Design is essentially a social process involving problem-solving through study and interactions. Can an intensively collaborative activity such as design adapt to the challenges of a remote working environment, social distancing and isolation necessitated by the pandemic?

Since design responds to the realities of modern living, how are designers adjusting to an environment that’s constantly in flux, and navigating this strange, uncharted territory from their individual homes and home studios? Will the dynamics of design evolve to accommodate the new realities?

Herman Miller posed these questions to some of their favourite design partners, whose answers will be shared in this ongoing series, ‘How designers stay productive while working from home’.

Moving into the Unknown - with Kim Colin and Sam Hecht

Long-time Herman Miller collaborators Kim Colin and Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility were both recovering from COVID-19 at the time of this interaction. While their cases were relatively mild, the experience has already begun reshaping their views on the future. They predict a heightened awareness of health and wellbeing as design and society move forward.

Now that you’ve both recovered, what has been the biggest challenge for you as you transition back to work?

Sam: Probably the biggest challenge is that our process is far more analogue than one would imagine. I am not just talking about drawing things by hand, but we constantly need to physically make things, and that is an iterative process – gradually allowing a design to reveal itself. Like any craftsperson, we need a model shop with machines and 3D printers. This cannot be replicated working from home on a laptop. We need to make one mistake after another—until there is rough equilibrium of desire and function, long before a client even sees our intention. These are important steps in the process.

So, to address the crucial nature of our model shop, we implemented a rota-system whereby only one of us can be in the model shop on any given day. This protects all of us and reduces virus transmissions to the community, while still allowing this analogue creative act to take place. I can't deny that it continues to be challenging, but by supporting each other, it's manageable.

How are you compensating for the loss of meaningful impromptu interactions between colleagues when only one member of your team can physically be in your space at a time?

Kim: Impromptu interactions are important – absolutely. As Sam said, our process is often tied to mistakes. The mistakes reveal new directions and refinements. These sometimes remain mistakes until someone sees potential or even misreads them, and it’s not possible to replicate this so easily between people on schedule via video chat. Good ideas can’t be scheduled. I cannot think of one of our designs that has been created without lengthy, ongoing conversations. So at distance, working from home, we try to connect regularly and even informally, to capture some of the spontaneity that propels the thinking in the work through conversation. There’s a lot to talk about right now!

How does this larger problem we’re facing change how people view design as a whole? What are the new problems that designers will need to solve for the post-COVID-19 world?

Sam: This is not the first time we’ve been asked this question since the pandemic erupted. Design as a subject is all about moving into the unknown. I’m not talking about day-to-day design that generally is applying itself to solving immediate problems, but about absolute creative design that is not so much about solving problems, but providing opportunities – the problems to solve are large but they are nearly all self-inflicted.

This creative design is about stepping into the unknown, and this takes courage. Design needs courage. Design is a risky business. And through its entire history, Herman Miller has embraced risk and repeatedly stepped into the unknown for the benefit of society. What are the new opportunities? How can I remain healthy in a small space? Isn't the purpose of an office really to meet with colleagues and exchange and discuss?

Kim: Right now, in this crisis, design is mentioned in a rather small way, when creatives lend their 3D printers to provide small scale shield manufacturing, and/or these 3D files are refined and made available for public use in a time of PPE shortage. What we don’t yet know is whether design is being integrated with any immediacy into the larger scale work that is needed. For instance, when there is widespread testing and/or vaccination, will design be asked to contribute?

I hope that design is engaged when time is critical and at-scale demands are ever faster. It’s important to involve design even when time is pressed. Looking beyond the immediate crisis, our awareness of health and wellbeing will be heightened in all kinds of situations we hadn’t focussed on as much previously, making things very interesting for designers.