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’.

The Aggregation of Small Achievements - with Alex Proba

Alex Proba first came to our attention in 2016 when Sight Unseen named Studio Proba to its American Design Hot List. Since then, the German-born multidisciplinary designer has relocated from Brooklyn to Portland, but her work - particularly commissions for murals - has continued to take her around the world. Now that the pandemic has put much of that on hold, she’s been connecting with loved ones, caring for a new puppy, and setting daily goals to stay productive.

The past few weeks have been quite a surreal time. How are you managing to stay productive?

Most of my projects involve travel, so they’ve either been cancelled or postponed. But I’m still trying to keep busy designing and challenging my creativity. I feel like we all need to try to stay positive for the world around us. Of course, that’s easier said than done – my whole family is in Germany and it’s been hard to be so far away from them, especially since my parents are doctors and I’m incredibly worried about them.

I like to think that we could use the time we spend isolated and scared to try to work on projects we always wanted to do, but never had the time. Let’s look at this time as a gift. Let’s do things that make us happy and that might make someone else happy as well.

My daily routine is to check on family and the news, then pick one thing each day to work on, which somehow goes back to my daily ‘A Poster A Day’ project I did for four straight years many years ago. Obviously, this isn’t possible for everyone for various reasons – time, work, kids, sickness, money, food, etc. We’ve also just adopted a little rescue pup from Texas, and he is keeping us quite occupied as well.

What are some tips you might share for staying productive at home?

Choose at least one project/task every day – ideally the night before – to achieve or to work on. I believe that making a plan and knowing what to do is the key to actually doing it. Waking up in the morning with no plan is even worse in times like these, as the days blend in together and not much changes. You can choose to change that by setting a goal the evening before. 

How are you balancing relationships – personal and professional – now that all facets of life and work are taking place within the home?

So many video chats! I start my day by catching up with my family in Germany; we’re nine hours behind them in Portland. Then later in the day, I might catch up with my friends in New York City. I must admit, it’s very hard and some days I feel overwhelmed and only send a few texts. I am fortunate to be able to stay home with my partner and our puppy, and not be completely alone as some are. Being together is everything now. We also love being together and haven’t had a fight this entire time – which is wonderful and makes it so much better.

Creativity is often propelled by impromptu interactions with others. How do you try to capture some of that organic collaborative interaction when working separately from your team?

I agree that creativity comes from a collective mind – or at least gets better because of it. I am a big proponent of collaborations as people with different skill sets come together to create something greater than you ever could by yourself. This is obviously harder now as we are all staying at home, but we are immensely lucky to have the technology to be able to communicate with each other.

No matter where we are, we’re able to see each other digitally as well as collaborate together on projects with programs like Figma, Keynote, and Adobe. If we all were stuck like this 10 or 20 years ago, none of the ways we're able to bridge these distances would have been possible. Although everything seems so far away right now it’s actually closer than you think.

Obviously, some projects are just not possible at this time – for example, projects in stages when you have to pick materiality and texture, etc., but these will just have to wait for a little bit.

Has any of this prompted you to start thinking differently about your work or what it might look like in the future?

As I said, most of my projects, such as murals, have been postponed or cancelled, as I would need to travel to complete them. Also, the production of my home goods and other products has been paused, since most countries have lockdowns or stay-at-home orders in place.

I am trying to stay positive. I am hopeful that some projects will come back once the world has healed. We will all have to shift gears, strategise, and become even more creative in how we work. We will have to focus on the things that matter most. A lot of people are already out of work, so we all just have to try to help each other and be strong together.