In times of crisis, we have to balance fear with kindness. Here are a few examples of how creatives have responded to bad situations with good design.
However, as history tells us, there is always room for altruism, and designers, filmmakers, music-makers and other creatives are just the sort to come up with innovative ways to spread joy and color in times of need.
Artistic solutions to national food shortages, creative ideas for reducing homelessness, as well as ingenious approaches to tackling the environmental crisis—these examples of kind design reveal the helpers in every situation, however bleak.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”– American television presenter Fred Rogers (1928-2003)
We picked out five inspirational examples of altruistic design that show how art can be a tool of change, innovation, and encouragement. The fifth example shows how artists are addressing the coronavirus crisis specifically. It can be especially hard to know how to help in this time when we can’t go out and gather, but we hope that art and creativity can spread the right message and encourage some hope for whoever needs it.
1. Homelessness Crisis: Self-Assembly Housing
Growing populations coupled with social and financial inequality has led to an alarming increase in homelessness in developed countries in recent years. The global refugee crisis has also shined a light on the lack of adequate shelter, warmth, and privacy experienced by millions of people worldwide.
Many designers have turned their attention to the homelessness crisis, using their skills in architecture, industrial design, and product design to provide innovative solutions to a shortage of adequate housing.
UK-based architects Reed Watts have designed easy-to-assemble plywood sleeping pods that offer privacy and security in large, open spaces such as halls, which would usually have offered communal sleeping in the form of wall-to-wall mattresses. The design of the modular pieces, as well as cutting and assembly instructions, will be made freely available for charities to use under a Creative Commons License. Find out more about the Commonweal Pods project here.
Other innovative housing solutions include the Nest toolkit by LA architecture studio Brooks + Scarpa in collaboration with Plant Prefab, a Rialto-based design and construction firm. The kit provides creatively conceived modular units designed to be arranged in various configurations on unused urban sites. The result is a scalable and cost-effective solution for housing families who would otherwise be homeless in the LA area.
Even Kanye West has turned his attention to the homelessness crisis, with the musician reportedly finalizing designs for pre-fabricated home units inspired by the houses of fictional desert town Tatooine in Star Wars.
2. Food Crisis: World War II Posters
Poster design is one of the most lasting records of crisis. Images are more memorable than text alone, a phenomenon coined by psychologists as the Picture Superiority Effect. This means the power of visual symbols and graphics in times of public crisis cannot be underestimated.
Historically, poster design has always been an important tool for communicating important messages effectively and efficiently. During World War II, graphic designers and artists who worked in advertising were often conscripted into creating posters for propaganda and to promote the war effort. Some of these designers, such as the British poster artist Abram Games, applied their creative skills to communicating messages about safety measures to take during bomb raids, avoiding careless talk, and signing up for military or medical duty.
It’s true that these posters were designed to promote the war effort and served as propaganda, but the designers often prioritized messages of community altruism and selflessness in a period when food and essential items were in short supply and community morale was shaky.
Some of the most iconic poster designs of this period have endured in public memory because their message is, above all, altruistic, community-spirited, and morale-boosting.
3. Environmental Crisis: Studio Roosegaarde
From sustainable packaging design to poster art about climate change, an increasing number of designers are using their talents to raise awareness about and provide solutions for the environmental crisis.
Daan Roosegarde is an example of a designer who has chosen to structure nearly all of his creative output around one of the greatest issues facing our planet. The Dutch designer and artist has a particular interest in how energy can be reused and reinterpreted in urban environments for the greater good of the planet as a whole.
Through his studio, Studio Roosegaarde, the designer worked on a number of projects that aim to combine technological innovation with environmental benefit. His Smog Free Bicycle sucks up polluted air and cleans it before returning the filtered air to the cyclist. The design was informed by biomimicry design principles inspired by the manta ray, an animal which filters water for food.
