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Michelangelo vs. MacGyver: Who will design the offices of our post-COVID future?

September 1, 2020, 9:18 AM UTC

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The office of the future will be a “hybrid environment” with some people returning to the workplace but many continuing to work from home, and it will be intensely focused on “innovation and collaboration.”

That’s one of the insights from Fortune CEO Alan Murray’s conversation last week with Diane Hoskins and Andy Cohen, co-CEOs of Gensler, the world’s biggest architecture firm. You can read more about that conversation here. (And if you don’t already subscribe to Alan’s CEO Daily newsletter, I’d highly recommend you sign up.)

A few days later, Alan sat down with Matthew Lock and Simon Pole, founder and global design director, respectively, of Unispace, a global business design firm, who told him they also see companies preparing for hybrid workplaces. Lock and Pole assume that even two years from now around 40% of office workers will insist on working from home at least three days a week—a big increase from pre-pandemic levels of 21% in Europe, 19% in APAC and 12% in the U.S.

Top-tier firms like Gensler and Unispace are at the vanguard of applying design and design thinking to the offices of tomorrow. The Gensler website, in particular, is a trove of information and insight about how designers can help reshape the way we work, complete with highlights from the firm’s 2020 Work from Home Survey and a “Back to the Office Guide” for firms trying to reopen safely.

But I am also hearing from some designers that they’re feeling a very specific form of pandemic fatigue. It’s not just that they’re weary from the uncertainty and anxiety of living in the shadow of deadly disease. (After eight months, who isn’t?) There’s also a sense of creative burn-out; all designers ever get asked to do any more is think about safety, hygiene, ventilation, and proper social distancing.

I’ve argued often in this space that those are areas where designers have a great deal to contribute. But, hey, I get it. There are a lot of grumpy, would-be Michelangelos out there who feel that somehow this isn’t “real” design—and isn’t what they signed up for. And anyway, in offices, restaurants, shops, schools, and other public spaces, many of the primary defenses against the spread of COVID-19 aren’t the work of professional designers or health professionals. They are do-it-yourself “hacks” improvised by ordinary folks using whatever materials they have on hand.

Washington-based writer Amanda Kolson Hurley captured this reality in a wry essay for Bloomberg earlier this summer. “As pundits debate how the long-term design of cities will be affected by COVID-19, here in the present, a cohort of mostly nonprofessionals is adapting urban space on the fly,” she wrote. “Plexiglass screens hastily installed at bodega counters. Painted circles indicating where to sit in a park. Fancified caution tape criss-crossing benches and playgrounds that are not considered safe to use. Anywhere you go as the country starts to reopen, there’s evidence of how small business owners, municipal employees and other people who aren’t trained architects or designers have MacGyvered their domains in the cause of public health.”

Thus COVID does make McGyvers of us all.

More design news below!

Clay Chandler
Clay.Chandler@fortune.com

 

NEWS BY DESIGN

Keep rolling

Rolls Royce has become the latest motor company to modernize its digital branding, following the likes of Toyota, Nissan and Audi. All have banished skeuomorphic logo renderings in favor of something flatter. The team at Pentagram led Rolls Royce’s redesign, shifting focus to a new two-tone drawing of the brand’s iconic Spirit of Ecstasy statue (an icon that will forever remind me of Kate Bush.)

Pig brain

Elon Musk unveiled a pig with a computer chip in its brain last week, a feat completed by his start up Neuralink. It doesn’t do much—the chip detects spikes in the part of the brain activated by smells—but Musk says one day Neuralink can help tackle degenerative diseases like Alzheimers and, ultimately, create A.I.-infused superhumans.

Jellies

There are a lot of interesting products being developed with algae at the moment, including carbon extracting air filters, high fashion and, perhaps most dramatically, plastic. A lab in San Diego is processing algae into polyurethane, which it is currently using to create fully biodegradable flip-flops.

Clear the air

Here’s a good read: how an air filter cobbled together from bits bought in a generic hardware store could make a useful—though not complete—stand-in for expensive HVAC filters in interior environments. With consensus that COVID-19 can be transmitted through the air, air purifiers can play an important role in infection reduction.

Lego for adults

Ikea has teamed up with Lego to produce Bygglek—a range of storage boxes designed specifically for keeping Legos. The white boxes are enhanced with Lego studs that allow young (or older) creators to attach their Lego pieces to Bygglek’s outside panels. Lego designer Rasmus Buch Løgstrup says, “Bygglek is more than boxes. It is storage and play intertwined.”

EVENTS BY DESIGN

September

London Design Festival has decided to go ahead September 12-20, with a stripped-down offline program that will target Londoners much more than international visitors. Other events will be online. The organizers are still figuring out how exactly to proceed.

Design Matters in Copenhagen appears to be carrying on, too, September 23-24, although it is now selling tickets to view a livestream of the event.

October

Dubai had, perhaps, the misfortune of hosting the World Expo this year. Originally scheduled to open in October and run until April next year, the Dubai Expo 2020 has been delayed until October next year instead. World Expos come but once every five years, so perhaps waiting one more year is okay.

November

Dubai’s inaugural architecture festival, d3 Architecture Festival, will run November 11-13 on the sidelines of Dubai Design Week. The event will focus on sustainability—an existential issue for the desert city.

QUOTED BY DESIGN

“Racism has always been embedded in design vocabularies”

So writes Mitchell Owens in Architectural Digest, highlighting a number of problematic terms that are prolific in the industry—especially interior design. Debate over the racist, sexist and classist history of the term “master bedroom,” for example, prompted several New York real estate institutes to retire the term last month. Less apparent, Owens points out, is the colonial exploitation that led to the popularity of silver and teak in British homes, for example. But it’s not enough for designers to simply move away from practices rooted in bad history, because exploitative practices continue today, of course.

 

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him tips and ideas at eamon.barrett@fortune.com