Illustration by Erica Fasoli

I celebrated my birthday shortly before the global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns took hold all over the world. I had the pleasure of eating a meal at a restaurant and going for drinks with friends. One of my favorite gifts from a friend was a sweater from a local designer with a small shop and studio that I had been coveting for a long time.

Since then, everything has changed so rapidly. The retail and restaurant industries have been incredibly hard hit by the necessary shutdowns of non-essential businesses. The National Restaurant Association indicates that “8 million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed, and the industry will lose $80 billion in sales by the end of April.” The outlook for retail is not much better, with an estimated 250,000 stores closed across the U.S. and discretionary consumer spending expected to drop by 40-50% in the first half of 2020.

When I realized I needed to exchange the sweater for another size, going to the store to try on options was no longer a possibility. I drove to the store and completed a curbside drop off. While in the neighborhood, I wanted to support a local restaurant by getting takeout. I struggled to figure out what my options were, trying a combination of Google Maps, Instagram accounts, and texting friends who lived nearby, which ultimately led to deadends.

Identifying the problems, and asking how you can help

There has been a groundswell of responses from individual designers and volunteer groups to the crisis that many retail and hospitality businesses are facing. From tutorials on how to set up an online store and curbside pickup, to service audits, to free apps for restaurants, to well designed and curated sites keeping track of how to support local businesses, designers are stepping up to lend their skills

Mission statement for the Emergency Design Collective.
The Emergency Design Collective is a group of doctors, makers and academics working on challenges related to the pandemic at home, in the community and in healthcare. Image credit Emergency Design Collective.

“Many designers are asking, ‘how can I help?” says Nick Dawson. “We founded the Emergency Design Collective to channel this energy in the home, in communities, and in healthcare.” While the collective’s initial projects have been mainly healthcare focused, projects are now underway that look at the challenges facing traditionally, very place-based activities like going to the post office or the grocery store. These are of course the challenges that retail and restaurant businesses are facing – what does it mean to operate in a reality where in-person, place-based activity is no longer an option?

Beyond the immediate needs that many businesses have, Dawson thinks that “Designers can play a role in mapping the bigger ecosystem of problems and identifying what challenges to solve. Where there are existing efforts, we should join those, and where there are not, we can perhaps spin up efforts.” Ben Tossell agrees. He is the founder of Makerpad; the company’s work to help during the crisis has surfaced six main problem areas that are applicable across industries: online ordering, providing gift cards, match making volunteers, taking online appointments for services such as doctors or physiotherapists, selling digital downloads, and data sharing. Makerpad has created a simple guide aimed at sharing step by step approaches to tackling each of these challenges. Similarly, Dawson shares that, for the Emergency Design Collective, creating guides or playbooks that help people explore the available options is one of their key approaches.

Makerpad has launched a guide to projects and systems for key coronavirus challenges across industries.
Makerpad has launched a guide to projects and systems for key challenges across industries. Image credit Makerpad.

Creating the infrastructure for local businesses to use

“Everyone is saying shop local – but HOW?” That was the question that Matt Varughese and Ben Parker were asking themselves in Oklahoma as the crisis was hitting the beloved local food scene really hard. Together with a team of volunteers, they set up okforok, a site that crowdsources information on how to support local bars and restaurants during the pandemic. As well as details on opening hours, gift cards, and ordering options, the site includes a “tip a server” option that pairs people with a local server to support through a donation.

Search results page on makes it easy to search for local Oklahoma restaurants and bars to support by location, category, or name, and highlights the options available like gift cards, ordering options, and apps. Image credit OKforOK

For retail stores and restaurants, one of the fundamental challenges they face is adapting to a situation when an in-person business model is no longer possible, potentially for a significant period of time. Businesses are adapting their models to focus on online ordering, curbside pick up or trunk drop off, and for restaurants, takeout and delivery of food.

