Design Hacks Will Dominate the Coronavirus Recovery Landscape

This story originally appeared on Bloomberg’s CityLab. It has been republished with permission.

At Old Takoma Ace Hardware in Takoma Park, Md., a garish jumble of plastic barriers, signs, and floor markings faces customers a few steps inside the front door. Orange cones mark off the queueing area for the cash registers. A yellow “Wet Floor” tent sign is partly covered by a drawing of an arrow pointing left, with the instruction ENTER. On the tile floor, arrows and brackets (indicating where to stand) are outlined in fluorescent duct tape. “ATTENTION CUSTOMERS,” reads a notice stuck to one of the cones. “FACE COVERINGS ARE REQUIRED BY LAW.” 

The notice also has an emoji-face with a mask.

“I’ve learned that people don’t read,” says Rose McKinnon, the store’s assistant manager. “Pictures and bright colors are better.” 

As pundits debate how the long-term design of cities will be affected by COVID-19, here in the present, a cohort of mostly nonprofessionals is adapting urban space on the fly. Plexiglass screens hastily installed at bodega counters. Painted circles indicating where to sit in a park. Fancified caution tape criss-crossing benches and playgrounds that are not considered safe to use. Anywhere you go as the country starts to reopen, there’s evidence of how small business owners, municipal employees and other people who aren’t trained architects or designers have MacGyvered their domains in the cause of public health. 

These design hacks—attempts to rescript how people use buildings and outdoor areas during a viral pandemic —represent the messy in-between of dealing with a crisis in real time. Most use cheap, humble materials and aren’t exactly pretty to look at.

But they reveal real ingenuity under time and budget constraints, in the spirit of a roll-up-your-sleeves variety of urban planning known as tactical urbanism. And they will likely make more difference to virus-spreading behaviors than interventions by professional designers, which are far more expensive, less flexible and unlikely to become ubiquitous—especially as a recession bites. 

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In New Orleans, for instance, a food pantry borrowed the metal stanchions and velvet ropes of a nearby art-house movie theater to demarcate an area on the sidewalk to serve its clients. At a hot-pot restaurant in Bangkok, clever plastic inserts have turned group tables into see-through individual booths. Some cafes have even devised little wheeled trolleys for passing food and drink to customers. 

COVID-19 hacks are also pervading protest movements, in which other kinds of hacks for public space have long played a role. On May 30, a Twitter user in an unidentified city shared a photo of an improvised hand-sanitizing station for protesters—a sanitizer dispenser duct-taped to a pole.

In Tel Aviv in April, 5,000 people gathered in Rabin Square one night to protest the government of President Benjamin Netanyahu. To maintain social distancing, they stood on spray-painted Xs two meters (6.6 feet) apart, making for a compelling sight in aerial photos that were shared widely online. 

While professional designers are busy churning out their own hacks, they haven’t necessarily improved much on the efforts of amateurs. Often, it’s the opposite: The many face shields showcased on design websites are more about cyberpunk fantasies than meeting a societal need, while a purpose-designed social-distancing blanket seems pointless if you already own a regular blanket and can eyeball six feet. (The writer Kate Wagner has referred to such opportunistic designs as “Coronagrifting.”)

Other small innovations such as hook-like door handles that you open with your forearm that were piloted at a grocery store in Finland seem more practical; they would reduce the risk of contagion and help some people overcome their worries about it. 

McKinnon, the hardware-store assistant manager, says both employees and customers suggested hacks as her team improvised a system this spring. The store was designated an essential business, so it did not close when Maryland went into lockdown on March 16. But even before that, an unexpected weekend rush of people stocking up on Lysol and Purell convinced the staff they had to make changes for everyone’s safety.

Some ideas didn’t work out: Originally, to control traffic, they divided the front and back areas of the store using a web of pink tape that customers could pass through with permission. But keeping track of headcount was too difficult and they removed it. 

Jim Harding, an expert in experiential design and wayfinding at the firm Gresham Smith, has led design projects in many airports, where we rely on environmental cues more than almost anywhere else. To those trying to retool an environment for the social-distancing era, Harding recommends focusing on spots where people have what those in his line of work call “dwell time.” 

At an airport, he explains, people are often on the move from the time they park their car until they get to the gate—except at points where they have to stop, like the check-in counter or departures board.

“That’s your opportunity to educate and inform them about what’s next,” Harding says. Communication won’t work unless it reaches people when and where they’re receptive.

“You could put up crazy ads and signage and dots [on the floor], and everything you could think of, but it doesn’t do much unless people are actually paying attention.”

(On the back door of Old Takoma Ace Hardware that once led directly to a garden center, even a red stop sign and another sign calling it a “hazardous area” couldn’t deter customers from pushing it open out of habit. The door had to be alarmed, McKinnon says.) 

Which of the hacks (if any) end up becoming permanent depends on many things, not least the course of the virus. Some businesses, particularly chains, have moved past the Sharpies-and-duct-tape stage, perhaps in tacit acknowledgment that the pandemic appears to be far from over. “Official” signs and floor and table decals have the advantage of instilling trust: For all their creativity, ad-hoc changes don’t always inspire confidence that someone has thought a policy through and is sticking to it. 

Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York design firm Pentagram, says it’s telling that COVID-19 signs—whether printed commercially or made by hand—still tend to have a lot of verbiage on them. For example, a person reaching for the front door of a store might encounter a sign reading, “Due to COVID-19, only 10 customers are allowed inside at once. Face coverings are required at all times. Please maintain a distance of six feet from other customers. Thank you for protecting the health of our community.” 

“We’re still at the propaganda phase of this,” Bierut says. “We’re designing ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’ posters.” 

Assuming social distancing and hygiene remain priorities and norms around them start to stabilize, we will at some point move on from persuasion. Someone will devise a system of icons and signs “that can just in a really shorthand way sort out what the agreed behavior is going to be,” Bierut says. “It will be professionalized, ultimately, because that will be the path of least resistance.” 

Ultimately, though, many hacks could become unnecessary in the long term if people develop more ingrained shifts in their behavior. We may soon come to read the space around us for social distancing without any help from applied information. We’re always gauging our bodies in relation to our surroundings in minute detail anyway, even if we don’t consciously think about it. Is there enough space to politely pass the other person in this grocery aisle? Is the elevator so full that I should wait for the next one? 

The six-foot rule, although reductive, is a useful heuristic. Bierut says he can imagine a parent taking a walk with their children, silently calculating that three sidewalk squares add up to about six feet. Then telling the kids: “Be sure you stay three sidewalk squares apart” from other people. 

In the meantime, let’s give hacks their due. They represent the democratization of design, a spirit perfectly attuned to a summer that’s seen the biggest protests in the U.S. since the 1960s: For now, at least, anyone can be an architect.

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems



Amanda Hurley is a journalist and author in the Washington, D.C., area.