Lots of questions are being asked about how life will change in the wake of COVID-19. Because physical distancing is a big part of that conversation, designers of physical spaces are among those expected to supply answers.
How will social and public behaviors be impacted? How will physical spaces have to adapt? Can we look to technology to provide any transitional assistance until a new normal is achieved? And how will spaces that have traditionally been communal, high-touch, very tactile settings – think retail and high-end luxury experiences – be forced to morph as the world adjusts to new norms?
A logical candidate to address these issues is David Schwarz, creative leader and founding partner of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based design agency HUSH, who for more than a decade has led a team weaving content, architecture, technology, and interactivity into the experiences it designs for major brand clients.
Schwarz feels the design of event spaces will come under growing scrutiny in the years to come. Perhaps the construction of even moderately-sized, let alone huge, spaces will become a thing of the past. Or could it be, he asks, that at large events, there will need to be scaled-down pod-like areas housing no more than 50 people at a time to halt contagion’s spread?
Schwarz forecasts innovative advancements along the lines of touch-free gesture technology and voice-activated commands growing more commonplace in public settings until a fresh everyday world can be attained.
Interactive brand experiences will rely more often on personally-owned mobile devices supplanting touch screens to drive interactive experiences. While evidence shows phones aren’t the most sanitary of items, they’re highly familiar to users. So they may become the default remote control mechanism to help folks move through physical spaces that earlier required touch to navigate.
And Schwarz believes gloves will remain de rigueur in supermarkets for some time to come. Any high-touch communal location will need to be adjusted to new experiential expectations. It’s not so different than when hand dryers arrived in public restrooms, he argues. Over the years, they’ve grown into expected accouterments, and today bathrooms without them seem a bit offbeat.
Schwarz says as experienced design experts, he and his colleagues must adapt to the new conditions of the human experience. “In some cases, we help define how people engage with their environments,” he says. “In others, we have to respond to changes in that environment. COVID-19 represents a mix of both. We have to be both reactive to new norms, but also define how we can find unseen and unexplored inspiration within this new experience.”
That means design can’t simply return to business as usual, he says.
Even if the world is to quickly return to a “near normal” commonplace before the pandemic, design teams must begin to define how the future might look.
“Everything can be redesigned to consider a future where experiences have to be both inspiring and safe, functional and experimental, in-person and virtual,” he observes. “We have to design what living in this dual reality will mean.”
This next-era design challenge impacts how we see public experiences like transportation, urban space, place making, and arts, as well as commercial experiences driven by retail consumerism, paid brand experiences and entertainment. And then there’s the workplace, “where community, communication, and group efficiency will become very different,” Schwarz says.
Those at HUSH remain enthusiastic about design’s role in coming together, exploring and probing new experiences that take society beyond the four walls of their own domiciles or, as Schwarz says, “their many digital rectangles.”
He adds, “Giving up on that would represent more than a business pivot. It would be giving up on what makes us feel alive and human.”