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MoMA curator Paola Antonelli on the defining designs of 2020

“Crises are like spark plugs for innovation.”

MoMA curator Paola Antonelli on the defining designs of 2020
Paola Antonelli [Photo: Marton Perlaki/courtesy MOMA]
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This year has seen a coalescing of crises unlike we’ve seen in recent memory. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic collapse tested lives, hospital systems, and livelihoods. It has restructured the way we work, where we live, and the way cities operate. Then the end of May, after the death of George Floyd, a movement for racial justice spread across the United States—while the pandemic remained very much present. With the world at an inflection point, design’s ability to reenvision a world in crisis mode was put to the ultimate test.

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That led Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the department of architecture & design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Alice Rawsthorn, a design critic and author based in the UK, to investigate design’s response with a series of  interviews and curated content called Design Emergency. The series offers a hopeful, if somber, look at design’s unique ability to solve problems in a catastrophe. Though it started by analyzing the coronavirus pandemic, the series has expanded to look at other emergencies, like the recent explosion in Beirut, among others.

“Design is one of our most powerful tools in the COVID-19 crisis. The ingenuity, resourcefulness, and generosity of designers and their collaborators worldwide has produced innovations that are helping to protect us from the pandemic, to improve its treatment and to prepare for the radical changes it will introduce to our lives in the future,” they wrote in the their series announcement. The ultimate design optimists, Antonelli and Rawsthorn explore themes like hacking and collaboration and look at innovations big and small, from Song Dynasty-inspired hats designed to help Chinese school children visualize the six feet they needed to stay apart to the retrofitting of the Javitz Center in New York into a medical hospital by the New York District Army Corps of Engineers.

In the slideshow above, Antonelli selects five designs that best represent 2020 so far (“scared about the next few months” she qualified). And below, Antonelli discusses what design can and can’t do in a crisis, how emergencies spur innovation, and how the design industry itself may transform in the chaos of 2020.

Fast Company: You and Alice Rawsthorn call your series, which explores design’s role during and after COVID-19, “Design emergency.” What makes designers uniquely capable of rapid response?

Paola Antonelli: Designers are trained to traditionally and classically solve problems. They’re almost like engineers of sorts. Then of course, they are also taught to solve [problems] with elegance. So when an emergency happens, they jump into action. They’re also trained to create teams. They don’t attempt to be biologists or environmentalists or chemists. They go and call in the team of experts that they need to get the job done.

FC: The pandemic, the racial justice movement, the economic collapse, the climate apocalypse: 2020 has forced us to reckon with the systems we are all a part of, and how we should change them. Can design really address any of these problems, or is it a Band-Aid? Hasn’t 2020 taught us that policy is everything?

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PA: Design can have an effect in policy, but design cannot solve everything. No discipline can fix things alone (not even policy). What Alice and I decided was to try and show what design can do. We’re advocating the acknowledgement of the important role that design can play by trying to show to people how diverse design is, how much more than cute chairs and fast cars it is, how design can help, not only designers and corporations, but also citizens, politicians, and every human being reach their goals—especially if their goals are movement toward justice and more responsibility toward other humans, other species, and the environment. Design is a very powerful tool.

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FC: What are some specific examples of how design is a tool or of design gateways to help fix those problems?

PA: Alice and I decided to interview select design leaders—people who have done outstanding work. Federica Fragapane was in our series of interviews as an information design expert. Information design is incredibly important in helping citizens understand that we live in systems; that our actions don’t have reactions in a very unequivocal way, but rather have reverberations that can go in many directions. Federica helped the Surgo Foundation (a health and social impact nonprofit) visualize a new vulnerability index that helped people understand which counties in which communities in the United States could be more vulnerable to COVID-19. By pinpointing more vulnerable communities, it would hopefully help people address and deploy emergency equipment and emergency policy. It also helps citizens  better understand the safety of different communities from COVID-19 in the United States.

Another example is the design of the coronavirus virus itself. Viruses are too small to be seen using optics. So you need to use an electron microscope that sends back data and a computer that then assembles an image. Illustrators from the CDC Alyssa Eckert and Dan Higgins [created the design of] the coronavirus illustration that we see everywhere. The invading cells are made into red arrows that are threatening and mean. They’re not red in reality; it’s slightly exaggerated to penetrate public consciousness and opinion. The goal of that illustration was to create an image of a fearful machine that has to be neutralized.

Other examples from the pandemic can be the adaptation of existing structures and the rapid turnaround of hospital beds that were not for ICU to ICU. This is a very technical kind of design, very close to policy. We interviewed Michael Murphy from Mass design group, which worked with Mount Sinai hospital in New York City to redeploy certain beds and make them ICU, but also Mass design group has great experience that goes back to the Ebola crisis in 2014. So there are architectural offices like Mass design group that are specialized in health architecture.

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Alice Rawsthorn [Photo: Michael Leckie/courtesy MOMA]

FC: So what is the high-level takeaway?

No matter what you encounter in terms of emergency design, it can be really good. It can be really bad. It can be mediocre. The idea isn’t that it would fix a specific issue, but rather, in an ad hoc nature, design can chip away at the issue in ways that others can’t necessarily. It can alert. It can highlight vulnerable spots that other people can miss. Design is a word that is as big as art or culture. So it’s difficult to say what design can do in a particular situation. But it definitely is a lot more than just chairs and posters. The ultimate goal that Alice and I have is to make politicians and social scientists aware that designers could be incredibly helpful in the kind of work that they do.

FC: What role does design play in long-term solutions as society looks to rebuild after COVID-19?

PA: Every time the Army Corps of Engineers comes into a situation of emergency and has to build infrastructure, they always think of something that lasts longer than what the immediate problem requires. If you have to invest a lot in a new bridge or a new hospital, you try to do something so that [those] spaces are conditioned for the future. It’s about thinking long-term, so the next time you have to build a hospital, you will already be ready. You know the adage: “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Crises are like spark plugs for innovation, much like other, less negative big events like games or expos. They can become jump starters for renovations of sectors, communities, and systems that were not working well before. Now, of course, we’re talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. I wonder how much and what we’re going to learn from the Black Lives Matter emergency. It’s really about making good use of the efforts that are urgent and immediate.

FC: The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated trends across industries from remote work to open street design. Has the design industry itself changed in any way due to the pandemic, and if so, how?

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PA: We will all have to change and adapt. So design will change in its most concrete manifestations. Of course, design as a methodology does not change. Like all industries, the design industry is in a crisis. Designers have less work and are looking at the future with a feeling of uncertainty. I’m not a trend forecaster, but I have a feeling that there’s going to be a restructuring of the way design studios work. Mass design group for instance, was always established as being in many different locations. There are offices in Rwanda, New York, and Boston. So the idea of having a more dispersed and open-ended studio that works on different locations and on different projects could be a way to go, but no matter what, our professions will have to adapt. I don’t think that there’s going to be anyone whose life will remain the same.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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