Bringing People Together at a Time of Crisis- Quarantine Book Club

San Francisco-based strategic design consultancy Mule Design typically splits its time between consulting work, in-person workshops, and speaking engagements. When the COVID-19 crisis started taking hold, shutting down life as we know it around the globe, Mule Design’s spring calendar of on-site events went from packed to empty in a blink. At the same time, most of the global design community suddenly found themselves working from home, and so people started setting up video calls to stay in touch with each other and keep up human contact.

This gave founders Mike Monteiro and Erika Hall an idea. As they love books and going to events in bookstores, they offered their equally isolated followers a live-streamed Q&A session with Mike to talk about his book “Ruined by Design” on Zoom. The pilot session went so well — more than 100 people signed up — that they decided to do it again. Quarantine Book Club (“talk to authors without touching anyone”) was born, and the website went up in less than 24 hours. 

From idea to launch within 24 hours

“Alongside our client work, we’ve always had side projects like a podcast network, daily online newspaper, one-off websites, various merch,” Erika Hall, director of strategy at Mule Design, points out. “For those sorts of things, going from ‘I thought of this!’ to ‘Let’s do it!’ has always been fairly instantaneous. Over the past couple of years, we’ve been doing a lot of remote consulting engagements and research work using Zoom. And we’ve been running ticketed events, our design practice workshops, and community events in our gallery space in North Beach in SF.  So we smushed those two things together into a Reese’s peanut butter cup of Quarantine Book Club!”

Not just for designers

Since March 16, the live Q&As have taken place every weekday, sometimes even twice a day, and feature all kinds of authors — not just from the design and tech industry. Previous guests include content strategist Kristina Halvorson, NASA adviser and artist Ariel Waldman, and poet Annie Finch, with either Mike or Erica acting as the host and moderator. Participants just sign up through Eventbrite and pay $5 (waived for anyone in need), which is split between Mule Design and the authors.

Screengrab of the Zoom video conference with 25 participants in grid format.
Screengrab of the Zoom video conference Quarantine Book Club event on March 19, 2020.

“We’ll open with some questions of our own and then take questions that the other participants raise through the chat,” Hall, who discussed her own book “Just Enough Research” on Quarantine Book Club, explains. “When we call on them, the participant unmutes and asks their question directly of the guest. We never know where the conversation is going to go, but they’ve all been fantastic, and in some cases quite emotional.” 

The sessions aren’t recorded to preserve the spontaneity and give people the freedom to participate fully and connect with each other, sometimes even with their kids on-screen.

Forging human connections between authors and global readers

To decide on the schedule, Mike and Erika invite designers they admire, reach out to their own networks, accept submissions from authors through the website, and also talk to publishers.

“Talking shop for an hour is an oasis of normalcy in the middle of all of this,” Hall, also a member of Adobe’s Design Circle, acknowledges. “[Graphic design pioneer] Michael Bierut was one of our first guests and that went really deep. He is just so thoughtful. And then everyone wanted to hear about all the books he owns that were on the shelf behind him! Meanwhile, Mike reached out directly to [writer and artist] Myriam Gurba because he admired her work. She was a fantastic guest. Her fearless brilliance is a tonic and her voice is so necessary. We really want to have a diverse mix of people who already have a following of folks excited to connect with them online and new authors who’ve had their entire book tours cancelled. That’s just devastating.”

Image of a David Dylan's face with a vintage classroom photograph in the background.
Promo banner for the March 19th Quarantine Book Club event with author David Dylan.

Content strategist David Dylan Thomas (pictured above) appeared on Quarantine Book Club to talk about his upcoming book, “Design for Cognitive Bias,” to be released by A Book Apart. The book is about how to use content strategy and design responsibly to mitigate bias or, perhaps, leverage it for good both in ourselves as designers and for our users (also see David’s contributions to Removing Bias in AI, here on XD Ideas).

“It all started when I tweeted something about participating in the very first Quarantine Book Club event,” Thomas recalls. “Mike caught wind of it and as he was already familiar with the book I was writing, he tweeted back that I should be a guest. All of this, mind you, while I was in the middle of my quarantine shopping! By the time I got home, we’d pretty much worked out all the details and the event was scheduled! The experience was fantastic, such a great discussion between Erika Hall, the participants, and myself about how bias plays out in design. It went by so fast because we were all having such a good time!”

The challenge now is figuring out how to match time zones and topics, since Quarantine Book Club caters to a global audience. Participants, stuck at home, are from all over the world — Europe, South America, the Middle East, North America, and some tune in regularly. With the world in lockdown, virtual book clubs offer a way to feel less isolated, and Quarantine Book Club has received media coverage around the world (such as, in the Guardian and TIME).

“Everyone is very excited just to see new faces and think about interesting ideas and have a place to feel feelings together,” Erika explains. “The amount of genuine human connection is phenomenal. We’re hearing so much good feedback. It’s so far beyond our expectations. And  I can’t remember the last time I was this busy.”

Future authors include Cory Doctorow (“Radicalized”), Om Malik (Om.co) with more names being added all the time as soon as authors are booked.
Follow @quarantinebook on Twitter or subscribe to the Mule newsletter to be notified of the latest schedule, and go to www.quarantinebookclub.com to sign up for individual sessions. If you’re an author and would like to appear on Quarantine Book Club, please email Erika and Mike.