A Defining Moment for Design

As a designer of thirty-five years experience, I thought I was prepared for most things the world could throw at me.

I was wrong.

Like many of you, I could not comprehend the disruption that a microscopic virus could cause. And so at this moment, I find myself wondering what this all means for design, but I also wonder what it means for me and my role as a designer.

As I have thought about this, and what the world might become as we navigate past the pandemic, I find myself returning to the promise of The Design Vanguard.

When the Design Vanguard first convened in 2018, we were excited to bring together many of those working at the edge of design and social impact. Whether designers, funders, or leaders of nonprofits, we assembled to share insights, ideas, and purpose.

In 2019, we convened again and created The Designer’s Pledge as a means of aligning our intentions and catalyzing our community. We imagined a path forward where design would make steady progress building on the great achievements of those who came before us.

And then 2020 came along, and with it the biggest disruption to our societies and economies since the Great Depression.

In a matter of weeks, our world radically shifted as an invisible agent invaded almost every aspect of our lives. Our systems were found wanting. A tsunami of new problems confronted us. Our preparations turned out to be wildly insufficient.

In the first days and weeks of the crisis, we observed designers jumping in wherever they could help. Creative solutions to urgent problems began to appear: New designs for PPE to help frontline health workers; creative solutions to working entirely on Zoom; and repurposing production lines to manufacture ventilators, masks, and protective screens. Organizations that had available creative capacity were often the fastest to react to the new reality.

Over the coming months, even more design will be necessary as we leave our homes and reoccupy the world. We will have to design new ways to work together, to learn together, to travel together, to be healthy, to be entertained, to shop. Organizations will have to redesign many of their processes and spaces.

We will need imaginative ways to restart our economies and create millions of jobs to replace those that have been lost. ALL TOLD, THOUSANDS OF INDIVIDUAL DESIGN CHALLENGES WILL NEED TO BE ADDRESSED IF WE ARE TO MAINTAIN HUMAN DIGNITY AND HOPE.

Looking ahead, we see the need to address, with renewed vigor, even bigger topics such as fundamental inequities in society and global systems challenges. Coronavirus cannot distract us from the Sustainable Development Goals, and, indeed, achieving many of them will be necessary to build the kind of resilience that we need to survive future systemic shocks. Moving toward a circular economy or creating public health systems that truly provide protection for all are examples of outcomes that would create a better, safer, more resilient, and sustainable world.

I believe that this moment will turn out to be one where design and creativity show their essential value. And I know I’m not alone. The resilience that comes from creative capacity will prove to be instrumental in transitioning society to its next phase–one where our vulnerabilities are more evident than before, but also where we understand our potential for positive response.

We never would have wished for this, but now that we are being faced with such profound disruption, design has a chance to live up to its potential, to be a tool for redesigning systems for more equity and elegance and thriving.

We need one another more than ever, and there is real power in coordinating for the greater good. With this in mind, The Design Vanguard is embarking on an effort to capture design’s response to the urgent and far-reaching needs of this moment.

We believe there will be countless more inspiring and instructive projects and that there will be great value in gathering, tracking, and sharing these stories. They will act as inspiration for others and evidence that investing in design capacity is an essential ingredient in a future we wish to inhabit.

We’ve already gathered 100 such projects and stories. There are surely others being born every day–in design studios and on factory assembly lines, as well as at home office desks, kitchen tables, and basement workshops. We want to hear about them, to record them for history and future study, and to be proud together.


Tim Brown is the Executive Chair of IDEO, Vice Chair of kyu, and the author of Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. He is the Founding Chair of The Design Vanguard.


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