As the pandemic rages, designers race to create more face masks and shields
Almost every day brings news of designers and design-led businesses trying to help contain the virus.
Last week Tokujin Yoshioka, the Japanese designer who created what would have been the next Olympic torch, drew plaudits for an ingenious face shield solution. Made from ordinary sheets of PVC plastic, his template can be downloaded for free and made at home. It’s clever—have a look.
Yoshioka says his design is a “quick and simple” hack for emergencies, not a panacea for the global shortage in personal protective equipment (PPE). But he is among the many designers and design-led manufacturers turning their talents and resources towards protecting frontline medical workers during the pandemic.
Nike has developed face shields for medical workers wearing powered air-purifying respirators. Foster + Partners has designed shields that can be disassembled, sanitized, and reused. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have devised disposable shields for flat-pack shipping. Apple is doing the same, but including an adjustable strap on its design. Fast Company reports that “hospital epidemiologists in Iowa suggest that face shields like Yoshioka’s are an even better solution because they cover a great surface area and help keep wearers from touching their face.”
That hasn’t calmed the worldwide scramble for masks. Don’t miss Shawn Tully’s outstanding piece in Fortune detailing the insanity of the “mask economy” in which American hospitals now pay upwards of $5 for masks that only months ago cost five cents. Shawn highlights one of the major ironies of the coronavirus crisis: When it comes to masks and other protective gear, the U.S. overwhelmingly depends on China, where manufacturers, middle men, and transport firms are now jacking up prices and cashing in. Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, “was and remains the world capital of mask manufacturing,” Shawn writes.
The U.S. government is trying to source masks domestically. But companies like 3M that make surgical-grade masks can’t keep pace with demand. Meanwhile, textile manufacturers, clothing retailers, and luxury fashion houses are rushing to do their part. The list of brands retooling supply lines to manufacture masks now includes Brooks Brothers, Gap, Louis Vuitton, New Balance, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Under Armour, Zara, and many more. But few are capable of producing the tight-fitting respirator masks that block the very tiny droplets that may contain the coronavirus.
The mask shortage in Western countries reflects the explosion of new infections in those countries as well as the dearth of suppliers. But, as Fortune’s Naomi Xu Elegant has explained, it’s also driven by a belated shift in Western understanding of the utility of such equipment.
Here in Hong Kong, where Naomi and I are based, residents began wearing masks in January after first reports of the outbreak in Wuhan. We’re still wearing them even as the summer heat sets in and the number of new cases per day has dropped into the single digits. Americans, by contrast, are only beginning to recognize that while homemade masks—or, for that matter, quick-and-easy face shields like Yoshioka’s—may not bestow immunity, they may still help prevent community transmission—if everyone wears them.
Almost every day I discover new ways designers and design-led businesses are trying to help contain the virus. Some of the pandemic’s most urgent problems are the result of design fails. But many, if not most, look to me like failures of governance, leadership, decency, and common sense.
More design news below.