Other off-beat Roosegaarde projects with an environmental conscience include work that aims to reduce space waste by creating artificial shooting stars, a ring that captures smog from the air and smart kites that generate green energy.
4. Loneliness Crisis: The Loneliness Project
With a recent survey finding that 47% of Americans often feel lonely, it’s clear that loneliness is an expanding mental health crisis. Lack of contact and connection with others is not solely a symptom of the digital age—many people experienced loneliness before the internet existed—but it seems the internet era has only served to increase individuals’ feelings of social isolation.
Designers, many of whom have experienced the debilitating effects of loneliness firsthand, are some of the most innovative problem-solvers and documenters of this silent epidemic.
Toronto-based graphic designer and illustrator Marissa Korda realised that social media sites like Facebook and Instagram were exacerbating the problem. These sites foster a culture of happiness, leading users to feel they could only share experiences that are happy, social, and aesthetically pleasing.
Korda wanted to de-stigmatize loneliness, highlighting its seriousness but also its place in a normal human experience. She launched a project in 2017 with a call for people to contribute anonymous stories of their experiences with loneliness.
“We’ve really stigmatised loneliness, to a degree that makes it really hard to talk about,” she said. “I’m also trying to show loneliness as just a normal part of being human. It comes, it goes, it’s something that we experience and it doesn’t need to be as isolating as it is.”– Marissa Korda
The designer then collected the stories and presented them as part of an online portal, The Loneliness Project, which uses illustrations of apartment buildings as the backdrop to the stories. Korda describes The Loneliness Project “as an unpaid labor of love,” and she hopes to expand the project to include other stigmatized emotions such as guilt and failure.
5. Health Crisis: Altruistic Design for the Coronavirus Pandemic
You probably don’t need reminding that the world is currently experiencing one of the most significant health crises in modern times, with Covid-19 forcing all of us to drastically reassess how we behave, work, and live.
In times of crisis it can be difficult to know what to do, aside from the practical guidance given by health and government organizations. However, although designers are not working in hospitals, they can still provide an invaluable contribution in the form of innovative ideas, inventive technologies, and visual communication.
If you’re feeling unsure about how you can apply your creative talents and skills for the greater good, find some inspiration in these emerging projects. These concepts demonstrate the broad range of ways that designers are responding to and aiding the coronavirus crisis.
With medical equipment and face masks in high demand but short supply, a number of designers are using their digital and technological skills to create protective face visors. Many elements can be printed from common 3D printers. Swedish printing company 3DVerkstan and architecture practices BIG, KPF, and Handel Architects teamed up to manufacture face shields for hospital staff.
In a similar vein, many fashion designers and couture houses, including Chanel, Prada, and COS, have switched their factory production to manufacture face masks and hospital gowns, while Italian architects Carlo Ratti Associati have developed intensive care units using shipping containers.
Design lab Amplifier, which aims to promote the causes of grassroots organizations, also set up a campaign inviting designers and artists to submit posters that either communicate public health and safety messages or provide symbols that promote mental health and wellbeing in response to the coronavirus crisis. Take a look at some of the design submissions below, and submit your own poster design here.
Many design societies and organizations are also adapting to the crisis by providing virtual equivalents of their usual services and products, many of which are free to access. One of our favorites is the Wright Virtual Visits—free online tours of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed public sites each Thursday at 12 p.m. CT on Instagram.
What history shows us is that altruism can take many forms in periods of crisis. Designers bring exceptional innovation and creativity in moments of confusion and disarray, and quickly adapt their creative skills and talents to help communities and society at large.
We hope you’ve been inspired to not only “look for the helpers,” but also to consider ways, even small ones, that you can become one yourself.
Discover more tips and articles to keep you motivated and inspired:
- 8 Design Challenges and Prompts to Keep You Inspired
- Fun and Affordable Design Apps for the Perfect Distraction
- Coping With Crisis: Ways to Maintain Your Creativity and Mental Health
Cover image by Virina Flora.