Design in a post-Covid future.
While the long-term effects of the Covid-19 lockdown remain unclear, it seems inevitable that it is an epochal marker in our lifetimes.
It has exposed the fragility of our existing economic structures, but small-scale individual interventions and acts of kindness have blossomed in the exposed cracks.
As "key" and "essential" work becomes part of our everyday vocabulary, this calls into question the role that designers should be playing in the new economy.
In this post, we discuss some of the ideas currently occupying designers across the world. The topics presented here are subject to the following caveats:
- We have generally framed the Covid pandemic as an opportunity for designers to be part of building a better future. It is important to acknowledge at the outset that there is a significant degree of privilege underpinning these thoughts. There are millions of people around the world for whom the “post-COVID” experience will likely be characterised by immense grief and uncertainty.
- The ideas presented here reflect an evolving understanding of the roles design might play in the future. They are not immutable - indeed, a critical element of post-Covid design is likely to be the need to build greater flexibility and responsiveness into the services we use every day.
This post is not an argument from a fixed perspective, but simply an attempt to express ideas as individual strands rather than a cohesive argument.
What roles might designers need to play?
The COVID-19 pandemic is the first time in history that the entire human race is facing the same challenge. It will not be the last. In many ways, it can be seen as a rehearsal for the kinds of challenges we will face when the effects of climate change accelerate beyond our abilities to mitigate them.
In the absence of any clear plan, systems previously unquestioned are now up for grabs.
Universal Basic Income, for example, was a marginal political issue in 2019 but is now the subject of mainstream political and economic discourse. The Overton Window has shifted to accommodate new ideas as existing ones have failed to cope with the stress of the pandemic.
The window will continue to shift as the world changes around us. New ideas will be confusing and designers are in an immensely powerful position to explain these ideas clearly and objectively wherever possible.
Accessible language and structural clarity in content design will help people to understand and choose between different possible futures.
Service designers have a responsibility to act with precision and advocate not just for human-centred approaches, but for community-centred and environment-centred perspectives as well.
Designers of all disciplines need to understand the wider implications of their actions - we do not work in isolation.
Design is happening without designers.
That is to say, decisions are being made about the future of our economy, how we might live our lives, our health care systems and other support networks.
Designers have a crucial role to play in shaping these changes from the perspective of the end users and their communities.
A great deal of discussion is ongoing about the ethics of design as a discipline. We’re all currently very aware of the impact of our (good and bad) behaviours at individual and collectives scales. Should a designer work with a company that exposes their employees to unnecessary risks? Or one that causes environmental devastation? Given the complexity of global economics and supply structures, is it even possible for a designer to step outside this system? Should we have a code of ethics and, if so, what would it look like?
Designing for rapidly changing needs.
As the Covid-19 pandemic began to accelerate, we saw manufacturers shift resources and production into developing respirators and Personal Protective Equipment. It is likely that this kind of rapid repurposing will need to happen again and again in response to different crises.
Can we pre-emptively design flexibility and resilience into the products and services we rely on? How do we embed this kind of open-ended, improvisational, problem-solving mindset into services that have been built in a completely different way? Is our existing toolkit of innovation labs and workshops going to be enough to rebuild them from the inside out?
The value of speculative design.
To some extent, all design is speculative. Part of the appeal of new technology is in allowing ourselves to imagine a future where the latency between idea and outcome is minimised through responsive, beautiful, and intuitive interfaces.
But design isn’t just about imagining wonderful futures, it’s also about predicting ways in which things can go wrong. Good ideas might be misappropriated, disinformation might thrive oin social platforms, and even the most well-intentioned innovations are likely to have a negative impact somewhere out of sight.
The essence of an object has something to do with the way it turns into trash.
That is to say, when the initial novelty wears off, when it fails a stress test, when it ends up in a landfill.
If we can predict these potential bad outcomes, we can understand how they might be mitigated or avoided entirely. It is vital that we don’t fall into the trap of believing that good intentions alone will save the world. Avoiding this trap requires us to be critical at every stage, to always look for something better, and not to dismiss real-life experiences as mere "outliers".
We’re particularly concerned that once the lockdown is over - once the curves flatten and COVID-19 fades into the background - we may forget this experience.
We may feel under great pressure to forget it and go back to how things used to be. But doing this would miss an immense opportunity.
We need to start designing for the future now. Not just the immediate future but for the next 5, 10, and 20 years. It is entirely possible that the rest of our lives will be dominated by similar global challenges and uncertainty - climate change, resource scarcity, economic upheaval due to automation. We are in a position to make things better for as many people as possible - but the magnitude of this task cannot be overestimated.