Twenty images that offer a lens on 2020

McKinsey designers highlight the photos and illustrations that helped us tell the visual story of a remarkable year.

The way we see the world may well have changed in the course of 2020—as the global pandemic has upended our personal and professional lives. As the year draws to a close, we turned to McKinsey’s designers to get perspective on the images that helped bring our insights to life.

While we sometimes commission bespoke art for our articles and reports, for the most part we curate our visuals from outside image libraries. Even in prepandemic times, this presented special challenges when it came to selection (does the visual messaging fit the topic and tone of the piece?) and adaptation (is the image treatment consistent with our style and brand?). But in a year where much of the world spent many months maintaining some level of physical distancing, large swaths of the images in the libraries we access—those that showed people in the close proximity we were all used to before the pandemic—became unusable.

See our designers’ favorites from this year and why they resonated, then read the stories behind them to understand some of the year’s most important issues.

COVID-19: Investing in Black lives and livelihoods

Black Americans faced profound challenges: they were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and roiled by the unjust killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. This warm portrait puts a human face on what’s at stake, while showing the strength and resilience of the community.

Survey: In the US, people say their use of masks may endure

2020’s must-have accessory? No object signifies the pandemic more than the ubiquitous mask. Most wore them, some resisted, and we haven’t seen the last of these crucial coverings.

Diverse employees are struggling the most during COVID-19—here’s how companies can respond

Championing diversity and inclusion in an organization is difficult. The patterned origami paper is a clever nod to individual difference while simultaneously suggesting a flock in formation. It also invokes optimism: amid diversity, there is strength in a common direction.

When will the COVID-19 pandemic end?

Pandemic fatigue is real. Many are searching for light at the end of the tunnel; the moment of pause shown here conveys need, longing—but also relief, or even hope.

Fashion on climate

This image subverts the idea of runway-ready haute couture in dramatic fashion. And for a report on sustainability in the apparel industry, the plastic bags and crashing waves are a nice tip of the hat to the environmental consequences of the materials we use.

How the LGBTQ+ community fares in the workplace

You may have noticed we use a lot of blue—it’s one of the rules we’ve set for our visual identity. But the rules we break are as important as the rules we follow, and this image would have lost its impact without color. Some statements are bigger than our firm, and this proudly displayed that statement in its full richness.

Problems amid progress: Improving lives and livelihoods for ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom

It would be reductive to look at diversity as a black-and-white issue. Undeniably strong, proud, and beautifully shot, this portrait well illustrates the nuances of minority communities around the globe.

Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges

Exploding ice may not immediately say “effective leadership.” But it captures the instant, dramatic impact of the global pandemic and its effects, and the urgency of meeting the moment.

Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts

How does one iconic image convey the enormity of the climate challenge while still suggesting a solution? While more subtle than a fire-ravaged forest, this invites reflection on what might be done to stem the tide of climate change.

Not the last pandemic: Investing now to reimagine public-health systems

Healthcare workers are at the front line of the pandemic. And they are also the ones who ultimately must implement a reimagined system. The resolve and determination shown here instills confidence on the path to the next normal.

Reimagining the postpandemic economic future

Bulls are a classic symbol of economic strength. But the pandemic has fettered livelihoods, and the virus is casting a long shadow. Although we’re sparing in our use of illustration, this was both a well-crafted graphic and an important expansion of our ability to tell powerful and nuanced visual stories. Click through to the story to see how this image was animated.

COVID-19 and behavioral health: Consequences for companies and employees

Discussions of behavioral health can lapse into the clinical. This lush image was a thoughtful and beautiful way to show the need to nurture mental health in an exceptionally stressful year.

As you return from the summer break, can you lead toward a COVID-Exit?

The use of negative space is an unexpected visual play that engaged readers by inviting them to lean closer. And as this leader faces the future, the novel perspective reinforces the idea that there’s no going back on the journey to emerge stronger from the pandemic.

The hidden perils of unresolved grief

There are days when our minds can be a cage. This image encapsulates the danger of locking ourselves in to our emotions—as well as the possibility of resolution, a bird winging free in the wind.

McKinsey Quarterly, 2020 Issue 2: Climate: Shared risk. Shared response.

Composed of leaves and organic matter, this McKinsey Quarterly cover image offers an inroad for contemplation. The climate challenge is multilayered. Without urgent, collective action, efforts may wither on the vine.

Why tech transfer may be critical to beating COVID-19

Beyond the intriguing pop of color and layers of light, this nicely invokes the idea of information being reproduced and transferred. The image hints at the challenge of scaling technology amid the pressing need to produce and distribute vaccines to control the pandemic.

Returning to resilience: The impact of COVID-19 on mental health and substance use

No less important than the physical impact of COVID-19 is the effect it has on our collective psyche. The fissures of this shattering bust bring home behavioral-health effects of the pandemic and serve as a call to action to meet them head-on.

Reopening schools: Fostering a safe and effective learning environment

If you’re a working parent, you may have spent at least part of this year helping your young one adapt to remote schooling. Getting kids back into classrooms—safely—continues to be a challenge for many, and this image suggests there’s hope for a return.

On pins and needles: Will COVID-19 vaccines ‘save the world’?

If you’re squeamish about shots, we understand this image may have necessitated a few deep breaths. Strangely enough, that emotive aspect is the reason we were so drawn to it. But these steady hands can also convey comfort and care, both greatly needed in the race to develop an effective vaccine.

How to demonstrate calm and optimism in a crisis

In the face of extreme stress, we’re all prone to fight, flight, or freeze. But leaders can build “integrative awareness” to thrive. Here, the feather on water provokes reflection (literal and figurative) and calls to mind the idea of freedom, lightness, and lift—even hope and optimism as we look to a brighter future.


This collection was the result of collaborative work by Shubham Bassi, Mike Borruso, Vanessa Burke, Torea Frey, Marcelo Garza, Arun Gupta, Mary Hanna, Maya Kaplun, Anais Maroon, Janet Michaud, Christine Nguyen, Dan Redding, Charmaine Rice, Sarah Thuerk, and Nathan Wilson.

This page is just part of our full year-end series celebrating the best of McKinsey Global Publishing in 2020. See the full collection at, 2020 year in review: Highlights from our publishing.

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