How design keeps companies focused on people as the pandemic pushes businesses online

November 17, 2020, 11:12 AM UTC

This newsletter is dedicated to the proposition that, for businesses, design matters.

In nearly every issue, we’ve tried to show how the perspective of people trained as designers—whether from classical, commercial, or computational backgrounds—can change businesses for the better. Designers, we have argued, bring unique skills and ways of thinking that can help managers without design training understand customers and tailor products and services for them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has offered designers a chance to prove their worth. We’ve written in this space about the many ways designers are helping to create protective gear, reconfigure workplaces, and make it easier to work, shop, and study from home. But designers also are helping companies think through fundamental, long-term changes in the way they use data and technology to deliver value to customers.

In management jargon, those big changes are often described as “digital transformation.” The term is messy, overused and means different things to different people. But in its most basic sense, “digital transformation” implies the integration of digital technology into all aspects of an organization’s operations. Digital transformation generally involves reliance on things like automation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and data analytics. It also entails the changes in corporate strategy, structure and culture necessary to make those technologies work.

Before the virus, many companies were experimenting with digital transformation. Since the pandemic, it has become an urgent corporate priority. Indeed, for many companies, going digital has been the only way to stay in business. We’ve seen explosive growth in online shopping and food delivery, telemedicine, remote education, online entertainment, and more. At the virtual Fortune Global Forum earlier this month, a panel of digitally savvy CEOs told Fortune CEO Alan Murray the crisis has helped convince even skeptical CEOs that they need to embrace new technologies as quickly as consumers.

“The value of digital channels, products and operations is immediately obvious to companies everywhere right now,” declares Sandy Shen, a senior analyst at Gartner. “This is a wake-up call for organizations that have placed too much focus on daily operational needs at the expense of investing in digital business and long-term resilience. Businesses that can shift technology capacity and investments to digital platforms will mitigate the impact of the outbreak and keep their companies running smoothly now, and over the long term.”

A forthcoming report by the Economist Intelligence Unit argues: “The public health crisis has motivated organizations to accelerate plans for technology deployment, governments to waive regulatory requirements, and consumers to accept new products and services.”

International Data Corporation, in a May 2020 report, forecast that global spending on digital transformation technologies and services would grow 10.4% in 2020, to $1.3 trillion. That’s down from 17.9% growth in 2019, but “remains one of the few bright spots in a year characterized by dramatic reductions in overall technology spending,” IDC analysts said.

But as Paris-based designer Patrick Avril argues in this excellent post on Medium, digital transformations that invest heavily in technology and engineering but lose sight of people risk going horribly wrong.

We’ll be talking a lot about how designers can contribute to digital transformations in the coming weeks. Here are three events you can attend virtually to take part in that conversation:

  • On Friday, November 20, I’ll be participating in a virtual event presented by the Business Design Initiative at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management to talk about why organizations need design and how it enables innovation. This year’s theme: “Decoding Design for Innovation.” I’ll join in discussions with Angèle Beausoleil, Academic Director of the Business Design Initiative at Rotman, and two renowned design stars, John S. Couch and Bruce Mau. You can register for that program HERE.
  • On Tuesday, December 1, 5:00 PM Hong Kong / 9:00 AM London / 10:00 AM Central European Time, I’ll lead a virtual Fortune event entitled “Fast Forward: How the Pandemic is Shifting Digital Transformation into High Gear.” Panelists will include: Paul Scanlan, chief technology officer at Huawei Technologies’ carrier business group; Michael Frank, manager for public policy at the Economist Intelligence Unit; and two other senior European executives. You can sign up to participate in that conversation HERE.
  • Then a week later, On Tuesday, December 8, 11:00AM Eastern Time, I’ll join with Fortune deputy editor Brian O’Keefe and senior editor Ellen McGirt for “Resilience by Design: Driving Business Transformation,” a 90-minute virtual conversation presented in partnership with Salesforce and IBM. We’ll hear from PepsiCo’s chief design officer Mauro Porcini and global chief commercial officer Ram Krishnan about how design drives business value. We’ll also talk with Deanna Van Buren, co-founder and executive director of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, about design’s role in building communities. We’ll tell you more about how you can sign up for that event next week.

