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How designers are visualizing America’s failure to cope with COVID-19

July 7, 2020, 10:17 AM UTC

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The pandemic has destroyed jobs everywhere but created new demand for the services of at least one category of designer: data visualization specialist.

Mapping the spread of the coronavirus is an inherently data-rich endeavor, lending itself to the creation of myriad charts, tables, graphs, and dashboards. We’ve all become connoisseurs of these displays, and many of us have developed daily routines for checking them.

My own begins with the Hong Kong government’s coronavirus “latest situation” dashboard, which offers up-to-the-minute information on not only the number of new cases but age, address, and current quarantine status of every infected patient. (Touch wood, still no cases in our village!)

Next, I scan the “Worldometer” league tables to see which countries have had the highest number of new cases over the past two days. Then I jump to the New York Times to check hot and cool spots by country (the virus is raging in Latin America while, remarkably, there have been few new cases for two weeks in Southeast Asia), and scan the state-by-state and county-by-county numbers for the United States (where the virus seems to be spreading fastest in Florida, Texas, and Arizona).

Many corporate visualization leaders, including Tableau and IBM’s Cognos Analytics on, provide useful tools and data for tracking the outbreak. Amanda Makulec, an expert in health care data visualization and the operations director for the Data Visualization Society, offers insights on the uses and misuses of this wealth of data in this Medium post.

Typically, I’ll conclude my daily data dive with a look at the Financial Times‘ coronavirus tracker, where I check the chart that I find most flabbergasting: the seven-day rolling average of new cases per day for each country by number of days since 10 average daily cases were first recorded.

The FT‘s chart allows me to see new cases by country in both logarithmic scale, which is bad, as well as a linear scale, which is horrifying. In either scale, the story that visualization tells is unmistakable. The virus has been more or less contained in every advanced industrial democracy except the United States, where the daily rolling average has soared above 45,000 people—far exceeding any other nation—and continues to hurtle skyward.

On an absolute number basis, only Brazil (with an average of about 37,000 new cases per day) and India (with an average of about 21,000 new cases per day) come close to matching America’s daily increase in infections.

A glance back at the Worldometers table shows that, if considered on a per capita basis, no major economy has a higher rate of infection than the United States, which ranks 13th globally—behind a gaggle of small states including Qatar, San Marino, Bahrain, and the Vatican—with more than 9,100 cases per million people. And that’s not because the U.S. tests more than other countries; 24 other nations, including Iceland, Denmark, Russia, and Portugal, exceed the U.S. testing ratio of 115,000 per million citizens.

Any good data scientist will warn you: correlation is not causality. But how to explain the abysmal failure of the world’s richest nation—which boasts the world’s most advanced health care system—to cope with COVID-19?

Journalist James Fallows tackles that question in a long essay in last month’s Atlantic. He begins with the observation that coping with a pandemic requires design thinking on a vast scale. It is, he argues, one of the most complex challenges a society can face, requiring leaders and citizens to mobilize a wide array of resources and tools.

Fallows, an amateur pilot, draws parallels between the complex, systemic approach required to fight a pandemic to the systems we have evolved to prevent catastrophes in commercial air travel. “In these two fundamentally similar undertakings—managing the skies, containing disease outbreaks—the United States has set a global example of success in one and failure in the other,” he writes. His explanation for the divergent outcomes is both meticulous and devastating.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler



Foster + Partners unveiled its winning design for Saudi Arabia’s latest airport, which will service a forthcoming luxury resort, Amaala, in the desert. The exclusive airport, designed to look like a shimmering mirage, “personifies luxury” but there’s little indication it was designed with social-distancing protocols in mind. Critics also says the airport design is a betrayal of the Architects Declare climate change pledge that Foster + Partners signed last year.

Cleared for take off

Frankfurt Airport has partnered with biotech company Centogene to trial an on-site, in-airport testing facility for COVID-19. Passengers are processed in booths within the terminal, then their samples are taken to a lab (which sits on the back of a truck). Interestingly, the tests are voluntary and priced. If passengers pay more, they can get their results faster.


Facebook created a proof-of-concept prototype for a new line of virtual reality headsets. Unlike the bulky Oculus, which Facebook acquired in 2014, Facebook’s new VR headset looks just like a pair of shades. The ultra-thin eye piece is made possible by a holographic lens, which can be installed much closer to the display panel than a conventional refractive lens.


U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged $1.5 billion in funding to keep the country’s arts industry afloat. The sector, which suffered major budget cuts when the Conservative party came to power ten years ago, has been decimated by the pandemic. Without support, it was estimated the creative sector could lose 400,000 jobs.

Reduce, reuse, recharge

Last year the world produced 53.6 million tons of electronic waste, including smartphones, computers and other gadgets. Only 17% of the waste was recycled officially, and the amount of waste produced is expected to double from 2014 levels by 2030—suggesting designs for a circular economy have some way to go. Apple’s reported decision not to ship the iPhone12 with a charger at least offers a guide on how to “reduce” and “reuse.”

Return to fun

One more thing on Apple: the Cupertino company's redesign of macOS into Big Sur has stepped away from functional, minimalist buttons and shuffled towards skeumorphic design. Designer Michael Flarup argues this subtle change signifies a shift in Apple's core design philosophy, towards one that welcomes fun back into UX.


July: Christie’s is planning a semi-virtual auction for July 10. The “first of its kind” event will livestream auctions from four cities—Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London.

September: Art Basel in Switzerland—initially rescheduled from June to September—has been cancelled, set to return in June 2021.

Ongoing: D&AD’s New Blood Festival—a celebration of upcoming talent in design—will be running online this year, ending July 10. The digital festival marks New Blood’s 40th anniversary. Dezeen’s Virtual Design Festival comes to a close this week on July 10, after a staggering 12-week run.


"This notion of dealing with incredible uncertainty and totally new territory is the realm of artists and designers…It's the realm in which they perhaps have the best skill set to move forward. So I think it is telling that art and design students, as traumatic as this experience was, really managed to make some incredible discoveries during this time."

Says Rosanne Somerson, president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), discussing how the school is preparing to welcome back students in the fall. The school was forced to close in March, due to the pandemic, and is now redesigning courses and facilities to allow for safe-distancing when students return. Somerson says, "This is without a doubt the biggest challenge we've faced in our entire history as an institution."


This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him tips and ideas at