Reinventing product and spatial design in the New Normal

This article was first published by the Head Foundation in The Head Foundation Digest, Issue 7, Dec 2020.

Will products all become self-cleaning and contact-free? Will spaces segregate people more? Will homes become more like workplaces? I have frequently been asked questions like these over the past ten months.Now, one can never know for sure about the future, but it might surprise you to hear my guess: I think that many things will stay the same.

Certainly, the new normal will be different, but I suspect it will be less different than our initial vision and reactionary measures.

Human beings—and what we want—maintain a certain constancy.

So when people ask me how design will change, I always find that what is missing in this analysis is the question: What will remain the same?

For innovators and entrepreneurs, being aware that many aspects of humanity will stay the same despite overwhelming change actually reveals many opportunities for new products in the ‘new’ world.

Design can therefore invent new ways to connect people more intimately, whilst maintaining the new requirements for safety.

A desire to be social

Firstly, human beings are created to be social. We desire to bond, to be in relation to others. Although battling the pandemic requires us to keep precautionary distances, to wear masks and to replace handshakes with fist bumps or non-contact gestures, the desire to bond and connect meaningfully remains.

Design can therefore invent new ways to connect people more intimately, whilst maintaining the new requirements for safety.

In a class that I am now teaching at NUS, a team of students is working on improving the ease of in-person conversations. They found that talking behind masks while having to stand further apart creates a new kind of strain: that of being unable to speak and hear clearly.

This hindrance to a friendly chat begs for a solution, so these students have created a new kind of acoustic chair which they call the ‘whispering chair’. Acoustic sofas or booths typically dampen sound so that reverberation is reduced and conversations are kept private. In this case, the students used calculated parabolic shapes in designing backrests for the ‘whispering chair’ so that one’s conversational partner’s voice is captured and bounced into one’s own ears. This creates an amplification effect where we hear voices louder and feel them nearer, even if our partner has to sit metres away and speak behind a mask. A remarkable feature of this chair is that the amplification is only audible to our partner, preserving privacy while improving the clarity and ease of conversation.

The ‘whispering chair’
A remarkable feature of the chair is that the amplification is only audible to the conversational partner, preserving privacy while improving the clarity and ease of conversation.
Photos: Division of Industrial Design, NUS

One may say “Let’s just Zoom!” or “I can tolerate the strain of raising my voice a little”, but sitting in this chair can be quite a surreal experience. Experiencing how we can talk and hear effortlessly in whispers and at a distance makes us wonder if all conversation spaces should have been designed like this in the first place, with or without COVID-19.

Another team from the same class tried to pre-emptively preserve the symbolic ritual of exchanging mandarin oranges during Chinese New Year while minimising contact risk. This ritual, a sign of respect and blessing, is generally regarded as a precious part of Chinese culture, and the students wished to preserve it in a thoughtful and tasteful manner despite the restrictions brought about by the pandemic.

The solution? A new kind of carrying case for oranges which stylishly fits our new year outfits, but which seamlessly transforms into a respectful presentation tray for offering the oranges – without our having to touch the oranges. The case is even made of self-sanitising fabric which reportedly kills germs in an hour. So the product is not only sanitary but chic, and for me, beats the random paper bag that I mindlessly carry my oranges in for New Year visits. It presents oranges beautifully and accords a respectful gesture.

Mandarin orange carrying case
Made of self-sanitising fabric which reportedly kills germs in an hour, the stylish and presentable carrying case allows no contact when offering oranges during Chinese New Year.
Photos: Division of Industrial Design, NUS

A need for sensory experiences

Secondly, many people see restrictions as a killjoy because these restrictions often preclude tactile elements such as contact. Most of us still crave sensory experiences, play and fun.

As evidence emerged that COVID-19 could be transmitted through contact with tainted surfaces, we witnessed product innovations that tried to prevent people from touching anything public. From proximity sensor lift buttons to pocket tools that can be used to press on switches and open doors, it seems like our sense of touch lost its place overnight and our enjoyment of haptic tactility was significantly suppressed.

