Mister Rogers famously said his mother told him to ‘look for the helpers’ during difficult or frightening times. The COVID-19 pandemic has already drastically changed the world and people’s lives in a very short time, in some cases with devastating consequences. The economic, social, and personal impacts of the virus are overwhelming, with the pandemic highlighting how broken and unequitable many of our systems are.
Day to day, those on the front lines such as healthcare workers, those who work in our food supply system, and other essential workers are taking immense risks. Many others are dealing with the day to day challenges of caring for family members, working remotely, and trying to adapt to a more limited and isolating everyday life.
For designers, many are struggling with their own challenges, facing possible layoffs and radical changes to their work. For those that are lucky enough to have capacity and resources to help out, many are left wondering what their role and contribution can be during this crisis. It can feel like a really confusing and helpless time.
The most important thing that we can contribute to is slowing the spread of the virus by following government guidelines on physical and social distancing. Beyond that, there are many people helping out and lending their skills in big and small ways, and their stories and approaches can guide us in our efforts.
Designers are finding ways to help
The groundswell of collaboration, initiatives, and support that has come out of this pandemic has been inspiring. The pandemic is a challenge that needs to be tackled at many levels, and with a collective effort from all of society. It has seen the need for really practical craft skills, with volunteers signing up to 3D print face shields and sew masks. Designers are often makers at heart who can contribute with their craft abilities.
This tactical craft skill extends to graphic design and visual communication. With many groups coming together to offer local support to those on their street or in their neighbourhood, there is a need for great design and clear communication in leaflets and information sheets.
Sophie Dennis, a consultant and designer in the UK that has worked on projects with the UK’s National Health Service and GOV.UK, saw this need as part of her involvement with her local mutual aid group. “Someone in my village wanted to do a leaflet drop, and I said something I could do is help to design the leaflet.” Dennis wanted to look at how other groups were tackling information design, and put a call out to her networks to collect examples of leaflets. “It was so helpful to have examples and to look at what was effective. Just doing a simple thing like collecting these examples and putting them in a Dropbox folder is a small way to be useful and to share knowledge with others who might be doing something similar.”
Another example of a local initiative is the COVID-19 Toronto app, a collection of resources and available support, put together by designer Zahra Ebrahim. Due to her connections in both the private and public sector, many people reached out to Ebrahim in the first days of the crisis, sharing ideas and resources for supporting those affected. “All of these critical and useful resources and information were sitting in my inbox, so I decided to put them into a Google spreadsheet and make it available to my community on social media.”
People in her network started reaching out and sharing additional information, with people coming on board as collaborators to add in further information to the sheet. A few days later Illan Shahin, an ER doctor, reached out to Ebrahim and shared information about how to create a simple app from a Google Sheet. “One of the things that was really inspiring is seeing the speed with which things can happen. Five days in we have an app, three days later I’m on the phone with agencies who offer frontline critical care, collaborating with them and triangulating data.”
The value of design during a crisis
For organizations that have been investing in design teams and ways of working since before the pandemic, that investment is now paying off. For example, robust design systems and patterns like the GOV.UK resource have enabled swift delivery of new online services and forms, all with the knowledge that the user interface components are accessible and user tested. For Dennis, “it’s really proving the value of the whole spread of what you might put under the umbrella of agile approaches – everything from the engineering side of knowing you can release twice a day if you want to, at the other end of it, the ability to have user-centered design principles in place. Keeping the user front and center has been really important because you don’t want to put something up that doesn’t work for people at this time.”
On the other hand, some organizations may need additional support or capacity at this time, and are turning to volunteers with these skills to help out. Raylene Yung is the CEO of the U.S. Digital Response, a volunteer-run effort to connect all levels of the U.S. government with skilled volunteers during the COVID-19 crisis. “There’s a huge opportunity here for designers to contribute at all levels of government response. One of the most common needs we’ve found is for cities, counties, and states to communicate more effectively, for example about the virus itself or about what support is available. We have a whole project that is about trying to make these sites better.” This is a hugely important and challenging design problem – there’s a lot of information out there and the sites are very dense. “We’re trying to figure out if there is a design pattern we can establish so that every city can follow this pattern and make their content more effective.”