Some of the existing food delivery apps may not be appealing, due to the way they are structured and the cut the platforms take, which eats into already slim margins. As Ben Tossell puts it,  “Lots of local businesses don’t want to go on Uber Eats or Deliveroo.” This inspired him to build an easy to set up app for restauranteurs that enable them to get started quickly, with tools they are familiar with such as spreadsheets, as well as offering support for the set up.

Restaurant owners app template, which uses a simple spreadsheet as the backend.
Ben Tossell’s restaurant owners app template, which uses a simple spreadsheet as the backend. Image credit restauranteurs.glideapp.

Many smaller businesses, which may not have the resources or expertise to execute on these changes, are struggling under the weight of the challenge in front of them. This is where design and technology comes in. “We’re in a position where we can show people how to replicate things with really cheap tools, so that people can learn and do their own things,” says Tossell.  Designers and technologists can open the gates for people to execute on these strategic and tactical changes to their business. Enabling business owners with access to tools that are easy to set up and easy to use, and don’t require learning to code or hiring developers is a powerful way to help at this time. Matt Varughese and Ben Parker agree:

I think if there was ever a time for designers and developers to jump in and help, now’s the time. The best thing that people can do is build resources that can be reused.

The OKforOK site has been cloned and adapted by people in places like Nashville, Perth, Sydney, Manhattan, New Jersey, and Germany.

The importance of good design

One of the considerations Varughese and Parker focused on when building OKforOK was making the site as easy to use as possible, and ensuring that the key information was available at a glance. Sticking to tried and true design patterns that are well documented, like card components and material design, helped to speed up this process. “I was really aware of not reinventing the wheel to run yourself over, and just always prioritizing function over form. I wanted the site to be usable and smooth,” says Varughese, reflecting on the design process for OKforOK.

Design also plays an important role in helping to present businesses and their offering in the best possible light. There is a huge importance of aesthetic and visual appeal, especially for food and retail sites. Designers can play a role in helping businesses who may not have this expertise to consider the visual appeal of their offerings. The OKforOKteam works hard to curate photos that have mouthwatering appeal. “That’s the only manual piece on the site,” shares Varughese, “Our team goes to the businesses page or Google reviews or Instagram and pulls something aesthetically pleasing. Everybody’s done a great job with that.”

Solving within arms reach

Wherever design and designers step up to help out in this crisis, we need to be aware of our responsibilities. Any kind of data or information sharing carries a lot of responsibility with it. “We have to be really smart with who we are going to work with, and making sure that anything that we build is delivering accurate and appropriate information,” Parker points out. The OKforOKteam were careful to include disclaimers on the site to ensure that people understand the nature of crowdsourced information. This also meant having a two way feedback flow to ensure that any mistakes or inaccuracies that people find can be reported back to the team. Being transparent about the data sources and providing clear disclaimers is especially important in cases where money is changing hands, such as the ‘tip a server’ feature.

The OKforOK ‘tip a server’ feature includes a detailed disclaimer ensuring that people are aware that the information on the site is crowdsourced, and encourages users to do their own due diligence.
The OKforOKokforok ‘tip a server’ feature includes a detailed disclaimer ensuring that people are aware that the information on the site is crowdsourced, and encourages users to do their own due diligence. Image credit OKforOK.

It’s also important for us to hold ourselves to account about how and where we can truly be of service as designers. Nick Dawson shared the concept of ‘solving within arms reach’ – the idea that we are best positioned to help out with challenges that we have control over or access to. Everybody has a different arms reach, and thinking about the businesses, people and communities you are part of is a good place to start. For VarugheseMatt and Ben Parker., OKforOKokforok was driven by their love of the Oklahoma food scene and their many relationships from being regulars at cafes and bars. “Everyday you’re going to eat and drink – that’s universal. Matt and I both know people in that community. You do what you know – you help who you know and what you know,” says Ben Parker. As designers looking to help out our local businesses at this time, that message can help guide us in our efforts. Consider setting up a small or local business directory like OKforOKokforok in your community, joining a design volunteering effort such as the Emergency Design Collective, Design to Combat Covid-19, or buying gift cards or merchandise from your favourite bar, cafe, or restaurant.