It is not news that we are living through a new situation, which at times seems implausible, at others disconcerting and always frustrating. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us pain and drama.

Design forms part of society and from society emerge the needs with which it has to work. Design offers society possible answers to those needs.

Information campaign Barcelona City Council – Study Family.

If it is true that design is often seen as a frivolity only for snobs or simply as some kind of sales pitch, there are always professionals in the world of design that are working to improve the life of the people who their products and services are aimed at. It is not surprising, then, that in the current social emergency some designers have reacted by trying to find solutions, most likely partial and possibly fleeting, but which nevertheless may parry the blow in some situations. (2)

Gracia Mask Open Screen.

But let’s look at the context: we are all locked down at home; social media is on fire since it is the nearest we can get to a social life. After the panic of the first few days, projects, products, inventions and prototypes by designers, makers, engineers and different studios begin to appear.  The idea is the constant: we are experiencing an exceptional time and we all have to pitch in. From masks to ventilators, information campaigns and motivating messages or data graphics, anything to get a better understanding of what is going on.

It is in this context that the curators of the Design Museum decided that they could and should also contribute and they began by calling for projects and proposals. That is how Emergency! Design against COVID-19 came about – a free, temporary exhibition that can be seen at the Design Museum Barcelona. Curated by Teresa Bastardes, head of collections at the Design Museum, it attempts to show the collective efforts to provide answers, from both public and private entities, and to bring together a collection that will be a testimony to clinical machinery and graphic communication, with a special emphasis on elements of protection.

Information technology and digitization have facilitated collaborative design, the fluid relation between transversal teams, the availability of access to open code designs and the possibility of 3D printing.

There is something interesting that makes this exhibition a tale for our own times: today, here and now, information technology and digitization have facilitated collaborative design, the fluid relation between transversal teams, the availability of access to open code designs and the possibility of 3D printing in companies, at the university, in the office or simply at home. It is important to emphasise this because it theses are precisely the technologies that are used  most often by younger people. Obviously there are exceptions but it is this latest generation of designers that has thrown itself into testing, researching and producing possible tools and mechanisms for protection or treatment against the effects of the pandemic.

OxyGEN respirator, 2020, by Protofy, produced at SEAT.

The fact that the Design Museum has included these pieces in its collection, and the desire of its curators to ensure that the collection continues to grow in testimony to the exceptionality of the time and the different designs that have helped to save lives, is an important consideration. Most of the projects included in the permanent collection of the museum form part of what we call “one-off designs”. They are pieces of significant cultural importance with a strong aesthetic component and they are linked to the furnishings or equipment of the home. Some of them are small electrical goods or light machinery but the criteria for their inclusion is still mainly cultural. Clinical ventilators, air filters, infographs and temporary signing are all included. This step forward and the consequent opening up of new territories must be valued accordingly.

Poster by Mr. Zé.

Personally I feel proud that the concept “Design for living”, which was launched in 2015 at the museum with an exhibition and which continues with annual seminars, has been able to contribute to broadening the outlook of design and its conservation in museums towards areas which have up until now received relatively little attention. We can now say that socially responsible design and hitherto little represented concepts such as co-design, open codes and 3D printing now have a clear place in the Design Museum and it will therefore be easier for them to enter the collective imaginary of both professionals and students. I am convinced that this will open up new windows and paths in school, studios and companies in this country.

Masks designed by Sergi Opisso.

Moving on to the content, in the exhibition you will find hygienic masks made by designers and companies, from fashion professionals such as Txell Miras, Míriam Ponsa and Josep Abril to graphic designers such as Sergi Opisso or production companies such as Closca and Buff. There is even a collaboration between a team from the Spanish National Research Agency and Bioinicia to make masks from nanofibers which use mechanical filtration.

There are also measures of protection for healthcare use, with greater levels of safety and which seek maximum efficiency using easy, quick and economic production systems, often involving 3D printing. Pep Trias i Grau, from the Morillas Brand Design studio is an example of the kind of people and studios that have offered their printers to manufacture elements for protection under the Covidmakers initiative in Catalonia.

Arm Door Opener developed by CIM UPC, technology center of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia.

There are also other initiatives such as the CAR3D project financed by EIT Health and the European Union whose objective is to design, develop and validate PPE such as masks and face protectors and to contact validated producers and consumers through a website.

In terms of clinical machinery the museum has opted for a range of proposals that have brought solutions to the one of the most immediate needs during the pandemic: the lack of ventilators. Some of them are being used in the ICUs of medical centres, and have already received validation from the Spanish Medical Agency. And there are gel dispensers, disinfection robots using UV technology and devices produced using 3D technology which enable shared doors to be opened without the need for physical contact, thereby reducing the risk of contagion.

Data visualization designed by Albert Carles.

There is also a section of graphics and communication which includes institutional campaigns such as that of Barcelona City Council and specific signing measures designed by the Signes company, and posters by Félix Rodríguez and Mr. Zé, which went viral during lockdown because of their political yet motivational messages. A project by the designer Albert Carles is also included, which until May 2020 offered real-time viewing of the evolution data for the pandemic in Catalonia extracted from the Datadista data bank.

MTS UVC space disinfection robot.

In all, everything is well-documented and exhibited, despite re-using the system FAD employed for their prizes in an exemplary attempt to reduce costs, which just goes to show that austerity and rigour are not incompatible when mounting an exhibition. In fact, the collaboration with ADIFAD made the ADI-Recognise, COVID Emergency call for proposals possible with the objective of giving initiatives that have been launched to tackle the health emergency a space, diffusion and recognition. These will form part of the exhibition very soon.

Finally, the exhibition will also offer parallel workshops in online format on 9 and 10 December, which also form the fifth year of the Design for Living seminar. Under the heading “Designing Futures in Times of Emergency” the sessions aim to provide visibility for the strategies, ways and resources used, for how we can use design to ensure that the probable future (the most feasible future) will be as close as possible to the desirable future (the future for the common good). There will be presentations of some of the exhibition projects in talks of design-fiction and speculative design – two very active trends in recent years which are paving the way for other futures for which we are almost inevitably destined.

You can find all the information on the website of the Design Museum.

The exhibition Emergency! Design against COVID-19 can be seen at the Design Museum of Barcelona until 10 January 2021.