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Fortified pantries and a plastic comeback: Predictions on post-pandemic design

April 7, 2020, 3:46 PM UTC

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The mandatory lockdown measures and travel restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus have induced shifts in mass behavior on a scale never before seen. Not convinced? Consider that as humans move less, so does the planet, with seismic vibrations falling by as much as a third, according to one estimate.

Change of that magnitude has prompted experts to consider what the world will look like after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, even as it continues its deadly spread. A parade of design gurus have pondered that question in recent days. Their predictions vary widely, but there seems to be broad agreement on one point: Things will never be the same. Here are eight possible changes in the post-pandemic era that might shape—and be shaped by—designers.

An exodus from cities

Jack Shenker, writing in The Guardian, says that as the crisis turbocharges the work-from-home movement, it leads to the “de-densifying” of cities, eliminating the need for suburbs. He envisions a future in which existing city centers connect with employees in far-flung “new villages,” while traditional commuter belts fade away. Urbanist Joel Kotkin notes that many of the very things that give large cities their allure also make them dangerous. “Crowds, mass transit, clubs and huge cultural venues create a perfect terroir for the spread of pathogens,” he writes for Fortune. Kotkin thinks telecommuting will create the basis for a “new kind of dispersed urban experience” described by late urban designer William Mitchell as “city of bits.”

Distaste for tall buildings

Architects have predicted the death of the skyscraper for years, but Ukrainian architect Sergey Makhno predicts we will emerge from the crisis with a lasting horror of tall buildings. “In times of pandemic, it is necessary to reduce contact with everything that is used in multi-story buildings: elevator, elevator buttons, door handles, surfaces and, above all, neighbors,” he argues in Dezeen. “After forced self-isolation on different floors above the ground, often without a balcony of terrace, we will all desperately want to have a house.”

Clean rooms and fortified pantries

And what will those houses look like? Home offices will be an essential feature, of course. But Makhno predicts we’ll also want them to include special clean rooms to shrug off dirty clothes and accept deliveries, fortified pantries to stockpile food, indoor vegetable gardens to grow our own tomatoes, and elaborate air-filters and self-sufficient water and power systems. 

Contact-less consumption

Consumers will emerge from the pandemic newly conscious of hygiene—and with a profound aversion to touching things. They’ll shell out for lamps with ultra-violet radiation that kills germs, demand bidets instead of toilets, wash their hands with soap that changes color after 30 seconds of scrubbing, shun hand towels for blow dryers, favor gadgets with motion sensors, and don electric wristbands that punish them with a buzz whenever they touch their face. Will we ever shake hands again?

A comeback for plastic

The Wall Street Journal worries the pandemic will prove a huge setback for the war on single-use plastic as sales of masks and wipes soar. Consumers will insist on disposable packaging for their groceries and refuse to reuse cups while putting fears about their personal health over concerns about the environment.

Stay-at-home everything

Many experts foresee a world in which no one goes out anymore. The post-plague era bodes ill for anyone who works in a club, bar, restaurant, boutique, fitness club, cinema, or shopping mall. Things look especially bleak for the travel industry. But there’s an upside for cookbook authors, makers of kitchen appliances, and purveyors of online games and entertainment.

Remote generations 

The pandemic has been profoundly disruptive to Generation Z, the oldest members of which are 25. Schools have been dismissed, admissions and advanced placement exams downgraded or cancelled. And yet today’s students and their children (Generation Alpha) will come of age in a world where remote learning and collaboration are the rule rather than the exception.

The rise of the surveillance state 

South Korea and China have shown the value of using smart phones, facial recognition, and artificial intelligence to diagnose disease, predict infection hot spots, and monitor and control social interactions. The former kept mortality rates low partly by mapping and publishing the movements of infected citizens. The latter recruited its two largest technology companies to enforce quarantine of the sick. Yuval Noah Harari worries that these successes in a time of emergency invite a “creeping authoritarianism” that will become the new normal. “Today, for the first time in human history,” he laments, “technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time.”

To hear the experts tell it, our brave new post-COVID world offers challenges and opportunities for designers from nearly every discipline. That, in turn, raises another question: How will they respond?

