Today, the world is experiencing one of the most trying periods in recent years where our physical and emotional endurance is being put to the test. The spread of COVID-19 has put millions of lives at stake. Locked down within our homes, we are looking at an unsteady present and a highly uncertain future. Working from home has become the norm and we are spending hours inundated with every kind of information about the pandemic. Be it in the form of Whatsapp forwards, news articles or Instagram stories, the dissemination of information is at an all time high and we are at leisure to take it all in!
Amidst all the information coming my way, what seemed to pop out was that, even during a global crisis of this magnitude, there was a spurt of new ideas and innovation from every corner of the world. The observation got me searching for more examples of the different kinds of innovative technologies, unique designs and creative communication that was doing the rounds during this pandemic, and what emerged was fascinating.
One such product I came across was the ‘germ trap’ snood designed by Virustatic, a UK based biotechnology firm that apparently 'deactivates' viruses after filtering them onto its surface. Meant to cover your neck and approximately half of your face, the Virustatic Shield's fabric is where the magic lies. It is said to imitate the surface structure of the human oesophagus, with a special coating that is believed to trap upto 96% of airborne viruses, thus enabling users to filter out harmful infections around them!
Another ingenious product, I found, was a hands-free door opener designed by Belgium-based company Materialise. To be attached to a door handle, this makes use of one's arm or elbow to open doors thus reducing the risk of touching an otherwise potential 'hot-spot' for infections. What's more, it is 3D printed, and Materialise has made the design downloadable for free from their website, making it extremely easy to use for individuals and organisations to print it as and when required.
During the course of this pandemic, the identification of those infected and their movement history has been of utmost importance. The Smart Helmet designed by China based tech firm KC Wearable, was something I found quite fascinating. This helmet is equipped to detect people with a fever up to five metres away, subsequently sounding an alarm to that effect! Featuring an infrared temperature detector, an augmented-reality visor, a camera that can read QR codes, plus wifi, Bluetooth and 5G enabled so as to beam data to the nearest hospital this product truly seems like a thing of the future.
A highly useful yet seemingly controversial innovation, to me, were a series of tracking apps developed by South Korean coders, one of which happens to be the Corona 100m. These applications build on the testing data collected by the government to alert users when they come within 100 metres of a location visited by an infected person. Such advanced tracking devices can definitely be crucial in curbing the incessant rise in the number of infected people. What needs to be considered, however, are the subsequent consequences when surveillance of this level is allowed and the boundaries of privacy become blurry. But I won't delve into that for now. That is a subject for another blog!
In addition to these product and technology based innovations, what I realised was that dissemination of important information in ways that are effective and memorable was the need of the hour. And I must say that I have come across some of the most creative instances in communication design during this period! From those that educate us about the crisis, inform us about crucial do’s and dont’s to the ones that turn this grim situation around, into something hilarious. For instance when I saw this hand-washing tutorial by Iranian mime artist Danial Kheirikhah, where he can be seen furiously washing his hands to the tunes of classical music, it was just the thing I needed to see. Simple, funny and so effective!
Another widespread visual used to communicate the importance of social distancing has been that of burning matchsticks. When I first saw it, the impact was instant and the message was crystal clear. Adapted by various artists, animators and designers, it used such a strong visual metaphor that it became impossible to forget and extremely easy to understand. What's more, it required no caption, no explanation thus crossing boundaries of language, cultures and education, to be understood by one and all.
I also had the chance to see some of the most creative campaigns from organisations across the world. At a time when business is slow, customers are wary, nobody is moving or buying or stepping out of their homes, advertising is playing a key role in helping brands stay relevant, while being sensitive to present circumstances. Mercedes Benz talks about staying at home while Burger King's quarantine whopper encourages customers to make their own burgers at home! IKEA also came up with a creative take on staying home by mapping out instructions, in a similar directions booklet that usually accompanies their furniture. It is amazing to see how these brands have turned around their product or service into a powerful message asking people to stay indoors and stay safe. All over the world, in every field, people are finding new ways to inform, engage and inspire millions.
However, what I realised is this. We aren't witnessing this phenomenon for the first time.
History has shown us, that through the years, in the face of adversity, turmoil and tragic circumstances, creativity has never said die. Wars, socio-political unrests and economic crises have all invariably led to some of the most path-breaking ideas and innovations in the fields of product design, architecture, technology as well as communication. Take the iconic Charles and Ray Eames’ plywood splint for example. It became one of the most talked about designs that emerged from the WW2. Not only that, it has further inspired many more designs in the years that followed, all based on the principle of problem solving and ‘less is more’.
Years later, the Cold War also brought with it one of the most impactful visuals; the Fraternal Kiss by Russian artist Vrubel, that was actually based on a photograph, but assumed a completely new meaning when it was painted on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. The ‘I AM A MAN’ posters held by Memphis sanitation workers during the 1968 strike, was a simple design yet marked a significant moment in the American Civil Rights Movement, and remained etched in the memory of the world. Closer to home, India’s own freedom struggle, led to the propagation of khadi, spun using the charkha during the Swadeshi Movement by Mahatma Gandhi. Although it wasn’t unknown to the people, its creative juxtaposition against the backdrop of the British raj, made it a symbol of independence and of self-sufficiency, and was adopted exponentially, throughout the country.
What I have noticed is that throughout history, difficult times have always led us to new beginnings. New materials are discovered, innovative products become a part of everyday life, art movements are initiated to do away with earlier styles, music evolves, architecture changes the way we see the world and technological advancements redefine the way we live. Every crisis brings with it a modification in circumstances and available resources. This further leads to a significant rise in new needs and unique problems. And with this, comes the drive to invent, to find a better way to deal with the circumstances at hand. In the book, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind psychologist Marie Forgeard, (McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School) explains, "Because adverse events force us to reexamine our beliefs and priorities, they can help us break out of habitual ways of thinking and thereby boost creativity. We’re forced to reconsider things we took for granted, and we’re forced to think about new things. Adverse events can be so powerful that they force us to think about questions we never would have thought of otherwise.” Adversity pushes us to find a way out and we turn to innovation and to design, which at its very core, is ultimately a problem solving process. To mould what we have in the present, into an idea that has the power to change our future.