Corona Redesign — A Pre-Manifesto

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is challenging many of the assumptions we have about almost everything, including the role and value of design. We listen to doctors, health experts, politicians, economists and businesspeople, but not (yet?) to designers. We share thoughts and questions on what this moment may mean for designers and their role in and beyond the coronavirus crisis.

By Peter Friedrich Stephan and Raz Godelnik

Photo credit: Chad Davis

Spaceship Earth is Shaking

Spaceship Earth as Bucky Fuller calls our planet has been traveling in recent months into the “unknown unknowns” territory, making fun of any assumptions, plans, strategies and intentions we had prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Having so many people around the world shaken by a virus they probably never heard about until a month or two ago is a good reminder that we still don’t have the instruction manual for this spaceship. It is also a reminder that we need to be humble about the assumptions we have on how the world operates because this spaceship is still very much a terra cognita. This thought is both exciting and frightening at the same time.

Coronavirus = The Grand Designer

The coronavirus may seem on the surface like another episode of “Black Mirror”, where we can hope for a good ending that will enable us to go back to our normal life. At the same time designers may also consider the design capabilities of coronavirus, reshaping behaviors and mental models, economies and societies at unprecedented speed and scale. Quietly but fiercely it seems to be triggering almost every leverage point Donella Meadows had in mind, from parameters and numbers all the way to system goals and paradigms. No designer, as gifted as she or he may be, has ever had such an impact and we’re doubtful if anyone will in the future. So what does it mean when an invisible virus easily defeats any human design attempt to make a change in the world? What lessons can we learn from the work of the master designer, also known as COVID-19?

What climate crisis?

While we live in an era that will most likely be shaped by the climate crisis, right now the focus is on coronavirus, which has turned the world into a very different place in a very short time. Climate change, however, is not sitting down and waiting patiently until we’re done dealing with the coronavirus. It continues to be an existential threat to humanity, even if short-term decrease in activity may slow it down. In a way, it is accompanying the coronavirus like a shadow, challenging us to consider it at every step of the way. The challenge is not only to remind ourselves that the climate crisis is here while dealing with another emergency, but also to learn the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic and figure out how to apply them to the fight against climate change.

Where are the designers? (Part I)

While coronavirus is still an ongoing challenge, we believe the question of the value of design is critical enough to be considered now rather than wait until coronavirus is no longer a threat. While you see policymakers, politicians, healthcare professionals, economists, businesspeople, and even technocrats with relevant experience at the forefront of the efforts to fight the pandemic the voice of designers is quieter than ever (with some exceptions). Just like with climate change, designers do not seem to be part of the conversations on what direction we should go to. This is a critical moment where the fabric of life everywhere is challenged in the most dramatic ways we have seen in decades, and designers don’t have anything to say about it? We doubt it. We believe this is a moment where designers can be extremely valuable, and yet they don’t have a seat at the table. This is troubling and requires designers to reflect on the real value of design and whether it is as significant as we tell ourselves.

Lessons from Corona: What can designers learn?

Since the outbreak of the corona crisis we have witnessed the biggest disruptive systems-level change since WWII. All of this is very frightening at the moment and no one knows what will happen next. As we try to cope with this we may ask ourselves what the crisis can teach us as designers.

The power of design and systems-level change

Designers in new and emergent fields seem to be convinced that they can change the world: Some approaches of social innovation designers sound as if they want to put the whole world in a repair café. Some designers for digital transformation seem to believe that a system update is all it takes to make the world better. Design activists believe in participation and tell us that everybody is a designer that can make little differences that eventually will contribute to big changes.

All this is great and valuable work, but will this be sufficient to accomplish systems-level changes that we have to reach fast when it comes to climate change, migration, social, ecologic and demographic issues?

Most of us will agree that design has a lot of power to shape the lives of people and the future of the planet. However, this power of design is not necessarily the power of designers. Design sits on top of technological and economic power. Without them design can’t do much.