Certainly, trying to fix the problem using the quickest and most direct solution is fair enough, but were this to continue for the long haul, perhaps we could work on infusing some tactility and sensory stimulation back into the increasingly ‘contactless’ public sphere?

In the same COVID-19 class at NUS, I had another team of students who tried to make new precautionary practices like hand sanitising more convenient and unobtrusive. They quickly realised that beyond simply ‘tolerating’ sanitisation measures and making them less bothersome, we could actually make these same measures entertaining, and thus bring some light-heartedness to the pandemic. So they proposed that sanitiser dispensers could go beyond the rudimentary pump bottle or automatic dispenser to become a bubble machine. The students figured out the chemistry to make sanitisers work with surfactants. Subsequently, a new kind of bubble-sanitiser along with a beautifully designed automatic bubble generating dispenser was created.

When keeping clean involves catching and popping bubbles with hands, it brings some light-heartedness to the pandemic.
Photos: Division of Industrial Design, NUS

Needless to say, their working prototype created quite a stir amongst the students who tried it in school, and it proved entertaining for everyone, whether young or old. It is an easy guess that this will be great for public spaces like playgrounds and also pre-schools, to encourage children to sanitise their hands often.

But why did we ever just make sanitisers come out of pump bottles in the first place? Certainly there are good and practical reasons, but sanitiser bubbles are really delightful. When keeping clean involves catching and popping bubbles with your hands, it is a great metaphor for making good things out of bad situations – and surely we all need a dose of hope in these times.

Concurrently, my team at STUCK has been contemplating whether the move to contactless interfaces has been done too hastily, or maybe too simplistically.

We noticed that, suddenly, switches and buttons had been reduced to a certain ‘flatness’ with the use of motion or proximity sensors. Things no longer ‘moved’ or gave good tactile feedback when we ‘activated’ them. Oftentimes, there is no assuring threshold between when something is activated, and when it is not. This creates either false activations or a lingering sense of uncertainty even after activations are done.


Kinetic touchless lift buttons
The lift buttons will physically—but contactlessly—depress in sync with the finger when it is close enough.

For us, this has led to a new kind of contactless but physical interface paradigm. Almost like wielding ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, we created buttons that physically—but contactlessly—depress in sync with your finger when your finger is close enough. This was expressed in the form of lift buttons but could also be applied to light switches, door knobs, faucet handles and so on. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to help us innovate, to create more ‘magical’ experiences. In this case, it was the pandemic and the desire to preserve sensory tactility that human beings enjoy that led to these ‘magical’ buttons.

An incentive to form good habits

Thirdly, living wisely in the new normal requires us to form some new habits, such as to stop touching our faces, wear a mask, check into every building, sterilise everything we use, and sit apart whenever possible. One of the paradoxes of life is that good habits are hard to keep, unlike bad ones. This holds true before and after the pandemic. The irony is that it is often hard for us to even keep just one good new habit, but now we have many to tick off.

Habits that the new normal requires of us is an opportunity to rethink design.

Innovation for COVID-19 can sometimes not hit the mark when we only try to provide newly needed functionality without considering how human beings never change. An example is the numerous handphone sanitising boxes that have emerged in the market. I find it frustrating that in the rush to capture the demand, so many ill-considered UV boxes are being made and sold. Many of them require the user to handle the box, lift the lid and press the buttons. By the time the user has placed the phone inside the box, many of the surfaces would have been contaminated.

When retrieving your device, to prevent the same surfaces from contaminating your hands, you would need to wash your hands before you open the UV box, take out your phone, try to close the box with your elbow, then wash your hands again before you return to retrieve your phone.

With this arduous process, how could sterilising your phone be effective?

UV phone steriliser
Looking like a home accessory, the UV box opens by a contactless motion sensor.

When we try to form habits in others, staying visible and staying top-of-mind is important. A UV box that is designed like a tech gadget is not going to help encourage you to keep it displayed prominently in your hallway, and would likely be left unused in storage.