More design news below!

Clay Chandler



Virgin completed a test run of its Hyperloop system, shuttling two passengers 500 meters at a top speed of 107 miles per hour. Some have praised the showcase as progress towards a new mode of transportation—one where passengers in pod-like carriages are shot through a network of vacuum sealed tubes at over 700 miles per hour. Others have criticized the venture as a kind of tech bro fantasy, pointing to high speed trains in China and Japan that shuttle thousands of passengers at speeds of 300 mph every day as a more feasible “future of transport” that the U.S. somehow still lacks.

Tear down this wall

Manchester, U.K., is tearing down part of a pavilion designed by Japanese modernist architect Tadao Ando that was installed in 2002 but has been subject to much public ire. The structure includes a long blank wall of concrete about six meters high that dissects the city’s lush Picadilly Gardens. Detractors compare it to the Berlin Wall, but it is the only structure designed by Tadao Ando in the U.K. and supporters say any other city would “give their right arm” for an Ando piece.

Over ear

Apple may have accidentally leaked the design for its latest AirPods, which are a set of over-ear headphones rather than in-ear pods. Renderings of a pair of headphones suspected to be the forthcoming "sports" version of the AirPods Studio were shared on Twitter by prolific Apple leaker choco_bit in September. This week 9to5mac said it found a headphone icon in the new iOS beta that resembles that same design. The new gadget is rumored to cost $350.

Swedish wood

Swedish furniture brands are the world’s most sustainable, according to a report by London-based design consultancy Dodds & Shute. The firm, which specializes in sustainable sourcing, audited the practices of all the brands it sources from and ranked them for sustainability. Of the top ten firms, seven were Swedish. German manufacturers placed second.

Future planning

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has led criticism of the U.K.’s new planning permission standards, saying they fail to properly address climate change. The U.K. government is currently overhauling its town planning practices and released a white paper on its future plans in August. The plans include setting a Future Homes Standard for carbon emissions, simplifying the complexities of sustainable development into a single check box.


Here’s a nice run down of some of the more heavy-duty personal protective equipment designers have devised to keep the average citizen safe from COVID-19. With some countries still struggling to make mask-wearing universal, it’s hard to imagine there’ll ever be much demand for these more obstructive hazmat helmets. But maybe consumers would be more inclined to mask up if their PPE came with extra (non-life saving) features, like inbuilt Bluetooth speakers.



The AIGA Design Conference is being hosted online November 9-14. The event, hosted by the U.S. professional association for design, is pitching “building bridges” as the theme for its festival

Canada’s annual graphic design fest, DesignThinkers, is running online this year, November 10-21—the first time in the event’s 20-year history that it hasn’t been held in person.

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.

Barcelona Design Week, bringing together architecture, tech, industrial and graphic design, is being held both online and on-site November 17-26.

Hong Kong’s Business of Design Week (BODW), billed as “Asia’s premier annual” event on design, will be in person and online from November 30 until December 5. Like many others, the event looks to provide guidance in a pandemic era.


Seoul Design Festival, a celebration of South Korea’s young designers and upstart design brands, is running December 9-13.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s art, design, and architecture exhibition, the NGV Triennial, will run from December 19 to April 18, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia.


“You think, as a designer, how difficult is it to redesign a bottle? The reality is, when you need to redesign a bottle with this scale...and this impact on the world and business, it is probably one of the most difficult projects I ever faced in my career.”

PepsiCo’s chief design officer Mauro Porcini tells Fast Company as the drinks manufacturer unveils a redesign to its 2-liter bottles for the first time in roughly 30 years. The new, curved bottle designs have a slim and reinforced “waist,” enabling drinkers to pour Pepsi from the bottle one handed. (Coke has had curvaceous 2L bottles for a while now.) Pepsi’s new bottles are slimmer, but they actually use the same amount of plastic as the old ones—except for on the labelling, which is 24% smaller than before.


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

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