Ebrahim shared a similar sentiment, about the potential for design to elevate the clarity of communication and ease of use of COVID resources and supports. “Having something really user friendly is really key at this moment. We can be there to help polish things to a place where they are legible and palatable, and beautiful in their simplicity. We can help to elevate the clarity, we can focus on using the words and language that people are using right now, instead of adding mental load for users.”
Another important lens that designers can bring is being people centred, according to Cori Zarek, a founding member of the U.S. Digital Response. “One of the strongest things that designers bring to any conversation is that they are the very best at reminding us to put people first. That is so important at this moment when so many vulnerable people and communities are left behind in this immediate rapid response.” As Ebrahim put it, designers are sometimes trained and well positioned to do user research and have nuanced conversations with people. “This is the moment where we can lend our ears and lateral brains to surface stories that help us serve people at this time.”
The importance of starting where you are
For designers that are privileged and lucky enough to be in a position to help out, we need to be mindful of helping and not accidentally harming. Even with the best of intentions, we can sometimes overlook unintended consequences. For example, there can be risks around privacy and personal data. Raylene highlighted that for anyone that is creating something, “it’s important to think about the downsides of what you are building and consider what is the potential harm. It’s easy to start building in an effort to help, and then realize that, for example, there are privacy implications to the personal data you’ve collected in a spreadsheet of strangers.”
In addition, we all need to be mindful that the further away we are from a complex problem, the less likely we are to have the context and insight needed to contribute. Dennis sees this a lot as someone who works with the UK’s National Health Service. “While designers are very good at getting up to speed quickly, healthcare in the UK is incredibly complex, with all sorts of strange unintended consequences. It can take months to onboard.”
An easier and more constructive place to start might be local or community groups that you might be able to help out. “Think about how you can be directly useful right now. There’s loads of very practical, roll up your sleeves types of things people could be doing that are happening very locally to you. There are going to be lots of local community groups, local charities, and local businesses that would benefit from design input. Anything from designing a better leaflet, to helping a local business set up their online store, or helping a local business think about how to shift to online delivery and do it well,” says Dennis. Raylene agrees that “the first thing to ask is can you help a community based or local organization? There are so many things going on you can start to drown under the noise, but seeing how you can contribute to an existing effort is really helpful.”
Existing relationships can also be a great place to start. For Ebrahim, the COVID-19 Toronto app was sparked by people in her network reaching out to share resources and information. Similarly, many people involved in setting up the U.S. Digital Response had worked as deputy CTOs for the government, and reached out to their networks to understand where the need was in supporting government services during the crisis. “It started as a really grassroots effort – reaching out to our networks to find volunteers, and reaching out to our connections on the government side to identify needs. As it grew, we realized we could structure this a bit and set up different processes around connecting volunteers to government partners,” according to Raylene.
Not solving, but contributing and serving
The pandemic and our response to it has highlighted our human interconnectedness, and the need for a collective response – through physical distancing, taking care of those in our immediate circles, and at the government level, through programs and support that address the massive healthcare and economic challenges we are facing.
Design sometimes has a reputation for navel gazing, but now is not the time to be focused on design taking a lead role. For Ebrahim, this has never been more true. “To be honest I don’t think this is the time for us as designers to lead. I think it’s the time for us to find those efforts that could be elevated with our help, or made more accessible.”
Let’s not debate the state of design right now, let’s debate how we can be of service, how we can use design to lift each other up.
This crisis also highlights the power of very small scale, local and direct actions we can all take. “Let’s not get obsessive about scale right now. If you’re helping five people right now, that’s a game changer,” from Ebrahim’s perspective. Dennis agrees: “There’s huge power in the small things. When you keep it small and simple you can move much faster and directly help people.”
All of us are in this together, and if you are someone who has some of these design skills, there are many ways to get involved and help out with all of the people working hard to respond to this crisis. As designers who want to help, we can recognize and frame our contributions as part of that larger collective effort. As Ebrahim put it, “Let’s all make contributions as best we can.”