Space, distance, signage: these shape the COVID-19 world that we live in today. Beyond mandatory social-distancing, the collapsing boundaries of work and life and of public and private spaces through virtual platforms present new crises—and new possibilities—in the way we live our lives and the conditions in which we connect and relate to one another. 

These times of nationwide change are exposing vulnerabilities of and fractures in our human institutions. Before the year is even over, 2020 has demonstrated the ways a microscopic virus can unravel the social fabric, material systems and political structures we once relied on. From the government destabilization in Hong Kong to the front lawn of the White House in D.C., from protests against systemic racism to protests of presidential election results, people have found new ways of collective expression and of connecting with and resisting systems. 

With these emergent issues and causes, the mode and impact of effective communication and problem-solving become ever more relevant—in other words, design becomes ever more relevant. 

But what does design look like in a COVID-19 world? In a world of social and political unrest? In the world of 2020 and beyond? As a student of design and architecture myself, I am entering a fractured world in which the designer must take on new responsibilities and values. But what are those new responsibilities and values, which although perhaps existed prior to 2020, have certainly been made all the more necessary because of it? For designer Oscar Fernández, it begins with empathy.

A successful designer who has worked on a variety of visually-based projects for locations around the world, Fernández is also an educator at the University of Cincinnati and the Ohio State University. His experiences as an immigrant—an outsider—adjusting to life in the U.S. have taught him how to understand and connect with others, giving him unique insight into the design process and function as it relates to us as human beings with relationships to one another and the changing world around us—in times of both normalcy and conflict. 

The following points are developed from my conversation with Fernandez, which detail five principles—to start with—that emerging designers in a COVID-19 world must reassess and embrace to help spatialize a brave, new world.

1. Design with beauty and accessibility

Good design is often thought of as an exclusive privilege; usually, products and structures that are appealing to the eye are associated with wealth. Designer brands, known for their beauty, distinctive design and high price tags, are most often displayed on the wealthy and famous (think Gucci or Balenciaga). But truly successful designs are accessible, not just status symbols. Beauty, however, is more than just visual appeal; it also deals with functionality. Things that are well designed are also elegant and efficient in function.

Beauty and aesthetics are therefore not accessories, but part of the function of good design. Paul Rand, a famous American graphic designer with a profound legacy in forming the American Modernist style in the visual arts and commercial design (and one of Fernandez’s past mentors), writes, “Ideally, beauty and utility are mutually generative”; the combination of both is when you reach the pinnacle of design, which “should be seen as the embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful.” His design work at IBM, UPS and ABC is now part and parcel of everyday, common knowledge in the world we live in.

In design, beauty becomes a means of delivering a message. Powerful and beautiful images have the power to ignite emotion in viewers. That is to say, a good designer can create an experience for their audience through aesthetic design. According to Fernandez, good design “is also very beautifully done, but the aesthetics [do] not distract from the message…” The more a designer can make the viewer feel, the more likely it is that the viewer will act upon whatever they are being called to do. 

In our COVID-19 world and market, luxury and beauty have collided with urgent need for functionality. Portuguese luxury shoe designers are learning to mediate beauty and utility, adapting their products in order to meet new, more functional lifestyle changes due to social distancing and cancellation of events during the pandemic. Facing a 17% drop in exports, many Portuguese shoe designers must shift operations to meet clients’ preferences for comfortable shoes for use around the house. While many struggled to adapt and suffered losses on existing shoe production lines, some of these, such as ToWorkFor, a safety shoe company, redesigned their products, taking an innovative but risky route to expand from niche shoe markets to develop masks that would secure their market in 2020. Such companies who are able to find drive and beauty in the useful seem to be more adept to survive the new shifts away from luxury in our new normal. 