Where are the designers? (Part II)

Designers don’t have superpowers. They can only hope to contribute a tiny extra as catalysts that will make the expertise of others work better. Lately we listen to medical doctors, politicians and economists. But not designers. Designers don’t have a seat at the table of decisionmakers and maybe they are better off as consultants in the background. But if designers manage to have the ear of the leaders: What do they have to say?

Chances are designers will come up with ideas of how to communicate better in home offices and home schooling, organize help for neighbors, stay in shape while in quarantine or do smarter shopping. All of this might be helpful. But it is not a system-level change. Where are the designers specializing in social innovation and futuring, strategic design and design fiction, transition and transformation design? Did they develop plans for how to cope with global emergencies? Did they conceive alternative health systems on a global scale?

One example of this kind of anticipating design is how pre-earthquake architecture studies earthquakes as a foundation to design new buildings and infrastructure that will resist earthquakes and will help to limit devastation. Obviously, it took a lot of earthquakes before these projects got started. As we witnessed outbreaks like Ebola, SARS and now the coronavirus we have to ask: can we use these experiences to learn and to conceive pre-pandemic alternatives? Will designers have to specialize in emergency design?

Permanent crises

Helping to fight a crisis is one thing. Preventing a crisis is another. But this is only true from the privileged perspective of most western designers as the majority of the global population lives in permanent crisis. And this is not because of a lack of design, but because it is designed to be that way (see Mike Monteiro). Most designers in the western world help to perpetuate constant crises.

Decolonize Design

The modernist framework of values and methods and its narrative of progress are a success story. But not for everyone, the movement for the decolonization of design reminds us. The modernist success story comes to an end because it can’t be applied on a global scale. As a part of that vanishing story design will have to find a new narrative. The challenge is to “stay with the trouble” (Donna Haraway). No more purity in white cube showrooms and business as usual.

Systems-level change for design

Most models of design stack activity levels from graphics and product, via interaction and service to process and system. Thus systems-level change appears as the most comprehensive dimension. But is it really true that our expertise in traditional design fields will add up magically to a set of competences that allows us to address systems-level change?

We think the contrary is true: If we designers want to be actors on the systems-level, we need a systems-level change for design in the first place. As a consequence, instead of aiming for higher goals we have to rigorously analyze our basic assumptions. What is our understanding of an object, of politics, of economy, of intervention? How to connect values and facts?

The bad and the good news

The bad news is that while we fight the coronavirus the other crises like climate change do not wait. The good news is that we witness disruptive and profound changes becoming possible overnight. Most of us accept the explanations of experts and the radical actions taken when they can see their personal benefit. With the Corona crisis there might be a chance for a reset of values that links the personal benefits closer to the health of a global community and a healthy planet.

Will designers rise to the occasion and reset their foundations so they can become catalysts for systems-level change?

What now? Let’s continue the conversation at Beyond Crisis online conference!

We consider this pre-manifesto as an invitation for a broader discussion on design/ers response to global crises and the role and value of design overall at this day and age. We plan to have a workshop at Beyond Crisis, an online conference organized by the MA program in Eco-Social Design at the Free University of Bozen–Bolzano, Italy. It will take place on 17–18 April 2020.

Entitled “Will the Real Transformational Designer Please Stand Up?“ the workshop will explore if and how designers can be a meaningful force for good, focusing on the role designers may have in ‘nourishing positive transformations and preventing the dystopian developments’.

We will challenge the participants (and ourselves!) with the assumption that the current design knowledge is not sufficient to ignite transformation on the existing design levels (meta materials, products/graphics, interaction/dialogue, organization/system). Is it true? Do we need to consider changing our understanding and framing of design, where we need to accept that the majority of designers are merely change-driven (aka technicians who follow briefs), and only a small group is dedicated to change making? If so, what should be the training for this ”Design Special Forces Unit” and where should it operate?

Peter Friedrich Stephan is a Professor at the Academy of Media Arts, Cologne Germany. You can learn more about his work at https://designingtransformation.org/
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor at Parsons School of Design — The New School, New York City, USA. You can learn more about his work at http://www.sandboxzero.co

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My new book: Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach