The pandemic database of everything design – Interview with Design in Quarantine

Founded by Anna Talley and Fleur Elkerton, Design in Quarantine is an online archive preserving the design responses to the Coronavirus pandemic.

As we deal and adapt to our ‘new normal’, it is clear that the current pandemic has taken its toll on various aspects of our lives and our surroundings. Many problems have arisen and made us realize the way we used to do things may not be sustainable any longer, but through this dark cloud of uncertainty there is one beacon of light that beams brighter, and that is creativity. While this pandemic brought the world to a standstill, designers and creatives everywhere sprung up thousands of designs in response to the crisis, from touch-less products to safe distancing measures with a unique twist and even bubble face masks, the amount of creative products is endless, but who is keeping a record? 

This whole situation is certainly one for the books, and with museums and libraries barely opening up now, our traditional means of archiving projects have been disrupted. Lucky for us, a pair of postgraduate design historians at the London’s Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum has developed a new platform called: Design in Quarantine

Founded by Anna Talley and Fleur Elkerton in April 2020, Design in Quarantine is an online archive created to document and preserve in real-time the design responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. Inspired by the technique of rapid-response curation in museums, Design in Quarantine is not only a digital collection of design responses but a clear example of how traditional design history research methodologies and forms of archiving are changing. 

Curious to know more about this incredible platform, DesignWanted interviewed Anna Talley and Fleur Elkerton to find out more about Design in Quarantine, their point of view on design, and how can we submit our designs! 

Design in Quarantine - website
Design in Quarantine platform

Who are Anna Talley and Fleur Elkerton? How did the journey for Design in Quarantine begin? 

Anna Talley: “Fleur and I are MA History of Design and Material Culture students at the V&A/Royal College of Art in London. My own work focuses on the history of modern and contemporary design, particularly graphics and communication.

I am very interested in curation and have worked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the V&A. I have also worked in journalism and as a graphic designer—my background is just a miscellany of design-related creative endeavours! 

The journey of Design in Quarantine began right after the pandemic hit London in earnest. Fleur and I were wondering how we could respond as historians to something that was happening in the present, and we thought the best way would be with a rapid response archive.

Within two weeks of that initial discussion, we decided on a name and secured the domain, worked out a design for the website (I designed the logo), and launched. We felt that it was important to have the archive live as soon as possible due to the volume of work that was being covered in the design press and what we saw in our own feeds.”

Design in Quarantine - website bottom
Design in Quarantine is a digital collection of design responses to the Coronavirus pandemic

Fleur Elkerton: “As Anna said, we are both MA History of Design and Material Culture students at the V&A/ Royal College of Art in London, UK. I specialise in medieval Europe and its interactions with the Islamic world, and I come from a background of traditional historical training. 

I have also worked in theatre design, and spent some time at art school, so that led me down the path of discovering the world of Design History.  I’m really interested in archiving as a response to periods of significant historical importance or change, and I feel like that is what we have tried to put into practice with Design in Quarantine.

Additionally, the digital afterlives of these archives and collections in our now very virtual world is something I am intrigued by, and want to explore further as our archive expands.”

Design In Quarantine - garden
Queen Square hearts – project by Upfest and Bristol City Centre Business Improvement District

Why Design in Quarantine, why building an online design archive during this time of crisis?

Anna Talley:“Our ultimate goal for the project is to collect as many design-related responses to the pandemic as possible and have that material available for historians and designers to access in the future.

It is still too early to fully understand the pandemic’s impact, so collecting material that could answer questions we might have in the future was the best way Fleur and I thought we could respond to the pandemic as historians.

We believe archives can be a rich resource beyond what we typically think of as “historical” research and hope the archive might be used by designers as well as historians to explore not only the pandemic itself but also issues the pandemic has raised, such as public health generally and climate change.”

