Design in Quarantine


29 April 2020

While the coronavirus pandemic has caused many industries to grind to a standstill, there has been no lack of design projects springing up in response to the crisis.

Encompassing both grassroots community initiatives and industrial solutions, the past months have seen projects emerge that run the gamut across disciplines. From graphic public information projects, to efforts to improve or else increase the production of PPE, a profusion of design schemes have emerged that aim to tackle some of the consequences of Covid-19.

With museums and libraries shuttered, however, many of the traditional means by which such projects are archived has been cut off. In response, a pair of postgraduate design historians at London's Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum have developed a new platform: Design In Quarantine.

Founded this month by Anna Talley and Fleur Elkerton, Design in Quarantine is an online archive that preserves and documents designers' myriad responses to Covid-19. The platform is gathering projects from across the internet, as well as through public submissions, which show how the design community has reacted to the pandemic.

Comprising graphics, architectural concepts, product and furniture design, and craft objects, the platform documents the provenance and publication history of its constituent works, as well as linking through to websites where more information may be found. Talley and Elkerton are also working to make the platform open-source, with plans to regularly upload the latest versions of the site to Github for public download.

A documentation of an extraordinary time, Design in Quarantine is intended to serve as a research resource for future design historians – those whose task it will be to piece together the events of the pandemic. Hoping to gain further insight into the platform, Disegno sat down with Talley and Elkerton to discuss their work.

Disegno How did the archive come about?

Anna Talley We both already had the idea of doing something Covid related in the back of our minds when the lockdown came into effect. As part of our course at the RCA there is a whole push for design history as public practice. What does it mean to be a historian who doesn’t just sit behind a desk and write essays for academic audiences? What does it mean to engage with the public? Given that we have a giant public health crisis going on, it makes you think a little bit more about what you can do as a historian.

Fleur Elkerton For about a week or so we felt quite disarmed as historians, particularly as historians of design who are focused on objects and spaces. Everything is so physical, but then things have imploded with the pandemic and we’re left in a digital world. We wanted to think about how we could capture and collect this moment using the tools at our disposal.

Anna We’re also dealing with a wider shift in design history and research – and in the humanities generally – where we don’t have access to physical libraries and archives. It’s making us realise the need for the digital availability of materials. We’re seeing all this work being put out on Dezeen, It’s Nice That, Twitter and Instagram, but there’s no place where one person or organisation is collating it all. We obviously can’t get everything, but we’re trying to make it as representative of the types of works that are coming out as possible.

Disegno How did you set up your criteria of what you were going to collect as part of this project?

Fleur I’m interested in seeing design as a solution to things, so a lot of the stuff I’m contributing tends to be things that are medical or which can be easily reproduced at home using 3D printing. We also wanted to concentrate on things that aren’t necessarily coming out of large design firms or architecture practices, like the ear guard that a 12-year-old boyscout came up with in Canada to stop facemasks from rubbing. It’s a lot more ground-up innovation.

Disegno Do you only take submissions that are a direct response to Covid? Because there are some interesting design projects that aren’t direct responses, but which have taken on increased resonance during this period, such as the Animal Crossing phenomenon.

Anna For us, the criteria is designers responding to the pandemic and that’s in the about page of the website. My hope is that somebody using this archive in the future to study this period would take into account the fact that there was a lot of other stuff going on at the same time, like Animal Crossing or these other cultural events.

Disegno What information do you collect for the archive? Some entries have a short text, others don’t. They all link through to a source, but what do you try to include within the entry itself?

Fleur If it requires a sentence of explanation, we try to put that in, but sometimes all it needs is the designer, a date, and the link. We’ve been trying to prioritise speed of uploading. It’s a rapid response project, so we want to get things up as they’re happening. If we can link to a page where others can go and investigate, that fulfils its research ambitions. We are open to submissions, however, and one of the options for that is label writing.

Disegno What kind of projects are you seeing emerge?

Anna My background is in graphics and the study of communication design, so I’m seeing a lot of open-call poster projects, as well as commissioned poster projects. That's an interesting balance. So the UN has launched an open-call poster project that lets anybody submit a poster, whereas another project run by Poster House and Print magazine in New York is commissioning designers such as Paula Scher to produce posters. I find that balance between professionalism and open-call culture to be interesting. [The designer and writer] Jessica Helfand has written a book about scrapbooking [Scrapbooking: An Amrican History] and in that she talks about how when society is hit with a problem like a war or something similar, people tend to want to document or make things.

Fleur Following on from that, there’s the Dezeen and Samsung Out of the Box project, where they’re doing an open call for people to make things out of cardboard boxes. I think competitions are an interesting thread throughout the archive.

Disegno One tendency seems to be a handful of designers aestheticising the crisis: redesigned forms of hand sanitiser or face masks that are presented to the public as if problem solving, but which have no real practical or theoretical application. There seems a degree of Covid-washing.

Anna Those sorts of projects are just as important to document, because even if they are unsettling, the aestheticisation of products beyond function, or taking advantage of a situation, is something people have been doing for a long time. This is just another example of being exploitative.

Fleur It’s complicated and as the weeks go on it may be something we struggle with or learn to deal with a little bit more. The genesis of the archive was things that are functional, but as time goes on there are those slightly more whimsical examples – projects which are masquerading as solutions but which aren’t quite. They’re still a response though, so they do have a place in the archive.

Disegno Would you be interested in introducing an element of critique? Something like MoMA’s digital Design and Violence project was interesting not only for the objects it presented that ran counter to the traditional museological narrative of design as a force for good, but for the online discussion it encouraged around those exhibits. Do you see a place for that kind of analysis in the archive, or do you want to maintain a neutral presentation?

Anna In terms of the label writing we’d like to keep that as objective as possible. But we have definitely talked about having a page that is more curated ideas about the different projects. That would be both to give us space to reflect and think about things, but also to give our peers opportunities to contribute

Fleur With time those reflections will come, and by disseminating it amongst the design, design theory and design history communities hopefully we’ll hopefully start receiving those. I’m happy for there to be a space for critical reflection, but the archive itself will remain as a relatively neutral space.