In our second Q&A, we speak with Rachel Smith, a multidisciplinary designer and founder of Design to Combat COVID-19, a virtual community of over 1,500 creatives working to support communities affected by COVID-19, and co-founder of Masks for Docs, an international aid organization, which delivers PPE to health care workers globally for free.
Design Vanguard: How did you get into design, and what type of design do you do?
Rachel Smith: I’m a Latina Mexican American who grew up in an East Los Angeles suburb. My mother painted in her spare time, and my father was a machinist, so, without directly realizing it, art and design have always been a part of my being. In my late teens, I was involved in art communities, designing posters for local music or art events, so being a part of a community that builds support between folks has always come naturally to me.
I pursued a career in graphic design, put myself through community college, and graduated from San Diego State with a degree in graphic design. As I juggled two part-time jobs and an internship, I received my first print job offer in Texas. Today, I’m a Senior UX Designer for Nordstrom, I have a creative agency, and I’m a founder of two global volunteer organizations—one focused on design, and the other focused on personal protective equipment distribution.
THIS OVERWHELMING URGE TO HELP HIT ME; I THOUGHT TO MYSELF ‘I’M SOMEBODY WHO USES DESIGN TO SOLVE FOR PROBLEMS, SO WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP SOLVE FOR THIS?’ I KNEW THAT I COULDN’T BE THE ONLY ONE FEELING THIS WAY.
DV: When did the idea for the website come to you, and what were you expecting when you launched it? What has the response been like? And how have you managed the influx of volunteers?
RS: I remember sitting on my couch on March 15th, feeling helpless while scrolling through coronavirus news. Seeing what China, Italy, and other countries were going through, and the effects it was having in their communities, was absolutely devastating. Without a second thought, I purchased a domain and set up a website and Slack account all in one night. I tweeted to my 200 followers, and, overnight, I had over 100 folks join our Slack community. In a week, we had over 1,000, and that’s when I knew I was onto something bigger than what I had anticipated.
We’ve had folks join globally, from Indonesia to the UK, Canada, Africa, and more—all stepping up to help create design solutions for those affected by the pandemic. This group has been able to create PPE distribution models delivering over 100,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to healthcare workers worldwide. We’ve also created infographic posters for hospitals in Canada, assisted small businesses with marketing needs, have helped those displaced by recent layoffs with resume and mentorship guidance, and so much more. Additionally, we have partnered with other organizations such as Fight Pandemics and Rebuild Black Businesses, connecting them with our extensive global network.
DV: What was the most thrilling moment along the journey?
RS: The moment that sticks out to me most was the formation and rapid growth of the second organization that I co-founded, Masks for Docs, which incubated out of Design to Combat COVID-19. When we began to think about problem-solving for the PPE shortage, we initially started thinking about posters or web campaigns, raising awareness around donating excess PPE to medical workers. However, it evolved into so much more. The Slack channel for this project grew into the hundreds, with engineers, designers and 3D printing enthusiasts wanting to solve supply chain issues. We ended up building our own grassroots supply chain network to provide PPE from local communities to hospitals.
Masks for Docs now has its own website and Slack channel with over 5,000 volunteers and over 100 global chapters delivering PPE. To date, that group has delivered over 100,000 pieces of medical equipment to folks globally, and are now starting to move into other facilities, such as homeless shelters, nursing homes, and grocery stores. Health care workers are safer, our volunteers feel a sense of purpose, and I can’t help but stop and think to myself, “We’ve made a difference,” in a time where kindness is crucial.
THE BIGGEST THING THAT I’VE LEARNED IS THAT YOU’RE NEVER ALONE. THERE’S A COMMUNITY OF FOLKS OUT THERE WHO ARE WILLING TO STEP UP AND ARE JUST AS PASSIONATE AS YOU ARE ABOUT MAKING A DIFFERENCE—EVEN IF IT’S VIRTUALLY.
DV: What have you learned and how do you think it might shape your career?
RS: Another big takeaway for me is learning how to solve for problems with ambiguity and being OK with pivoting your plan to solve things that pop up in the moment. Also, we need all kinds of assistance, not just design and critical thinking skills. In addition to engineers and designers, we need folks who can pick up the phone, contact their local hospitals or healthcare facilities and simply ask “Do you need assistance, and how can we help?”
This experience has deeply impacted me. For the majority of my career, I’ve tried to work with organizations that are in line with my personal values. However, there’s something different about creating design solutions that directly affect people’s health, well-being, and safety. I know for certain that it’s at the core of my being and there’s an entire network of people out there who are willing to make a difference.
DV: How have you seen the need or attention shift since the start of the pandemic? Should there be a second wave here in the U.S., what might you do differently?
RS: At the beginning of the pandemic, supply chains were not able to catch up with the requests that were needed to provide medical workers the PPE. During the beginning weeks of Masks for Docs, the majority of our requests were masks. Now they’re shifting to gowns, booties, face shields and more. Unfortunately, there has also been an uptick in food insecurity requests, as many of our food suppliers are facing shortages due to the pandemic.
IF WE JOIN FORCES, SHARE KNOWLEDGE, AND EXPAND OUR NETWORKS WE WILL BE ABLE TO OVERCOME ANY ROADBLOCK, WHILE PROVIDING PURPOSE AND HOPE FOR OUR FUTURE GENERATIONS.
I’m a firm believer that COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon, and the overall effects of the pandemic will be felt for years. However, this community has given myself and thousands of others hope in a time when we need it most. If I were to do anything differently, I would have paired with our partner organizations earlier. In a time of chaos, we must focus and take cues from nature where design is a way of efficiency and support—like busy worker bees coming together for a single task.
To learn more, visit DesigntoCombatCOVID19.com.