Janus Seat – Project by Avio Interiors

Anna Talley: “I do what I do because I am interested in helping designers understand the impact they might have on communities and individuals through the things that they create. As a historian with a focus on modern and contemporary material, I look to the twentieth century to see how design has evolved in the last 120 years and compare that to design being made today, contextualising it within a globalised, networked, pluriversal present. 

In creating this archive, I hope that we have assembled a resource that reflects the variety of design material being created all over the world, and that this will be valuable for designers to consult now and in the future.

‘Serres Séparées’ socially-distant dining experience – Project by Tuinkassenwinkel

Fleur Elkerton: “Exactly what Anna has outlined  –  we decided that as historians, especially historians of design, how could we formulate a response to the pandemic that would be useful and educational for a present and future public.

It is very difficult to see the long-term impact of this crisis, and especially to see which designs will be remembered and seen as impactful or relevant. This is why from the beginning we really tried to present the archive as an accessible and as much as possible, objective, resource.

Hence the simplicity of the web design, lack of paywall or lengthy opinion pieces. We want to represent a clear and broad picture of how the design world has responded to the pandemic, whether that be from small-scale crafters or large global practices.

We find that a lot of people now interacting with our site, and/or submitting work, aren’t necessary using it in a traditional way to research – which I think is fantastic! Many just enjoy it as a site of interest, or as a way to gather inspiration. I think if we have created a collection that is relevant to people from very different backgrounds, disciplines, interests and areas of expertise or non-expertise then we’ve done our job right.

‘Isphere’ Face Shield – project by Plastique Fantastique

You are seeking to collect works that represent the evolution of design responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Which type of projects are included into the archive? 

Anna Talley: “We are very open about what we put in the archive. We accept projects that are conceptual, speculative, prototypes, mass-produced works, craft objects, etc. Our aim is to have a selection of projects that fully exhibits the expanse of design responses to the pandemic.

As an archive, we do not believe it is our place to interpret the “validity” or functionality of the projects. That is something future historians, critics, and designers can decide for themselves.”

Fleur: “Building on what Anna has outlined, we are also really interested in any project or idea that hasn’t worked, or has been decommissioned, or has never made it to production.

This is because there is a reason that have failed and, speaking from experience, researching things that didn’t work are just as interesting for historians. They can tell us just as much about a time, public opinion and a society as things that did.

Everything we upload is researched to the best of our ability to a museum-standard. We always credit the designer personally, which isn’t always possible, but is very important to us to provide. Fundamentally, we aren’t here to hold designs to a standard of work. We are interested in any type of design at any level of expertise which responds to the pandemic.

Are you interested in projects designed during the pandemic? Have a look at Micrashell: pandemic protection for partying in style

PPE suit for clubbing – project by Production Club

Design in Quarantine site presents projects that relate to issues such as mental and physical health, evolving technologies, and societal change. Which type of problems are designers more focused on? And in your opinion, which issues are in need of more attention?

Anna Talley: “Beyond face masks, which could single-handedly fill an entire book, I believe the biggest issue designers are focused on is public space and social distancing. Many designers are exploring how to create spaces that are not only sanitary and safe but also welcoming and unique to their locations. 

Where efforts could be more focused would be in designing for vulnerable individuals. Much of the design we have seen is tailored to navigating public spaces in ways that minimise risk. However, I think a lot of those designs are built around able-bodied, healthy, low-risk individuals.

What if you are someone who is at risk of infection under any circumstance? Designers should be reaching out and working with vulnerable individuals, carers, and communities to understand what their needs are and create designs that address their needs at home.”

‘Time-Changing’ hand sanitizer – project by Fino Wang as part of Create Cures

Fleur Elkerton: “We’ve been asked a lot about our inclusion of speculative designs, and/or including an entry of “corona-grifting” – the idea that designers and practices are generating designs that will never be created physically but respond to the pandemic, to be seen to be doing something to help.  We collect these because it is a valid design response, but some ideas submitted would not be practical in real life situations.

We have also included quite a lot of work that involves copper, because of its antimicrobial properties. However the production of copper can be very environmentally problematic and resources are getting low. Ultimately, I think design can be so multifaceted, and in a pandemic scenario some designers express their practice very conceptually; therefore some people criticise it.”

