“Design transcends agenda. It speaks to the politics of optimism.” – Paul Bennett
Design at its core has always been about people and how we interact with one another. It is the silent expression of our community values and the motionless coordinator of our daily movements, both large and small. Any archaeologist or urban planner will tell you: architecture, the layout of the built environment and the design of space tell the story of who we are and help define who we aim to be. For every space we inhabit, whether our homes, offices, parks, restaurants, city streets or public gathering spaces, there are unspoken cues for how we exist in the space and how we connect to the environment and one another.
Sometimes these design cues are functional or dictated by regulation, and sometimes they are suggestive of underlying values or purely aesthetic, but always they chronicle the living human activity they sustain. As many have noted, the current global pandemic will fundamentally change some things about how we interact. There is still plenty of debate about what those changes will be, but one thing is certain—design is at the forefront of the future after COVID-19, and design will provide the solutions for our new world with its new expectations and modified values.
We certainly don’t suggest that medical science, economics and policy will not be critical in influencing our post-pandemic world, or that important innovations will not be made in all of these sectors. However, once we begin to truly emerge from the early waves of pandemic and rethink and recapture our “normal” life rhythms, evidence strongly suggests that this shared global experience will usher in new paradigms that alter our use of space in some meaningful ways. Many have made comparative reference to changes in security and travel post-911. Human movement didn’t halt forever, but new methods and processes for security emerged.
In our current shift, we expect the changes will be even more far-reaching and fundamental, such as a new reliance on the home, a more robust focus on wellness, and a renewed desire to commune with nature. It is design that will confront these trends head-on. We will rethink the use and design of offices, and many of us will require more functional home-office space. A higher premium and more demand will be put on reclaiming outdoor spaces for leisure, from rooftops to expanded space on city sidewalks, to a more relaxed version of public park space that encourages solo or small group interactions with nature. Think more wild park with meandering trails and less large urban square – a transition from city planning trends of recent years that Olmstead would no doubt celebrate. In general, there will be renewed interest around urban planning, and opportunities abound for creative thinkers and new voices to propagate different solutions for our communal future.
In addition to these more sweeping but subtle changes, design will be at the forefront in helping us to reclaim our favorite social activities in important technical ways. Designers will need to assist restaurants, hotels, and other public venues in interpreting new safety and policy requirements while still ensuring their financial viability and survival. How specifically we utilize square footage and orchestrate the flow of people in retail and hospitality spaces matters. A study recently released by MASS Design Group* out of Boston shares valuable information on reconfiguration for the restaurant environment – other creative designers and architects will also emerge to help us find our way forward in various settings.
As always in times of turbulence, the silver lining can be difficult to find. The interior design and architecture industries have been hit hard, especially when it comes to hospitality and commercial sectors. As we have all been sheltering in our homes, both design and social venues seem as though they couldn’t be farther from “essential,” and a return to vibrant social life and the days of disposable income may still seem far off for many. But make no mistake, as the world begins to reemerge, design and creative design minds will be as necessary as ever. They will be, quite literally, the architects and interpreters of our new societal paradigms. And sooner rather than later, the outlines of our new world will begin to take shape, and design will be the silver lining, helping us find new tools to navigate back to the activities and interactions we have so dearly missed.