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
@ClayChandler
Clay.Chandler@Fortune.com

NEWS BY DESIGN

This edition of Business By Design was curated by Margaret Rhodes.

Coronavirus Illustration
Medical illustrators created this visualization of the coronavirus.
Courtesy of CDC

Visualize it. A medical illustrator for the CDC explains how she designed a visual identity for the coronavirus. The spiky red orb-like forms—suggestive of bacteria under a microscope—have become one of the most pervasive images of the pandemic.

Protective measures. Apple’s product designers, engineers, and packaging teams are designing face masks for healthcare workers. So far the tech giant has sourced 20 million masks through its supply chain and plans to donate them to hospitals. And Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is now using its 3-D printers to make face shields.

From on high. U.S. stockpiles of medical masks, gowns, and face shields run dangerously low, prompting the White House to enact the Cold War-era Domestic Production Act, which ignites supply chains. Unfortunately, it may have been enacted too late.

To park, or not to park? Architects are lashing out at cities closing down parks during the pandemic. Authorities in London have expressed concern over group gatherings in public parks; urban planners say closing them amounts to a “total lack of empathy.”

Artificially intelligent life. Scientists at Tufts University are growing xenobots—roboticist-designed, bug-like life forms—in a lab. These programmable organisms only live for one week but will likely change the landscape of robotics.

Souped-up ventilators. Tesla has joined Dyson (and a suite of other manufacturing companies) in efforts to replenish the global supply of ventilators. The electric car company is teasing prototypes built from car parts.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Before the coronavirus pandemic, and long before the CDC issued a new recommendation that Americans start wearing masks in public, design consultant Dan Formosa was researching ways to make better hospital masks. (Formosa conducts healthcare design research for organizations like Smart Design, which he co-founded, and Cardinal Health.) Writing for Fast Company, Formosa released some findings on ways to improve masks. They include “design elements no more complicated than those incorporated into a typical baby diaper,” he says. For companies and savvy individuals at home, a few salient notes:

  • Masks should be adjustable to account for the unique contours of each user’s face. This also removes any user burden when it comes to sealing areas of the mask that are critical for protection.
  • Masks must seal near the wearer’s eyes. If they don’t, air leaks will fog up eyewear. That forces users to touch their face to remove and wipe down glasses.
  • Stretchy materials allow for more jaw movement and facial expression (such as yawning) without leading to gaps that expose the wearer to the virus.

EVENTS BY DESIGN

April 8: Vitra Design Museum’s new Home Series features Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art, in conversation with Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Design Museum. Tune in via Instagram Live.

April 10: Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design is offering ongoing virtual public lectures. Oana Stănescu, the designer behind projects like New York’s floating +POOL, will present.

April 15: Virtual Design Festival, a collaborative effort from Dezeen, Dutch Design Week, Design Indaba, and many others, kicks off.

Ongoing: The Social Distancing Festival has a full calendar of livestream concerts and art on display.

BRAINSTORM SESSION

Nike’s Covid-19 “playbook”

Nike says it has a “playbook” for weathering the coronavirus pandemic. According to The Marker, that playbook boils down to relying on the company’s “robust digital channels.” When physical retail became impossible in China, Nike leaned on digital platforms. That went beyond its online shop: “Nike pushed its fitness app and digitally connected ‘expert trainer network’ to give Chinese consumers help staying active while cooped up,” writes journalist Rob Walker. “The catch is that Nike didn’t dream all this up in response to the current crisis. It has been heavily focused on digital for years.”

Besides its running and fitness apps, Nike offers a sneakerhead app and “tailored experiences” in its shopping app. Nike already has big advantages—factory ownership, unparalleled brand recognition and loyalty—but by designing these kinds of digital services into its marketing strategy, the company also shows a prescient understanding of the ways consumers' lives are changing. The offerings seem to be resonating: Use of the fitness apps grew 80% in China and 100% in the U.S.; on its recent earnings call, Nike announced that direct-to-consumer business grew 13% during the quarter.

QUOTED BY DESIGN

The great reimagining

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

— Novelist Arundhati Roy, writing for the Financial Times about the coronavirus’s toll on India, as well as capitalism at large.