“Social distancing isn’t behaving distantly”: how designers can deal with coronavirus

Working from home, freelancers’ rights, disrupted supply chains and ongoing postponements are some of the creative industry’s concerns as coronavirus continues its spread.

The UK government has now moved into the “delay” phase of the coronavirus pandemic, as the official number of infected people reached over 600 (though many more undiagnosed cases are likely). While containment measures differ from country to country — such as school closures and limits to public gatherings — a prominent concern is the impact on working life. We talk to designers about how their work might be disrupted, possible solutions — and what the virus’ long-term impact might be.

“It was the greater purpose that swayed us”

There appears to be a consensus among design studios that remote working is the best approach. Simon Manchipp is founder and strategic creative director at studio Someone, whose workforce started to work from home today. He says: “We had many conversations about it, but in the end, it was the greater purpose that swayed us. While all of the company staff are young(ish!), fit and healthy — and therefore not immediately in the crosshairs of danger — it’s the bigger picture we felt that needed to be responded to responsibly.

“This is an exponential threat. Every day counts. When you’re delaying by a single day you’re not contributing to a few cases. There are possibly hundreds or thousands of cases in your community already. Every day that there isn’t social distancing, these cases grow exponentially. We’re in London — and the commute puts you in front of a lot of opportunities for the virus.

“Plus (and possibly most notable) — we can. We are not front line, we are not needed to be physically there for many meetings, the work is done remotely, not on-site and just as the thousands of Google staff worldwide have taken to their laptops and gone home without great effect to their products and services — we too can keep on serving our clients very well without the need for us to be in a single space all day, every day.”

Some believe that “flattening the curve” like this is the best way to mitigate the damage caused by the virus. It works on scientific predictions about the likely number of cases; if events are cancelled, and precautions taken, it might be possible to stretch out that number over a longer time period, thereby allowing people to have more access to care which could save lives.

“You don’t need much more than FaceTime, Slack, Dropbox and a good internet connection”

It is relatively easy for most studios to work remotely, thanks to technology. Manchipp says that the messaging app Slack is a “great tool” for this situation. The team of 30 has been using it since its launch and has found it a “terrific way to unite remote workers” as well as clients. It used it on its project for rebranding the UK Parliament, as a way to “integrate” the client’s design team with Someone’s own.

Jo Barnard, founder of product design company Morrama, echoes this: “You don’t need much more than FaceTime, Slack, Dropbox and a good internet connection to be able to work remotely nowadays.”

However, design studios frequently work collaboratively, and this is a concern for Barnard. She continues: I’ve always been of the belief that sketch sessions, project reviews and design crits are best carried out in person.”

There is also a potential problem of loneliness and impact on wellbeing, as creatives are forced to work remotely.

A chance to reassess working life?

Despite its challenges — and it is perhaps too early to identify all of them — this could be a chance to rethink how designers work. Barnard says: “Having to rethink your work style isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Who knows, maybe we will establish permanent practices that will make us better designers and a better team in the long run. As for supporting each other emotionally and psychologically, this is going to be crucial.”

This view is echoed by Craig Glass, creative director of brand experience at branding studio CBA London, says that this could be a chance to explore the possibility of “virtual studios”. “The experience of creating virtual studios without traditional boundaries will influence how we design for the future,” he says.

Glass continues: “The human element is central to any creative’s work. So much creativity and inspiration come out of face-to-face observation, collaboration, discussion as well as the energy of live sketching. The biggest creative challenge lies in using digital tools to replicate in real-time these principles and experiences.”

Some of these digital tools are already in place at studios. At Seymourpowell, “big-screen video portals” connect the design studio’s three UK locations in London, Scotland and Newcastle.

Craig Bunyan, creative strategist at the London office says: “Because they are always on and positioned to be part of the team, it often feels like the Scotland and Newcastle teams are closer than the teams which are across the hall.

“One of things that we feel we gain most from this portal solution is being able to facilitate that unscripted water cooler moment, which is so crucial to the creative process but can be incredibly difficult to capture during a phone call or using more traditional video conferencing.”

How to maintain “instant sparks” while working remotely

Nick Vaus, a creative director at design studio Free The Birds, says that the team will be working to maintain “instant sparks” amid the possibility of feeling “disconnected”.

