As the pandemic rages, designers race to create more face masks and shields

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Last week Tokujin Yoshioka, the Japanese designer who created what would have been the next Olympic torch, drew plaudits for an ingenious face shield solution. Made from ordinary sheets of PVC plastic, his template can be downloaded for free and made at home. It’s clever—have a look.

Yoshioka says his design is a “quick and simple” hack for emergencies, not a panacea for the global shortage in personal protective equipment (PPE). But he is among the many designers and design-led manufacturers turning their talents and resources towards protecting frontline medical workers during the pandemic.

Nike has developed face shields for medical workers wearing powered air-purifying respirators. Foster + Partners has designed shields that can be disassembled, sanitized, and reused. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have devised disposable shields for flat-pack shipping. Apple is doing the same, but including an adjustable strap on its design. Fast Company reports that “hospital epidemiologists in Iowa suggest that face shields like Yoshioka’s are an even better solution because they cover a great surface area and help keep wearers from touching their face.”

That hasn’t calmed the worldwide scramble for masks. Don’t miss Shawn Tully’s outstanding piece in Fortune detailing the insanity of the “mask economy” in which American hospitals now pay upwards of $5 for masks that only months ago cost five cents. Shawn highlights one of the major ironies of the coronavirus crisis: When it comes to masks and other protective gear, the U.S. overwhelmingly depends on China, where manufacturers, middle men, and transport firms are now jacking up prices and cashing in. Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, “was and remains the world capital of mask manufacturing,” Shawn writes.

The U.S. government is trying to source masks domestically. But companies like 3M that make surgical-grade masks can’t keep pace with demand. Meanwhile, textile manufacturers, clothing retailers, and luxury fashion houses are rushing to do their part. The list of brands retooling supply lines to manufacture masks now includes Brooks Brothers, Gap, Louis Vuitton, New Balance, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Under Armour, Zara, and many more. But few are capable of producing the tight-fitting respirator masks that block the very tiny droplets that may contain the coronavirus.

The mask shortage in Western countries reflects the explosion of new infections in those countries as well as the dearth of suppliers. But, as Fortune’s Naomi Xu Elegant has explained, it’s also driven by a belated shift in Western understanding of the utility of such equipment.

Here in Hong Kong, where Naomi and I are based, residents began wearing masks in January after first reports of the outbreak in Wuhan. We’re still wearing them even as the summer heat sets in and the number of new cases per day has dropped into the single digits. Americans, by contrast, are only beginning to recognize that while homemade masks—or, for that matter, quick-and-easy face shields like Yoshioka’s—may not bestow immunity, they may still help prevent community transmission—if everyone wears them.

Almost every day I discover new ways designers and design-led businesses are trying to help contain the virus. Some of the pandemic’s most urgent problems are the result of design fails. But many, if not most, look to me like failures of governance, leadership, decency, and common sense.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler


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

Fashion industry bailout. The Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue are providing grants to struggling clothing retailers and designers. Meanwhile, Neiman Marcus is filing for bankruptcy, and the near future looks grim for popular direct-to-consumer brands like Everlane and Outdoor Voices.

Liquid gold. Microsoft designed a bot to screen recovered COVID-19 patients who may be eligible to donate antibody-infused blood plasma. 

Pandemic tech. Thermal imaging—and thermal imaging equipment—is on the rise at in-person events. By displaying body temperature, the cameras purport to reveal who in a crowd of people may have a fever.

Even more protective gear. A Boston architect has developed an open-source design for a clear plastic hood that fits over coronavirus patients, protecting medical staff—particularly the doctors who intubate patients—from the virus.

Cultural artifacts. Face masks are becoming a politicized symbol. Some view them as protective public health gear on par with condoms; conservative protesters are pointing to them as signs of left-wing elitism.

Surveillance. Whole Foods is using heat maps to track potential unionization efforts at its stores. The data visualizations combine information like employee demographics, calls made to employee tiplines, and proximity to union offices.


In a new study on COVID-19 transmission, CDC researchers explain how asymptomatic carriers of the virus can easily do so through respiratory droplets. Using the layout of a restaurant as an example, the report supports a theory that the airborne virus spreads in patterns that mimic air flow from air conditioners. It “shows why closed spaces are so dangerous today,” tweeted renowned epidemiologist Larry Brilliant. As businesses begin to consider how they can interface with customers again, and states like Georgia announce plans to reopen intimate settings like nail salons and movie theaters, reconsidering the architecture of these establishments will be critical.


April 30: OpenIDEO and Fortune’s COVID-19 Business Pivot Challenge is seeking submissions through the end of the month.

Mid-May: Sight Unseen will launch Offsite Online, a digital version of its annual design show.

Ongoing: Virtual Design Festival, a collaborative effort from Dezeen, Dutch Design Week and Design Indaba continues to exhibit work from a global roster of designers; The Social Distancing Festival has a full calendar of livestream concerts and art on display; Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design is offering virtual public lectures.


PowerPoint politics

Cuomo's PowerPoint slides bring an everyman quality to coronavirus briefings.
Courtesy of NBC News Now/YouTube

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has emerged as a leading voice during the pandemic, thanks in part to his daily TV briefings. Each day, as Cuomo speaks, blue-and-gold slides beside him flash new charts, lists, and edicts across the screen. These slides—familiar in their conference room banality, but unique enough to inspire amusement on social media—are becoming an accidental visual trope, a marker of the times.

“The motley aesthetic of Cuomo’s briefings mirrors our own confusion and disorientation,” writes anthropologist and media studies expert Shannon Mattern in Art in America. Mattern breaks down the accessible design choices made on screen: Arial font, intermittent use of all capital letters, dramatic typesetting. When Cuomo wants to hammer a point, big, bold, red letters spill across the screen.

The slides telegraph what Mattern calls “dad-like concern and (inadvertent) comedy,” and with remarkable consistency. Cuomo, along with his slides, keeps showing up, and his team keeps communicating. “Cuomo’s slideshows project a reassuring image of managerial order,” Mattern says. “[They have] captured national attention by cultivating an image of accountability, credibility, and empathy.”


From one recession to another

“In early 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, Time magazine declared ‘The End of Excess.’ Conspicuous consumption dating back to the 1980s had caught up with us in the form of a recession so brutal that ‘now everything really has changed,’ wrote Kurt Andersen, who’s built his career on astute cultural observations. ‘The party is finally, definitely over.’ Optimistically, he imagined a healthy societal reset marked by a more temperate and frugal approach to consumption.

Anything is possible, but take a closer look at how often definitive predictions about permanent change are simply extrapolations of recently observable trends taken to some maximum extreme. In other words, the future will be like this new present—only much more so.”

— Journalist Rob Walker writing for Marker about the fallacy of sweeping economic predictions

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