what might best fit this topic. Since this infographic would be posted on a page on our blog, I knew I could make it fairly long in its orientation, expecting readers would scroll as they read.

There were so many events of note that I decided to use a straightforward design that would be easily read from top to bottom and also be able to accurately portray in a visual way the length of time between each event.

For example, the cluster of events in early spring when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic (shown below) and the great spans of time in summer and fall when the world awaited a vaccine.

covid-19 timeline

4. Drafting and soliciting feedback

Then I began producing a draft of a design which included many elements for consideration. I did not focus on details like colors or fonts, but rather played with ideas about whether and how to visualize not only the events, but the changes in numbers of cases as well as the countries hardest hit. Always concerned firstly with accuracy, I spaced the months equally apart across the vertical timeline and added events accordingly based upon their date.

covid-19 timeline

Laying it all out in a draft (shown above) allowed me to get some initial feedback from my teammates about what they thought worked best and what needed more attention. Getting feedback at an early stage is an often-overlooked practice in design, but I have found it to be absolutely essential.

My teammates helped me get clarity on what might be important to add and what might need to be removed for greater clarity. I also tested to make sure the dimensions I had chosen would fit well within the confines of a blog post in order to better understand the reader’s experience.

5. Creating the right visualizations

Now it was time to get down to the nitty gritty. The first thing I did was remove a lot of unnecessary clutter, including every date for each event and a lot of maps I’d initially included.

Then I was able to add new components, like the bar graph and the line graph, in places where there was abundant white space. My guideline at this stage is always based on this suggestion from design leader John Maeda: subtract the obvious and add the meaningful.

c18fe187-02dd-4455-8441-016125974677 (3)

Once all the parts and pieces were in place, I was able to think about visual elements like icons and backgrounds. Again, I wanted to use these elements not merely to attract the attention of readers but to support their understanding. I made the dots associated with major events larger than others and colored the background to subtly suggest how these events shaped stages of the first year, from discovery to response to prevention.

The visualizations, in particular, needed special attention. I wanted to keep the maps of China and the United States, as those were countries with prominent mentions. Pictograms were the best way to show the massive numbers of cases, so I did some quick math and experimented with ways to show how these numbers increased exponentially over the past year while also minimizing visual clutter. After locating additional data sets, I cleaned up the data for use in the charts and made sure the bar and line graphs I added were well labeled.

covid-19 timeline covid-19 timeline

6. Adding design elements like colors and fonts

Finally it was time for the final polish. Paying attention to spacing and use of white space, I added icons and reduced font sizes for less important text. Then I experimented with color palettes to make sure I was using colors that worked well together and allowed for adequate legibility. I also double checked spelling and grammar in the infographic text.

For my final review, I asked myself: does this design allow someone to learn new information easily, and do the visuals in particular lead them to have new insights or “aha”s? Please add your comments below to let me know what you think.

If you like this infographic, be sure to check out the ones we created about The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Refugee Crisis and The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Impact on the Environment.

If you want to use Venngage to make a timeline of your own, you can get started here. Or, if you’d like a little more inspiration first, check out our post: 40+ Timeline Templates, Examples and Design Tips.

About Lydia Hooper

Lydia Hooper has a decade of experience as an information designer, and has worked with and for more than 50 national, state, and local organizations. She led a team to win bronze in the national Civic Data Challenge in 2013. Her writing on data visualization and information design has also been published by Data Visualization Society, UX Collective, SAGE Publishing’s MethodSpace and Evergreen Data. Lydia has also designed and facilitated workshops for dozens of organizations including American Institute of Graphic Arts-Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Chapters of the Association for Talent Development and the Society for Technical Communication.