He says: “We are all fortunate that we are able to work from home. However, while technology connects us, the instant sparks of bouncing ideas off one another may feel flat and disconnected.

Our home at Free The Birds is our collective workspace, a safe environment to nurture our beautiful thinking. So our working from home mission is to ensure that we can migrate this into everyone’s homes.”

Having spent the past week in preparation, creating remote access, chatrooms and testing out workspace platform, the studio now has a list of methods to ensure a routine. This includes ways to ensure a community spirit is maintained such as hosting its usual 9:30am meeting together and setting its usual afternoon “teaser questions”.

It extends to social aspects too. “No doubt we will be sharing what we are having for lunch,” Vaus says. “The team even want to arrange a Friday kitchen disco session.” And creativity will not be dimmed as they will be “designing the most creative backgrounds when video conferencing”.

Consultancy service Econsultancy and Marketing Week magazine recently surveyed the digital and marketing industries and found that “70% of marketers believe remote working requires training in best practise to be effective — and that rapid training is either important or critical.” Using that research, it has created a free webinar in “best practice remote working”, which will cover areas such as maximising efficiency when working from home, setting up a team to work remotely and managing agency relationships. It runs Wednesday 18 March at 2pm.

Product design: “There is little to be done but wait”

Some design sector’s problem go beyond remote working solutions. For Jo Barnard, whose product design studio relies on material sourcing, coronavirus will likely have serious impact. She says: “We naturally have a lot of projects dependent on our supplies in China so COVID-19 has caused complications. China has done an incredible job of containing the disease and minimising impact on trade and production.

“As travel bans mean that overseeing the manufacture of new projects in the East in person is going to be impossible for a long while, trust and good communication with our manufacturing partners is key.”

A supply chain consultant told Design Week that the economic repercussions on companies from coronavirus are likely to be “severe”. One way to mitigate these concerns could be for companies to create more “agile” supply chains.

Event cancellations and postponements: “I now find myself in a situation where projects face growing uncertainty”

The events sector of the industry has been hit by cancellations and postponements; among them the Geneva Motor Show, which was cancelled, and Milan’s Salone del Mobile, which has been postponed to June.

Anne-Laure Pingreoun is the founder of Alter-Projects, a consultancy that creates “social experiences”. She is also the curator of the French pavilion at the London Design Biennale, the third edition of which takes place in September.

Pingreoun says: “As a curator producing complex projects at festivals and events around the globe, I now find myself in a situation where projects face growing uncertainty. Cancellations and postponements have made it incredibly difficulty to be able to predict a production schedule. A larger number of my projects are later in the spring or autumn, so I’m watching how the situation progresses.”

One positive note? Pingreoun is “using the opportunity to reconnect and collaborate with my London network”.

What should freelancers do?

In this week’s budget, the chancellor Rishi Sunak, announced measures which aim to support SMEs during the pandemic. Firms with fewer than 250 employees will have sick pay paid directly by the Government for two weeks. Relief for emergency loans and cash grants up to £3,000 were also announced.

But for those who are self-employed or working in the gig economy, it might be a little more difficult to access that relief. Although sick pay would be extended to people on “all types of contract”, they will have to do so by accessing welfare. However, the chancellor also said that this process would be made easier, and Employment and Support Allowance will be claimable from day one rather than the eighth of leave as it was previously. The minimum income for universal credit has been temporarily removed and this process can be organised over the phone or online, reducing the need for face-to-face contact.

Ipse, the association of independent professionals and the self-employment, published advice for freelancers in the wake of the budget. While it says that it cannot offered detailed recommendations, it does say to start discussing preparations with clients now and work out how the virus might affect contractual obligations.

The association also advises freelancers to check “what health or income protection insurance they may have in place”. While there are options available for those who are not currently covered, options usually have a deferral period of three to four weeks and “may not provide appropriate cover” for those who are forced to self-isolate.

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  • Marianne McDouall March 26, 2020 at 12:00 pm

    Freelance Graphic Designer

    In the last hour, I received a phone call from a couple of clients postponing the graphic design and print projects we have been planning on over this difficult time, the projects worth a good deal of money and a lifeline at the moment – now wiped from our job book for the foreseeable future.

    We never thought our future would depend on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak.

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