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Design for pandemics: a database

Date Published: 17 July 2020


As lockdown was enforced in the UK we began collecting examples of design responses to the pandemic to try and understand what was going on around the world. Design and design research is ideally placed to work across boundaries in helping to understand and deal with uncertainty and to tackle wicked problems. We are beginning to understand that the more interconnected we become, the more we are we at risk of experiencing viruses such as COVID-19 and therefore we need to think about how we might tackle future pandemics, based upon our experiences during 2020 and previous pandemics. Our collective experiences have sparked debates as to how we might  re-think and re-design many of our practices to ensure we are resilient in future.

The aim of collecting examples from the world of design and beyond was to create a repository of the good and the bad, from amateurs and professionals to gain some insights into how designs matured over the course of the pandemic. While our findings so far represent the beginning of this process (covering March – July 2020) and are not exhaustive, we have found that design has been used in a wide range of ways and on all scales, from the personal, communal, organizational, national and international. However, as we live through and emerge from the pandemic at different speeds around the world, now is the time to reflect, within the realm of design research and beyond, on how we might harness design to enable recovery and build resilience for the future.

As we still don’t have bioengineered and/or pharmacological treatments to prevent or treat COVID-19, we are still highly susceptible to the virus and we are seeing second and third waves hitting countries who are enforcing localised lockdowns. Our lives feel as though they are on hold, as we emerge slowly back into a world that is uncanny, it feels familiar yet so much seems to have changed in a short time.

From our database we identified four stages of the pandemic:

  1. Reaction: countries impose lockdowns or strict track and trace systems due to rising cases. New laws are rapidly passed and policies are rapidly prototyped in real time. Economies come to a standstill.
  2. Adaptation: systems begin to adapt and society becomes used to the ‘new normal’. Adapting to new measures such as social distancing, working and educating from home, being placed on furlough or being made redundant. Finding new ways of connecting socially and working remotely.
  3. Recovery: Emerging from lockdown, where social distancing is still required, but many industries return to work and schools re-open, with localised lockdowns enforced due to small breakouts. The economy begins to recover.
  4. Resilience: Lockdown measures eased and social distancing relaxed to pre-pandemic state. Time to reflect and investigate key issues and understand what we can learn personally, socially, economically and globally, and to inform new ways of building human and planetary wellbeing.

Our database currently contains examples mostly from the Reaction and Adaptation phases and has been categorised into the following disciplines:

  • Technology design and use (e.g. tracing apps)
  • Personal protective equipment production
  • Creative responses
  • Graphic design and communication
  • Data visualization
  • Service design
  • Design methods – adaptation
  • Healthcare/medical design and production
  • Cities/public space/architecture
  • Materialities

From the database we are developing design principles based on the good practice and issues we have encountered and will be publishing these over the course of the summer.

Some excellent resources to read more about design interventions are:

Dezeen – Coronavirus 

Design Week – Coronavirus and design

Designboom – Coronavirus blog

Design Emergency – Paola Antonelli and Alice Rawsthorne

What Design Can Do – blog

The database is available here and is updated on a regular basis:

For further information please contact l.mullagh@lancaster.ac.uk (@louisemullagh)


Design for pandemics_DatabaseJuly20

Image: Eamonn Foy for United Nations Covid Response https://unitednations.talenthouse.com/

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