2. Design with goodwill and service

Design is all about the user—the person in need. As put by Bob Baxley, a design executive in Silicon Valley who has worked in product design for Pinterest, “…visual design is about problem solving, not about personal preference or unsupported opinion.” Ultimately, the goal of design is to make life easier and more equitable to the many. That is to say, designers use their skill sets to help others. And good design often goes unrecognized. Fernandez thinks back to Rand:

“Paul Rand used to always say that good design is goodwill. There’s humanity in producing good design.”

Answering the call for masks in New York from Governor Andrew Cuomo, high-end designers who typically work in haute couture, such as Christian Siriano, took the initiative to pivot operations during early months of the COVID-19 crisis to produce personal protective equipment. In Europe, major luxury and beauty giants such as Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, L’Oreal and Coty joined forces to mass produce hand sanitizer gels and make them available to French and European health authorities. Following Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Kering, which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, and others, as well as Zara have also since transitioned factories and workshops to sew hospital gowns, masks and medical garments. No longer a merely profit-driven craft or a highly subjective and exclusive art for the few, these companies demonstrate the value of goodwill and service amidst crisis.

3. Design with empathy and for communication

Art and design utilizes the visual and the spatial to spread information. Design can communicate more instinctively and effectively than speech or text on its own. To communicate effectively with others, however, we must first gain understanding. Deeper understanding stems from empathy. Empathy plays a major role in design. Before one can begin to design, one must get to know a user’s physical and emotional needs. Understanding what drives people, their objectives and their experiences paves the way for influencing them in meaningful ways. Fernandez recalls how immigrating to the U.S. from Cuba as a child influenced his desire to overcome communication gaps and differences through design:

“Coming here, that’s why I devoted a lot of my work toward information, to enhancing, understanding things, for allowing people to access, to see whatever knowledge they want to, to help comprehend. That came from those cultural experiences that I had, that I encountered even though there was a clash. But it really instilled in me this desire to create a bridge to understand.”

In 2020, design has embodied this role through much of the social unrest seen across the globe. Design’s ability to rally can be observed through the way protesters utilize color, symbolism and space design to band together under a cause and to catalyze movements that grow organically in political protest.

In Hong Kong, the white 4-meter-tall statue named “Lady Liberty” has become a people’s symbol of Hong Kong’s fight for defiance and self-preservation against increasingly stringent mainland Chinese control under the “one country, two systems” principle. As CNN reports, “In a leaderless and largely faceless movement, art has conveyed protesters’ fears and hopes.” In other words, without a single “face” of a leader to target, the takeover of streets and walls and squares—spaces requiring design and coordination at a massive scale— directly reflects the feelings of and even personifies Hong Kong’s pro-democratic resistance en masse.

Visual means of color, style, local slang and cultural references, moreover, set the tone for the pro-democratic resistance. Along with other multimedia such as viral songs, YouTube music videos, graffiti and protest posters, Hong Kong designers’ define the nature of the protest as simultaneously anonymous and movingly specific to the local citizenry. 

Another example is the “Lennon walls” that popped up all over the city over the course of 2019-2020 protests as vertical means of protest as well as horizontal means of communication among protesters and ralliers. Reminiscent of the Lennon wall of Prague in the 1980s, on which graffiti and designs themed around peace, love and famous Beatles songs, markedly those of John Lennon that provoked the communist government, Hong Kong’s colorful “post-it” versions share common citizens’ pro-democratic sentiments, memories, hopes and dreams, as well as next protest date and what to bring. According to an online crowd-source map, more than 150 Lennon walls have arisen through anonymous and collective initiatives all throughout the city. 

The Lennon Wall amidst the anti-extradition bill protests in June 2019. Image courtesy of Wpcpey.

4. Design to connect across boundaries

To communicate with others is to create a bridge between people. Design is powerful because it can be used to quickly spread messages and ideas to large, diverse groups of people, or people who may otherwise not be reachable.