Would you like to see design projects for post-pandemic scenarios? Have a look at: Branding a pandemic: Hastings and Base Design create minimalistic ‘return to work’ signage for COVID-19

Qworkntine work pods – project by Mohamed Radwan

Who can submit design projects for your archive and in which way? Are there any requirements?

Anna Talley/Fleur:Anybody can submit projects to the archive! Individuals can go to the Submit page on our site to fill out a short form with the details of their project. There are no special requirements.

All we ask is for images, the date of the project, the title, the designer/co-creators, and a few sentences about the work. People are also welcome to suggest projects that are not their own–if you see something that seems to fit our archive, please send it in!”

Plex’eat – project by Christophe Gernigon

What will happen to all the archived material after quarantine? Is it going to be available to the public for future references?

Anna Talley: “Design in Quarantine has been approved to be archived by the UK Web Archive which will save copies of the website in perpetuity for people to access from the six UK Legal Deposit Libraries, which includes the Bodleian Libraries, the British Library, Cambridge University Libraries, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, and the libraries at Trinity College, Dublin.

Having the site archived fulfills one of our main aims, which is to have the material within publicly accessible for future researchers. As long as you have a readers card for one of those institutions, you will be able to access copies of the site free of charge from computers at those locations.

We also received a 2020 Virtual Design History Student Award from the Design History Society, the funding from which we are using to keep the website active for at least another year.”

Fleur Elkerton: “We are also working on a new initiative for the project called Thoughts, which are short video responses from the designers themselves about their work. We are also open for any interested members of the general public to submit a video about something they have seen within the archive that makes them think, feel, or inspired.

We launched Thoughts as a supplement to our archive to put faces to projects, and also to gather public opinions – this will hopefully help future researchers get a fuller picture of the design world’s response to coronavirus.”

Illustration in response to UN Brief – by Deepesh TP

As design historians, what is your perspective on design at this moment of change? 

Anna Talley:“It has been very exciting to see designers respond so quickly to the pandemic, taking advantage of their expertise to address the different issues that have arisen.

Of course, some designers have created more conceptual projects than others, with perhaps less of an immediate impact, but I believe that is perfectly reasonable. I think many of us wanted to respond to the crisis by deploying our skills, and these projects show that, for many designers, creating is as much of personal coping strategy as it has been a way to make a difference.

I see design moving to address concerns the pandemic has raised beyond simply coronavirus, such as public health, climate change, and social justice. I think these will be themes that designers will explore in their work far past the availability of a vaccine.

The key will be putting in the hard work of working with communities to really understand what people want and how they want to feel, be, and live in a post-pandemic world.

Design in Quarantine - Urinals Desinfect
Lapee Touch free public toilet – Project by Lapee

Fleur Elkerton:I think that design’s response to this moment of change is similar to a lot of other industries – it is multi layered and can be interpreted in many different ways. I think it has been really interesting tracking these early ideas.

We have seen leading global practices creating activities for children as schooling has been cancelled, to graphic designers making campaigns which might save lives, and acts of performance which are there to entertain–not necessarily cure.

I think we can’t be too optimistic. Design isn’t always going to be able to solve all the problems that our world can throw at us! However I think it holds a mirror up to our societies, and I find it amazing that somebody working in a small bedroom somewhere in the world can put a 3-D print out into the world, which might be able to help thousands.

Especially with the closure of the traditional art and design school studio space, these confines and restrictions are forcing designers to adapt. Much as that’s exciting, it can be really frustrating  – and it needs to be acknowledged that access to technology and the internet is by no means universal. But, as demonstrated by the pandemic, ultimately designers can provide many solutions to both large and small scale issues.

Curious to know more about Pura-Case? Don’t miss Pura-Case lets you purify your clothes with ozone.

‘Pura-Case’ wardrobe purifier – project by Carlo Ratti Associati
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