A changed world

How design will need to adapt post COVID-19

As the world adapts to a new normal, there will be far-reaching changes across every country and industry. Working from home may become the default. Materials will be designed for their antimicrobial properties as much as their aesthetics. In this article, we look at the way design is likely to respond.

Temperature scanning at the entrance to a building and hand sanitising before entering a shop or office block have quickly become routine. We’re also seeing an acceleration of the trend towards touchless, automated technologies.

Architectural Digest lists automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, cellphone-controlled hotel room entry, hands-free light switches and temperature controls, automated luggage bag tags, and advanced airport check-in and security, as some of the tech that’s being adopted.

Bruce and Kimlyn Harbottle, industrial designers and founders and owners of Man + Wife (who are also behind the #Masks4SA movement) believe that COVID-19 will continue to hasten various design trends that were already being adopted, from multifunctional and modular furniture to integrating online and physical retail elements, as well as sparking innovation. Bruce says that global crises will always fast-track design in certain spheres.

“WWII was the greatest acceleration of military technology ever seen,” he says. “And aircraft technology that was released in 1939 was obsolete by 1942. By 1955, every aircraft technology used in WWII was completely obsolete. With COVID-19, we’ll see the same sort of pattern, but with regards to health, hygiene and medical advancements.”

He says that funding is currently available for almost any health intervention that may present a chance of helping. “We’re going to see some crazy ideas, but the ones that are the most efficient and functional will survive, while the rest will die out. But we’ll see an explosion of developments at first.”

The same goes for design and architecture, the Harbottles suggest. There will be a plethora of new ideas on creating cities, schools, offices and homes, as well as their interiors, for a post COVID-19 world, but only the most viable will survive in the long-term.

Andrew Mboyi, designer across multiple disciplines and the 2013 winner of the PG Bison 1.618 Education Initiative (read more about Andrew here), predicts the design future will include:

  • Flexible spaces that adapt to the number of users
  • Materials in public spaces that employ more anti-bacterial and hygienic finishes
  • The value of the home: “As people continue to work from home and use home for much more (work as well as well-being), they will look to invest in these spaces.


to the office as we know it

Building massive, open-plan offices may become a thing of the past. “Offices are going to be spaces you go to when you need a unique tool or resource that you can’t access while working remotely,” says Bruce.

Kimlyn and Bruce Harbottle of Man + Wife

Kimlyn believes designers will build on the office hot-desking trend (where multiple people share a desk space at different time periods) by creating multipurpose environments. For example, an office space could double as a lunch space or a meeting room. Of course, there will be an increased focus on proper cleaning and hygiene regimes too.

Wasted spaces will be re-looked and repurposed, particularly in homes. As people work remotely more, they’ll move from sitting at the dining room table to creating an office in whatever space is available, whether it’s a spare bedroom or a small nook in the passage.

These trends are guiding Man + Wife’s product development. For example, Kimlyn says they are working on flat-pack office designs that people can order online, which can be customised to a certain extent. “You can choose the colour you want, the size you need and what components you want with it, so you can make it your own,” she says.

To help people create and customise a home office, Man + Wife are working ona new flat-pack range

Safer spaces – from schools to shoe-rooms

“Service industries and retail spaces will also need to change,” says Kimlyn. “Schools too. It’s not just big corporate spaces.”

Bruce believes design will go outdoors. “UV light is so damaging to the coronavirus that I think we’ll see spaces becoming more open and activities moving outdoors,” he says. “South Africa gets great sunshine, so we can leave our masks and shoes outside to sterilise them, but even in places where there’s not as much sun, I think we’ll see people creating mud rooms with boxes with UV lights in them. As you come in, you’ll put your phone, wallet and keys in a box like this. You’ll have one for your shoes. It’s already common in the East to have ‘outside’ shoes and ‘inside’ shoes, and I think that will start to be adopted in the West too.”

Material choices

Kimlyn says that designers and clients will look for safer, more hygienic surfaces. Copper, which has already been trending, is a wonderful natural disinfectant. While the virus can remain active for some time on glass, paper or steel, it becomes inactive on a copper surface within just four hours.

Jason Wells, Brand and Marketing Manager at PG Bison, says the company had identified a trend towards safer and more hygienic surfaces even before the pandemic. “We had already moved to include an anti-bacterial additive in our melamine resin, he says. “This is exclusive to our MelaWood® range. While the melamine face of MelaWood® already provides an exceptional barrier to bacteria with its closed surface, we’ve included the anti-bacterial additive as an extra precautionary step to help prevent the spread of certain bacteria on the surface.”

House Miller kitchen, with interior design by Kimlyn Harbottle

Solutions for different time horizons

Bruce says there are solutions designed to deal with COVID-19 in the short-term, such as the range of face mask designs that very quickly emerged, to solutions for the long-term, such as changing the way that city infrastructure, schools or airplanes are designed.

In the short term, for Man + Wife, Bruce and Kimlyn are adapting some of their existing products to meet an immediate need. For example, they’re tweaking their hanging planters to be used to create a “sanitising station” at the entrance to a home. “The planters can easily be adapted so you can hang up your mask, sanitised your hands and store your shoes before you enter your house,” says Kimlyn.

Man + Wife are redesigning their hanging planters for use as a sanitising station

Many designers are enthusiastic about the mega trends that are set to unfold. “This is a new era for design!” says Andrew. “Spaces will need to rigorously consider hygiene, materials, spacing and still imbue personality. We look forward to not just the challenge, but also the innovations that come out of the challenges.”

6 design trends to look out for

  1. Multipurpose spaces: People will be working remotely. This means that companies will no longer be looking to build as many massive corporate office blocks. Instead, buildings will need to be multifunctional spaces. Existing offices may be reworked to accommodate more functions. Home design will also shift as people incorporate office areas and even learning spaces for children who will be educated remotely. New residential developments will likely include office spaces.
  2. Designing transportation differently: As people are working from home, car usage has dropped. People are also hesitant to use public transport because of the difficulty of social distancing. Architects, city planners and transport professionals are looking at how to adapt existing systems and how to design new ones. Ideas range from more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly cities to designing bus stops and taxi ranks with waiting area seating that supports social distancing. One Italian design company has even created a reverse airplane seating proposal for safer flying.
  3. Combining digital and physical environments: Many Zoom users are already familiar with the ability to use a virtual background in video calls to create a professional environment. The use of virtual and augmented reality is likely to continue to increase, but as remote working becomes the norm, people will likely also begin to design their physical spaces to cater for digital engagements. Things like sound-proofing and lighting will come into consideration. Showrooms will also change as people prefer to browse from home online. It will therefore be important for showroom owners to invest in technology and in improving their digital presence.
  4. Prioritising sunlight and fresh air: Architects designing buildings like shopping centres, office blocks, schools and universities, and transport hubs will look for ways to incorporate fresh air and open spaces. Whereas offices previously relied on aircon systems to circulate air, there’s likely to be a return towards opening a window as a temperature-regulation mechanism.
  5. Hygiene as a major factor in material choice: Rather than choosing materials based on aesthetics or texture, people will likely begin to incorporate hygiene and ease of cleaning into their choices.
  6. Social distancing while socialising: The design of eating and entertainment spaces will evolve. Some restaurants are already limiting the number of people who may eat together or creating new seating arrangements that allow for social distancing (like this Dutch restaurant that installed small greenhouses along the riverbank for its patrons).

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