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Recap: DesignMeets... Design after the Pandemic

September 10, 2021

It’s June 2021. Believe it or not, a full 16 months has gone by since DesignMeets’ last “pre-pandemic” in-person meeting took place. That was then and this is now. COVID-19 came in March of 2020 and settled in among us…and quickly changed everything. Many of us have long since left our familiar workplaces behind and transitioned to the new reality of “working from home.”

We’ve all had to adapt to new priorities. New surroundings, new schedules and routines and adjusted to new ways of communicating, collaborating with our colleagues remotely and living 24/7 with our families. These are uncertain times, and these experiences have often meant higher levels of stress, greater anxiety and sometimes, even bouts of depression. For the designers among us, it’s fair to say it has been difficult at times, both emotionally and creatively.

The Future of Design

As designers, the pandemic has given us a lot to think about. These changes are having an impact on our growth as a profession, the way we do our work, design products and services and shape the built environment around us. This, our second virtual DesignMeets session, casts a critical eye on these developments. Today, we have a panel of our industry’s best and brightest – leading design thinkers, educators and visionaries – to give us their ideas and insights on what’s coming in the next six to 12 months. And their sense of some changes we can expect in our design practice and workplaces of the future. And from the educational perspective, how we need to train the next generation of designers who are on the way up.

Our Panel

Our first speaker is Dominira (Dom) Saul, a newly minted owner of DFFRNT, a strategic design small business and Ottawa University professor of user experience. He recalls making the decision to launch his business in the middle of the pandemic. They went ahead because COVID-19 was imposing transformation on businesses all around them and his company’s primary goal was to leverage design research and methodologies to solve the big problems that their clients were experiencing.

What was not anticipated was how extra intentional they needed to be in their communications, collaboration and team-building exercises because of working remotely. Right now, over a year later, team members still haven’t met in person, so the conventional rules of engagement – getting to know each other, collaborating and building relationships – just don’t apply. Sounds reasonable enough in theory, he says, but in practice, it’s a very different experience.

Dan Sellers is the head of business design and user experience at the Enterprise Strategy Lab at EPAM, New York. He’s a multi-disciplinary design strategist for businesses at the enterprise level. He believes a good designer can, by virtue of design, not only solve problems but seek them out, long before they happen. As both a designer and studio manager, he believes in having a robust culture to create a home, a powerful centre of belonging for team members, both for introverts and extroverts. A safe environment for everyone allows them to work comfortably and creatively together, he says.

The pandemic and the necessity of going remote pushed people apart. To compensate, Dan resorted to other strategies for tapping into people’s creativity and comfort. His preferred approach involved a duality method for the team, deploying a “two-by-two” buddy growth mindset. This way, people were paired up symbiotically, even in different time zones, with complementary skill sets and levels of professional and personal maturity to optimize everything that each person had to offer. It’s an effective strategy for coping, being productive and managing change.

Turning now to education and the task of shaping the next generation of designers, Irene Chong – our third panelist – is Professor of Design at Seneca College. She’s a design strategist and educator whose interests intersect design, innovation, business and social impact. With her students now about to graduate, she says, they’re naturally anxious about their future, pandemic or not. And like all students before them, they’re desperate to get out into the world and on with their lives. But this time, the pandemic has intensified those anxieties and manifested them up in a different and more challenging form.

For most students, particularly introverts, there’s a lot of fear in their lives, because of the pandemic and the reality of having to perform in the online world. This has meant spending extra time coaching them in the softer social skills that they are going to need in the real life that awaits them. Like Dan, it’s about culture building and proofing them for the new environment to keep them safe. Beyond educators, everyone in their world needs to share in their coaching, she says, so they can learn these new rules of online engagement that are in every quarter.

Our last panelist is Robin Uchida, a designer, educator, facilitator and creative strategist who advocates for exploring to improve. He teaches an interdisciplinary course called “Think Tank” at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He says the pandemic has unleashed a kind of a social freefall, a chaos with lots of different things happening at once, causing a cultural dilemma to abound.

To contribute to the discussion, he proposes we develop an organizing tool capable of harnessing these unpredictable social behaviours brought on by the pandemic by imposing a social structure analogous to that found in nature. In this analogy he cites two examples – the first, called “optimized flocking,” depicts autonomous, self-organizing drones working independently yet exhibiting discernable patterns of flight within a collective environment; and second, a large flock of starlings(called murmurations) exhibiting steering behaviour by flying independently but remaining within the confines of the collective, an instinct of group survival.

When applied to the social organization, these behaviours lend themselves as anchor mechanisms to set boundaries of weakness and strength and identify directions for change. In this scenario, our group social behaviours arising out of the pandemic mimic group separation (moving apart), alignment and cohesion.

In our present context, physical separation – the process of moving apart – has already happened. What is left are the remaining steps of alignment and cohesion to play out. The question becomes, how are these unifying elements in our group dynamics to occur if we are to restore our social equilibrium?

The Takeaway

COVID-19 is set to leave many lasting effects in its wake. It has significantly accelerated the role of technology in our lives and as designers, our industry is increasingly tied to these developments and only getting stronger. Design is having to adapt quickly to a changing world. Different models of working, being creative and learning how to collaborate are constantly reshaping our design practice. Then there are the questions of inclusion, diversity, circularity and the design appropriate for our ecology yet to be determined.

We are a work in progress and we are watching the evolution of our profession play out. Stay tuned!

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