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Design Emergency discusses innovations that are crucial in the age of pandemic

STIR speaks with Alice Rawsthorn and Paola Antonelli, the curators of the Design Emergency series, which explores the role of design during and after COVID-19.

by Meghna MehtaPublished on : Aug 11, 2020

Design Emergency is a collaborative initiative between Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Alice Rawsthorn, design critic and author of Design as an Attitude. The platform is a response to explore design’s impact on the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic that we are facing today as well as its aftermath.

Left: Design Emergency, an investigation into design’s response to COVID-19; Right: Alice Rawsthorn and Paola Antonelli discussing ‘hacking’ on IGTV | Alice Rawsthorn and Paola Antonelli | Design Emergency| STIRworld
Left: Design Emergency, an investigation into design’s response to COVID-19; Right: Alice Rawsthorn and Paola Antonelli discussing ‘hacking’ on IGTV Image: Left: Courtesy of Studio Frith; Right: Stuart Comer

Design Emergency explores ‘design’ as one of the most powerful tools in protecting us from the pandemic, improving its treatment and to prepare us for the radical changes it will introduce to our lives in the future. The conversations demonstrate an extraordinary diversity of design and how effectively it can address urgent problems and tackle the complex social, political, economic and ecological challenges in these turbulent times. Antonelli and Rawsthorn are currently streaming weekly Instagram live talks with leading figures of the design industry as part of this initiative, and setting examples and inspirations for the anxious eyes for a brighter future.

Alice Rawsthorn in conversation with Alissa Eckert, a medical illustrator who designed the spiky blob recognised worldwide as the cause of COVID-19 Image: Courtesy of Design Emergency

The collaboration has seen insightful discussions with many - Michael Murphy, co-founder of MASS Design Group; Alissa Eckert, medical illustrator of the spiky blob that symbolises coronavirus worldwide; Dries Verbruggen, co-founder of the Creatives tegen Corona, a collaboration to combat COVID-19 in Antwerp; data designer Federica Fragapane; Roya Mahboob, the Afghanistan-based tech entrepreneur and philanthropist; Mark Dalton, who initiated New Zealand’s Unite Against COVID-19 campaign; Marco Ranieri, an Italian doctor who invented a method to increase the capacity of ventilators; Hillary Cottam, the British social scientist; Studio Formafantasma, the designer duo who have created the Geo-design platform and Pakistani doctors Sara Saeed Khurram and Iffat Zafar of Sehat Kahani, a virtual telemedic service, among others.

Here, STIR speaks with the creators of Design Emergency on why they believed the stories needed a curated platform where these inventions and initiatives could be deliberated upon.

Meghna Mehta (MM): How, according to you, has the pandemic completely overturned the meaning of the word ‘design’? What inspired this series?

Alice Rawsthorn (AR): One reason why Paola and I decided to launch Design Emergency was because we both believe that design’s response to COVID-19 could radically redefine public and political perceptions of design. The ingenuity, resourcefulness, courage, dedication and generosity displayed by so many designers – professional and otherwise – has demonstrated what design can do to change our lives for the better. Design has been a sorely needed “good news” story for the global media throughout the pandemic. We are convinced that this will dispel the stereotypes that have impeded it for so long, by proving design’s value in tackling complex social, political and ecological problems.

Paola Antonelli in conversation with Marco Ranieri, an Italian doctor who invented a new mechanism such that ventilators can provide oxygen to two patients at a time Image: Courtesy of Design Emergency

MM: What is the single biggest Design Emergency of the day?

Paola Antonelli (PA): Tricky question. I shall give you an honest answer: it’s an entangled system, one in which every single emergency can’t be described independently of the state of the others. The environmental crisis that underlies all crises is fed by catastrophes local and global, long-lasting and sudden, by emergencies concerning health, social justice, and more, by millions of acres of burning forest and cities drowned by floods, and by - behold the absurdity –darker-skinned people being oppressed and suppressed by lighter-skinned ones. And much more. As vigilant citizens and engaged designers, we try to find the most effective pressure points, possibly the ones that will galvanise different emergencies at once, and push them. 

Alice Rawsthorn in conversation with Roya Mahboob, an Afghan tech entrepreneur who initiated the Afghan Dreamers project Image: Courtesy of Design Emergency

MM: Which design invention(s) struck you the most as making a difference to many lives while conducting the Design Emergency series?

AR: There have been incredible design innovations during this crisis: from new ventilators and personal protective equipment for frontline health workers, to teaching us how to observe safe social distances. But if I had to choose one example, it would be the community support groups that have emerged worldwide to enable people to help vulnerable neighbours with essential tasks. India has a rich history of these improvisational examples of social design, thanks to its remarkable network of women’s self-help groups (SHG), which have proved vital to the relief effort in their communities. One SHG in Kerala has even launched a floating supermarket.

Italian Designer duo Studio Formafantasma discuss the Geo-design platform with Paola Antonelli Image: Courtesy of Design Emergency

MM: Do you believe urgent and emergent design is a relevant trend today, or must design always be responsive to situations? 

PA: There are many different types of design for different goals, with different functions and consequences. ‘Design’ is a noun as encompassing and open-ended as ‘art’. Even in this Design Emergency series, Alice and I contemplated at first thoughtful and fast responses to the immediate urgency of the pandemic, and then moved on to long-term projects that in some cases have existed before the pandemic, and are now influenced and amplified by it. This kind of design born out of necessity is never a trend, it is rather the most ancient type of design. And emergencies can last thousands of years. 

British social designer Hilary Cottam tells Design Emergency co-founder Alice Rawsthorn, about her ambitious plan to redesign the welfare state to make our social systems fit for purpose in the 21st century Image: Courtesy of Design Emergency

MM: As the curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), how urgently do you see exhibitions and museums adapting to the new normal?

PA: As a curator of contemporary design, I admire and celebrate humans’ ability to adapt to new situations, especially tough ones - and especially when we manage to overcome them without detriment to other species and to the planet. It goes without saying that exhibitions and museums must, too. It is less about the content, which in a museum like the MoMA is always about life and contemporaneity, even with historical exhibitions and art. It is more about the form. As I am answering these questions, the MoMA is still closed and we are awaiting the governor's and mayor's decision on when we will be able to re-open. We have found new ways however to fulfil our mission using technology. You can find many of them on

Alice Rawsthorn in conversation with Sara Saeed Khurram and Iffat Zafar, the dynamic doctors-turned-designers who are democratising health care in Pakistan through their telemedicine network Sehat Kahani Image: Courtesy of Design Emergency

MM: Can you take us through your curatorial process which you adapted while creating the series? What is next from here?

AR: When Paola and I began Design Emergency, our initial aim was to investigate the design response to SARS-CoV-2 in a series of IG live interviews with the designers – professional and otherwise – who we consider to be global leaders in the relief effort. We then changed our focus to the designers who, we believe, will lead the redesign and reconstruction of our lives post-pandemic. By doing so we have assembled a great deal of information and fascinating first-hand accounts of some of the most important design projects of our time, with which we are planning to produce a book.

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