Designers have an ability to cross impossible cultural, racial, systemic barriers. The mass protests across the United States have gathered around collective imagery that, combined with the instant, sharing power of hashtags, videos and social media platforms forming the digital landscape, have united disparate people across the globe around race inequality and police brutality. On June 7, 2020, two weeks after George Floyd’s wrongful death by a police officer, 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Brussels, Belgium to protest against racial inequities and Belgium’s colonial history. And the protests didn’t just happen in Belgium; the digitized visibility (and visual content) of Floyd’s death as well as American Black Lives Matter rallies found sympathetic sentiments against racism and violence despite differing political contexts around the world. 

Fifteen years ago, it may have been unimaginable to think that Belgium would host a protest rally for a black man killed in America. Looking at the history of the abolition movement, however, iconography, coins, pins, logos, flags and posters have played a huge role in pushing the social movement not only forward but also across continents. Objects readily, and sometimes fashionably, distributed across imperial England—such as sculpted medallions marked “Am I not a man and a brother?” and sugar bowls branded with “East India Sugar, not made by slaves”—greatly extended the abolitionist cause from England to the United States.  Bonnie Siegler’s book, Signs of Resistance, A Visual History of Protest in America, traces the history of messaging for social justice movements through visual means: artifacts, products and objects and graphics being less temporal means than the Internet. According to Siegler, “The thing about graphic designers throughout history … [is] people’s conscience has been the client.” So designers’ role is much more tied to the collective and even global society and its fluxes than most of us ever dared to recognize before 2020. 

5. Design to solve

Design problem-solves. Design takes creativity and turns it into solutions that make our everyday lives easier. Creativity in design pushes limitations and is ideal for solving new and unprecedented problems. This problem-solving is a means of growth and progression, enabling us to adapt to new situations.

Designers and creators have used their skills to help people adjust to life amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This is seen in the way facilities are designed to house patients, in the abundance of signage present in public spaces—reminding people to stay socially distant—and in product design and other design disciplines.

Makers and designers have gathered forces around open-source hubs to democratize access to personal protective equipment (PPE). Companies such as Prusa3D, a Czech line of open-source 3D printers popular among manufacturers and hobbyists, are making printing files and spec guidelines available freely. Others are following suit to innovate ventilators and respirators in efforts to alleviate supply shortages in hospital settings, including medical test kits, face shields and masks. 

Furthermore, spatial configurations, access to air and light and thoughtful design play a major role in the healthfulness of public and private spaces. Design firms are rapidly seeking strategies for safe interactions in the age of COVID-19. As part of their response to the pandemic, MASS Design Group, a Boston-based 501(c)(3) architecture design and research firm, is reaching deep in their 10-year experience with patient care all over the world to conduct relevant research surrounding building guidelines and best practices for safe interaction and infection control. Their guides, “Designing Spaces for Infection Control” and “Designing Senior Housing for Safe Interaction” and others, share ongoing findings for circulation design, material choice, HVAC considerations, urban configurations and incorporation of technology. They examine ways to “reopen safely,” particularly around construction practices and spatial strategies in vulnerable spaces such as senior housing and in public service areas such as the restaurant and medical settings. 

Why now?

Today, the world is seeing designers step up to do their part to help people in times of need. Design seeks to solve problems for humanity and infuse color and efficiency into everyday communication. It advocates for the bridging of differences between people, to create connections and dialogue between them. Designers use their creative and problem-solving skills to advocate for and amplify those voices that may otherwise be drowned out. Empathy is needed now more than ever. So much conflict is created over differences between people. In order to instigate change, design connects, communicates and serves in order for people to empathize with one another and overcome differences to work towards a shared goal. 

As the saying goes in the design industry, you can only have two of three options: good, fast, cheap. In a world challenged by COVID-19, however, designers are tasked with satisfying all three to solve complex societal issues and often, to save lives. The world in unrest is asking more from good design and for designers to attempt a more global and more human response to extraordinary circumstances, expanding the meaning of the design discipline beyond what it was just a year ago, and perhaps forever.

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