On March 11, 2020, one year ago today, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.
In short order, as lockdowns and shelter in place orders swept the U.S. and the world, hospitals filled up, and death tolls mounted, it became clear that this would change us all in profound ways. Still, we could have never imagined what was to follow, especially here in the U.S.
Through conversation with Design Vanguard members, principally IDEO’s Tim Brown who called it “A Defining Moment for Design,” and a generous grant from member Jake Moritz and Kelson Foundation, the “COVID-19 Design Directory” was born. The directory was launched with 100 projects and the belief that “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.”
While proud of the directory, we are even more enamored by the parallel and superior work of curator Paola Antonelli and critic Alice Rawsthorn, creators of Design Emergency. Launched just a few weeks before the directory, Design Emergency did more than aggregate projects; it dug into them, spoke with the designers behind them, and, in many cases, tracked their impact over time. It’s been such a remarkable effort that we can only applaud it and cheer on its ongoing work.
Another aggregation and action platform that continues to inspire us is Design to Combat COVID-19, the brainchild of designer Rachel Smith and a global crew of doers. They are among the many quiet heroes that took good intentions and put them to work.
And, of course, Artist Relief deserves enormous credit and recognition for its tireless support for designers and other artists in the form of $5,000 unrestricted grants. Tens of millions of dollars in relief funding have been awarded, thanks to an array of partners and funders, united largely by the indomitable Deana Haggag of United States Artists and Carolyn Ramo of Artadia.
So, here we are, one full year since that fateful WHO declaration. A year of unthinkable loss, yes, but also unimaginable adaptation to one of the greatest challenges of our time. It seems like a fitting moment to pause and reflect, as we start to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Read on for an eclectic glance back, and look for The Design Vanguard to relaunch this fall after a brief hiatus.
Reinventing health and care
In the early stages of the pandemic, designers looked to familiar fixtures within their cities and reinvented them as facilities, tools, or vehicles to help meet the daunting need for COVID care.
Panama-based designer Manuel Echavarria was one of many to tackle the challenge of creating a face mask that was cheap and readily accessible, sharing the instructions on how to create a mask out of coffee filters as a last resort. In the same vein, Packademia and Cornell’s Sabin Lab published open source files to create a cheap and functional hospital bed from recyclable cardboard and 3D print PPE.
In the Philippines, branding agency Vitamin B reimagined the country’s signature jeepney as MediDyip, a rapidly deployable transport system that could be used as a mobile clinic or shuttling service between care centers.
And, across the globe, many designers saw the potential of shipping containers as additional spaces for healthcare, with the University of Technology Sydney in Australia using one to prototype a drive-through testing site.
Redesigning public spaces
As the world began to reopen, it became imperative for us to reconsider the design of our public spaces. The COVID Safer Spaces Project began offering free-to-access and easy-to-use design guides for reopening spaces such as libraries, museums, and churches. Some firms, like Systematica illustrated, analyzed access to recreational areas within their city to make the case for more equitable access to green and open spaces.
Others sought to redesign these spaces themselves. Green Furniture Concept offered three possible ways to adapt public benches to social distancing guidelines. While Berlin-based designers Martin Binder and Claudio Rimmele proposed a plan for an “infection-free” playground, Milan-based Arturo Tedeschi revisited the city’s public transport system to conceptualize a socially distant tram. Montreal-based studio Daily tous les jours took it a step further with Walk Walk Dance, a series of interactive music-making installations in public spaces that brings joy to city walks in the time of COVID, while still encouraging pedestrians to stay six feet apart.
As 2020 came to an end, many designers looked to the future to imagine the necessities of a post-COVID world and shared their learnings with the broader community, such as Studio O+A’s Guide to Healthy Workspaces. It’s likely that more solutions and guides will come as our community reflects on our learnings from 2020.
Sharing information, and debunking myths
As COVID blanketed the globe, disseminating trusted information on the virus, hygiene, and social distancing recommendations became key. A mass proliferation of awareness campaigns followed, using bold, eye-catching graphic design, such as fuseproject’s #flattenthecurve campaign,19 Artists vs. COVID, and poster campaign Stay Okay at Home.
In contrast, reporting on the pandemic from The New York Times took a more serious approach, instead designing somber, interactive graphics that made the toll of the virus strikingly visible. Other campaigns focused on accessibility rather than graphic design, such as Our Safety, an open source kit of COVID-19 infographics offered in Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, and English.
Designers also created solutions to put a stop to misleading rumors about COVID. Trimtab designed a humorous take on debunking myths about the coronavirus and its prevention. And in India, Dalberg created MyGov Corona Helpdesk with rampant misinformation in mind.
Strides in technology
Just as 2020 stretched our patience and resilience, it also pushed the boundaries of technology to meet the needs of the pandemic response. VR became particularly useful in treating patients. VR software developer Surgical Theater and GWU Hospital collaborated on a VR application that allows doctors to peer into a patient’s lung. Across the pond, the HoloLens 2, Microsoft’s next-generation mixed reality headset, was used by doctors in London to reduce the number of staff that came into contact with COVID patients. Concepts for self-driving cars were also a frequent submission, such as the Nembot, which would guarantee isolated transport of goods, people, or medical services.
Innovation consultancy Karakoram built Project Theia, an open source platform that routes health workers where they’re most needed based on real-time health data. The project uses clinical sensors and IoT radios, making it possible for countries with minimal healthcare infrastructure and disrupted (or substandard) telecommunications networks to effectively triage the pandemic at a national level. Project Theia went on to win the UN Development Program’s ‘Global COVID-19 Detect and Protect’ Innovation Challenge.
The opportunities for designers will only grow and change.
These are but a few of the hundreds upon hundreds of design responses to COVID-19. The redesign of places, products, services, and systems will not only need to continue, but also accelerate as the world learns to live with COVID-19. The opportunities for designers will only grow and change.
The COVID-19 Design Directory was proud to serve as one record, however imperfect and incomplete, for this extraordinary time. As Tim Brown so aptly noted, “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.” That remains the challenge of our time.
The COVID-19 Design Directory was made possible by a grant from the Kelson Foundation. Special thanks to Sid Lee for its design work; kyu for its support; Kristin Riger of IDEO.org for her oversight; Jessie Canon for developing the site; Tim Brown, John Cary, Ali Cottong, Llisa Demetrios, Danielle Ola, Emily Pidgeon, Lily Platt, Nadia Walker, Jocelyn Wyatt, and others for their editorial contributions.