Issue #2: The Global Pandemic Issue

Published on March 18, 2020
Edvard Much self portrait with the Spanish Flu Image credit: Edvard Munch

Hello from a shuttered Denmark,

This past week we’ve seen the “exponential” part of exponential growth hit the world like a tidal wave. Markets have dipped, businesses are scrambling, and the people that constitute both are unsure of what’s coming.

What we’ve seen with this global crisis is a failure in planning, and for those of us who are designers, planning is our business. At its core, Design is a time-delayed activity: one where we engage with people and systems to plot out a path to a better future using artifacts and experiences. In this pandemic, we’re instead seeing a reversion. Far from having planned redundancies and designed for resiliency, we’re instead facing the stark fragility of a system co-designed with agents of unchecked growth and profit.

In this definition of design, we have two key components: foresight and intervention.

Foresight asks: what is needed in the future? Why do we believe this? What needs to happen for that to exist? What else might happen? On a systemic and world-spanning extreme, the peak of this practice is in world-building fiction. Books like Max Brooks’ World War Z and Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest both take a worldly and step-by-step approach to exploring human behaviour and outcomes given distinct conditions: for World War Z, a global zombie pandemic; and for the Dark Forest, an impending apocalypse and humanity’s instinct to flee, fight, or simply give up.

For the nearer term, the designer has a host of tools available, from card games like those created by Near Future Lab for generating scenarios, and structured “gap filling” tools like backcasting to map the pathway to the preferable outcomes. But at best, foresight samples and extrapolates from the potential territories that we march toward, and informs the context and constraints of our design activities.

On the other end is intervention. With the current coronavirus outbreak, the rhetorical focus has very much been on POLICY interventions: how can we wield the apparatus of states to tackle a collective action problem like a global pandemic? For examples of this discussion, there’s a great episode of Vox’s The Weeds on the American policy response, and Vox’s global affairs podcast Worldly has an additional North American-centric exploration of outcomes and implications as well.

But we’re also seeing an active response in how design engages with the crisis. As Malcom McCullough points out in his book Digital Ground, “The success of a design is arrived at socially.” Across China —an already incredibly sophisticated and integrated surveillance state— software serves to mitigate, inform, but also surveil. Chinese public-private partnerships have led to a colour-code based access system to public space, with quite legitimate concerns for social acceptance of surveillance post-pandemic. A state’s over-reach might seem prudent in a crisis, but what provisions are in place to revert once the crisis has passed? We don’t always get Cincinnatus, after all.

South Korea is taking a similar intervention with a different implementation — free drive through testing in your car with a simple text-message based notification of your results which allows testing infrastructure to be incredibly light weight in a country where two-thirds of people own a car. In other words, we are seeing “crisis architecture” churn through society once more: the modular hospitals in Wuhan being in the same family as post-9/11 segmentation of America’s airports.

Clearly, design has a role in this crisis, but how does the individual designer engage? The most useless thing I’ve read about the coronavirus was this list of how design thinking is going to save us from coronavirus. If you’re a “design thinker” only asking these questions now, you’ve already failed. The examples in China and South Korea are an adaptive strategy with an adaptive design to a fast moving crisis that came from either excellent foresight activities (taking a more strategic approach) or simply learning the hard way (the more intuitive approach). As such, the context for an appropriate design to emerge, succeed, and hopefully obviate its utility already exists, as we’re already seeing with the 1000 bed hospital in Wuhan being disassembled.

As we collectively weather this pandemic, the thing we should recognize is that foresight without intervention is simply speculation, and intervention without foresight is naive at best and incredibly harmful at worst. As those working in or adjacent to design, we have a responsibility to look ahead: both systematically using the tools of our trade, and ambiantly by absorbing information globally and from many sources.

Be safe and by generous. Finally, look after yourself now, because like everyone’s favourite William Gibson quote, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Just as China is finding itself able to respond to Italy’s needs because of how it handled its own spike in infections, we all might be in a position to help others depending on where we are in our own infection curve.

That’s it for this week. As always, I’d encourage you to subscribe if you haven’t and send me a note if you have questions or feedback!

See you next Wednesday,
Andrew Lovett-BarronAndrew Lovett-Barron



The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready? I found it valuable to revisit this article from 2018, when there were cries to learn from the risk inherent to the most recent Ebola outbreaks. There is no guarantee that we will learn from this crisis, and so we must do what we can to build a personal pattern-recognition for the leading signs and signals of our next crisis.


Coronavirus burial pits so vast they’re visible from space Already having faced incredible internal upheaval in January, Iran has been brutally affected by the coronavirus, evidenced by the digging of mass graves near Qom. The societal scars of poor foresight, maladapted systems, and just bad luck will be with us for decades; and Iran will be an important place to watch for social adaptation post-crisis.

East Asia

Health Care + Design in Singapore Singapore has been lauded has being particularly well adapted to coronavirus and previous pandemics (like SARS). In trying to learn a bit more about how this happened, I found this to be a useful look at how Singapore has approached the design of its healthcare system.

South Asia

Designing a handwashing station for infrastructure-restricted communities in Bangladesh This is an older article, but an interesting one to surface. The infrastructure of personal hygiene is always an issue in public health, and one which we readily take for granted. This article digs into the affordances and cues we need to keep in mind to adhere to protective hygiene in this era, and might be a useful tool for those of you thinking of setting something up for your community or building.


Coronavirus offers “a blank page for a new beginning” says Li Edelkoort Dutch designer and forecaster Li Edelkoort weighs in on the possibility of an economic “reset” from coronavirus, especially with regards to globalization of certain local commodities (she uses the example of saris made in China and imported to India, which have disrupted local design markets).

Security Blanket

Source: Voice of America photo from 2016 Image credit: Source Unknown

Islamic State Advice on Coronavirus Pandemic

A newsletter to ISIS members, translated by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a researcher focused on the Syrian civil war. As objectively evil as the Islamic State is, it is still an organization that has to look after its members and do what organizations do: communicate, align, and act. Some of the language in the newsletter is pretty interesting from that lens and a good cue for how these kind of societal threats get translated across orgs and cultures.

Global Design Jobs

Communication in Kenya

Communications Advisor, Médecins Sans Frontières Located in Kenya MSF is an incredible organization working around the world in medical disaster response, prevention, and recovery. This role, while it looks like a classic comms role, might be a really interesting fit for someone with design research experience, but coming from a more formal communication design or journalism background. The balance of the role points to a design experience with field work, daily response work, and strategy development.

Technology in the US Congress

Director, TechCongress Located in Washington DC, USA TechCongress is an awesome program connecting designers and technologists with congressional leaders in the United States. I got a bit of a behind-the-scenes look during my time at New America, and can enthusiastically recommend the opportunity to work with Travis and his team. This would be an awesome role for a designer with both technical chops and leadership experience who wants to get involved in government.

We find a lot of our postings on the incredible Design Gigs for Good board.
Give it a look!


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 Zhijun Wang German/Canadian brand Acronym is well known for being a defining force in the techwear movement, and designer Zhijun Wang reinterpreted the Nike/Acronym sneaker style into this interesting (and intimidating) face mask.

Design Voices

Cade Diehm

Cade Diehm

Founder, New Design Congress

Cade Diehm is a designer and thinker based in Berlin, but travels around the world speaking on design through a lens of security, society, and critical theory. I was first introduced to his work a few years ago through his essay On Weaponized Design, but more recently have been excited to see what comes out of The New Design Congress. Give it a subscribe below: the first newsletter just came out last weekend.

The New Design Congress