This led to us creating a new UV box which presents itself like a contemporary home accessory. Looking like a cross between tableware and a vase, this phone steriliser sits unobtrusively in your hallway, yet stays visible to remind you to sterilise your phone. What’s more magical is, the box opens when you walk by, beckoning you to put your phone in – without your having to touch anything, or having to wash your hands first.

Similarly, there are many more products that require habit formation for their benefits to be realised. If we simply provide technical or ‘functional’ solutions that only address the direct problem, we will not solve problems well for the new normal.

As we adapt more fully to the new normal, however, people will seek out solutions that are user-centric instead of problem-centric.

An appreciation for aesthetics

Lastly, in a crisis, we often go into problem-solving mode and abandon, perhaps temporarily, our appreciation for a quality user experience and aesthetics, even though these have proven to be important to people.

Prior to the pandemic, the world was already obsessed with making things faster, cheaper and more feature-rich, even as designers fought against the tide by calling, instead, for better user experiences. But with the pandemic now putting a ‘survival’ stance on all aspects of life, ‘quicker, cheaper’ has become even more of a priority, and the significance of aesthetics has been denigrated even further. As we adapt more fully to the new normal, however, people will start to seek out solutions that are user-centric instead of problem-centric. This means that even pandemic-battling or coping solutions will also once again compete to be more usable, more beautiful.

For a start, we can think about how to create elegant yet safe spaces that allow for physical distancing, which will prevent our public and social spaces from looking increasingly like quarantine centres with cold dividers. Safety dividers can evolve to look better and fit to better fit the context of use as well. In places like retail stores and cafés where brand identity and atmosphere matter, establishments will need better-designed barriers that do not clash with their style. I believe this will become key considerations for many new or newly-renovated commercial spaces.

Besides, as people try to cobble together a functional home-office, many may initially tolerate the ‘office-like’ look of furniture, stationery, conferencing equipment and the like that start to accumulate in our homes. But soon, they may start finding that their homes look too ‘industrial’ or formal, and the desire to restore the serenity of our segregated home environments will arise, along with the return of properly architected office spaces.

Hence, expect a new segment of ‘homely’ tools and equipment to emerge in the market soon. This is an opportunity to consider how work chairs, desks, screens, conferencing equipment, and even stationery and space dividers can be ‘homely’ while providing office-like functionality. Beautiful blinds or space dividers that can serve as green screens and acoustic panels; video lights that can become cosy mood lamps when on a different setting; and cameras and microphones that are more like table-top decoration items can be expected.

STUCK_New Normal_ScreenPlay

Space dividers
The lightweight space dividers create a beautiful visual texture and lively colour palette, whilst preventing respiratory droplets from spreading among people in the same work space.

At STUCK, this thinking has led to two new series of products. One example is the lamp that seamlessly transforms from a cosy table top lamp into a high-quality videography light for conference calls and content creation. Another example is a system of lightweight space dividers that creates a beautiful visual texture and lively colour palette, whilst protecting you from your colleagues’ sneezes. In essence, we are trying to bring tastefulness to tools, and evoke beauty in the barricade.

Confluence light
Tools and equipment can be ‘homely’ even as they provide office-like functionalities.

Concluding thoughts

In a crisis, humans react to major changes. While the design of many things will be reconsidered as a result, the changes may not be as drastic as what we first imagined was necessary.

Undeniably, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted our way of life, but it has not taken away our humanity. Change may be needed, but we can preserve our compass of innovation in life. Perhaps we can consider from where human beings derive their joy and passion—be it from connection, tactile experiences or the appreciation of beauty—and bring that consideration into our COVID-19 interventions.

The pandemic has robbed the world of many precious lives. Let’s not add to the pandemic’s loot unnecessarily. The ability to reinstate beauty and innovation into the world may be a relatively small victory in light of the devastation wrought by this pandemic, but it is one way that designers can begin to redeem its impact.

Donn Koh

This article was first published by the Head Foundation in The Head Foundation Digest, Issue 7, Dec 2020.


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