What Place For Design in a Crisis?


In a time of crisis, what role does design play in our response, and our inevitable recovery?

At the time of writing this, it’s been 42 days since London was put into lockdown. Though 6 weeks is a mere blip in the annals of history, the seismic effects of COVID-19 have made it feel like a lifetime for many.

And yet, the crisis is far from over. In fact, the world is just waking up to a stark reality. One where the impact of the pandemic endures economically and socially for years to come.

In a relatively short time, we’ve already seen the best and worst of humanity.

We’ve seen great devastation and hardship, but also tremendous innovation and generosity. For as coronavirus endures, so must we.

So far, the disease has done a horrifyingly good job of teaching us about value. What really matters.

Within weeks, many industries, sectors and businesses we perhaps took for granted, have become linchpins in our communities.

Examples include (but are not limited to):

  • eCommerce marketplaces/grocers
  • Logistics/delivery
  • Videoconferencing
  • Streaming entertainment
  • Pharmaceuticals

One of the aspects that makes this list unique, is that none of these sectors/businesses are dependant on design (in the broadest sense of the term).

Even though eCommerce and streaming platforms are built on well-conceived digital experiences, the design aspect (in this case UX or UI) has already been deployed.

In short, there’s not much needed at this point.

And in terms of marketing (the realm of graphic communication design), I’d argue this is even less necessary.

For the truest, most effective form of marketing is need. True need requires little in the way of banner ads or billboards. No animated GIFs or bespoke typefaces.

“Life has a way of taking you past your wants and hopes. Instead, it drops you in front of what you need.”

Shannon Alder

Throughout this pandemic, need has been understood contextually, and driven by information rather than communication.

And as we optimistically look to graphs for signs of recovery, such needs will determine our collective future.

With the prospect of a global economic recession looming, not every business or sector will survive this transition.

So what of the design industry? It is unlikely that many of the disciplines within it, will be considered necessities in the years to come.

Especially when some struggled for relevancy before the pandemic.

However, here are a few examples of design disciplines, that will positively impact the fight and recovery from coronavirus.

Design – Moving Forward

1. Environmental

From temporary intensive care units, to navigating through public spaces, design will reshape how we think about our environment.

With many nations looking to raise their respective lockdowns, but still have social distancing in place, designers and architects will be tasked with novel solutions for the ‘new normal’.

Much like this model for a street food market, allowing people to buy fresh produce without coming into contact with one another, developed by Dutch studio Shift Architecture Urbanism.

2. Sustainability

On the face of it, the fallout from COVID-19 does not present an obvious link to sustainability through design.

However, one of the most alarming casualties of the pandemic, is how vulnerable our fragile production systems truly are.

Historically, such systems were “created to produce the greatest amount of goods at the lowest possible price” (Euronews/John Erik Meyer 25/03).

Now governments are forced to focus on local capacities to produce medicine, hospital equipment, and vital supplies in the supply chain.

Another certainty, is following the lockdown many households will find their finances further depleted. And as a result consumption rates will continue to fall.

This could mean consumers adapt to living with less, giving further rise to concepts such as ‘buy less, buy better’.

On the high street itself, we’ve seen the pandemic create a slowdown of ‘fast fashion’, and prompt the industry to reimagine events like Fashion Week.

The innovations that await are not just a quick-fix – they are reshaping the very way in which we consume and engage.

Once the immediate threat to health has subsided, either by vaccine or societal controls, we can look forward to a period of deeper reevaluation and reform.

Such reforms around public spending, provide a unique opportunity to build upon refreshed values. Ones that build upon issues of sustainability, but also ecology, climate change and equality.

3. Service Design

Designers are tasked with finding empathetic solutions to complex problems, so the area of Service Design – the activity of planning and organising a business’s resources –  is ripe for innovation.

From businesses rethinking how to deliver their services and products, to governmental agencies launching initiatives in response to the pandemic.

In the UK, we’ve seen examples of Service Design in action, from the NHS launching a competition to find and fund technology-led solutions, to “support the elderly, vulnerable and self-isolating during COVID-19”.

The future could prompt such designers, to redesign public services that support residents and communities. Helping them feel heard, and socially connected.

It could see the development of new models for education and long-distance learning, should physical distancing become the ‘new normal’.

Service Designers may also be tasked with explorations for new ways of working (be it from home or remote), and the systems to help businesses create efficiency and maintain productivity.

Such designers are not just limited to remit of business of course. Like architects, they might be tasked with complex solutions for use of public spaces.

Needs Over Wants

For those disciplines not listed above, the future (for want of a better, less overused term) is ‘uncertain’.

But a key aspect for future businesses – the businesses that will lead us out of this pandemic – is adaptability.

This is the ability to change, transform, rethink. Refocus our efforts.

Fortunately, adaptability should be a familiar concept to any designer worth his/her salt.

So while the future looks bleak, we in the design community, would do well to ask what the world needs, rather than what we simply want to give.

– GB

PS. If you’re a business interested in exploring how your own organisation can employ design thinking, in response to the global pandemic, I offer brand consultation sessions – read more here.



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