Are emergency product design efforts realistic?

Realizing I’m at risk of shameless self promotion here, but I wrote an article yesterday about the current relief efforts, focusing on products being made to address shortages in the States. Not something I typically do, but our client list is starting to quiet down and I had some time.

You don’t even have to read the article, but I’m genuinely curious if other designers think I’m taking an overly constrained viewpoint in it. I’ve seen a TON of posts across the web on cranking out new ventilator designs and 3D printing various widgets, but I feel like much of it’s just wishful thinking. I do think there will be some successes and it’s worth trying new things, but I think there will also be a large percentage of duds, even from big names.

Engineering a ventilator takes time, creating new tools takes time (especially when businesses are taking protective measures), learning to assemble a totally different and complex product takes time (even for an existing factory), 3D printing is slow and has its own limitations… Are we better off funneling time & money into cutting new tools at US manufacturers to produce existing/old products and stripping out pretty covers or cosmetic finishes, etc.? Will we be on the back-end of the curve before any of these new products are even completed?

Anyways, open to dissenting opinions, I’m just interested in all of the things happening across the country (and world). If you want to read the article:

Thanks for putting these thoughts down Chris. I’m a pretty skeptical/cynical person by nature (though it probably does show up much in my work or posts) and I’m pretty skeptical about a lot of these efforts as well.

As iab pointed out in another discussion, if there are shortages on supplies from manufacturers, likely the shortage goes back further in the supply chain.

Also, Pod Save America had a great piece on Monday pointing out that because there is no centrally organized effort states are bidding against each other driving up prices with the federal government in some cases out bidding the states or outright confiscating the product that went to the highest bidder… so some of these shortages might be caused by a lack of organized and thoughtful distribution.

I’m deep into the skepticism.

Even people sewing masks at home from fabric to mimic a traditional pleated mask seem stupid to me. If it’s only fabric, why do you need pleats and an elastic and binding edge. Doesn’t a triangle of fabric like a bandana do the same with 95% less effort?

So many of the “design an X” things from sketch design challenges (design a mask without even knowing how it works), to small agencies making things that are supposed to help but at no scale (we made 20 masks in our shop!), to corporate efforts (Adidas made a 3D print shield that looks cool but would probably take soooo long to print) seem disingenuous.

I saw a post the other day by Discommon saying they had somehow sourced factories and materials to make n95 masks and were selling to hospitals (at a profit), but yet governments and 3M can’t get enough materials to do the same? Doesn’t add up to me.

I get that people want to do something. OR be seen as wanting to do something. I just think there have to be better ways. I’d love to see some real innovation that is maybe downstream like your suggestion of making existing products more affordable by redesign or costs savings. I’d love to see some big corporate company throw resources at some of the other problems.

Mask are one thing and low hanging fruit, but there’s tons of other issues, especially in the US home of so many corporations.

How are people supported with non-COVID health care? How many millions will lose all coverage as they are fired? Compared that to zero in Canada that will lose coverage due to universal health care?

How are people supported on daily basics that are hard to get now even through Amazon?

How can delivery be made better?

How can we do more do support social connections while distancing (PS. Guess this is a good time to point out nobody is talking about VR. Can we call VR dead yet?)

I didn’t read too much into it but the Apple app for COVID self-testing/info seems neat. A use of their eco-system to push out an emergency app to redirect info would be awesome. I heard Amazon is help the Canadian government distribute supplies with their network.

Where are all the self driving car companies? They could be helping move people around safely.
How is Facebook responding? The number of people I see leaving facebook to avoid the misinformation and sad news is huge. Why can’t they use their algorithm to make a pandemic free social network?
How much does Nike have in cash and can they not make even more masks with their supply chain?
How are the huge agribusiness companies not providing basic food for all?
What are GE healthcare and others in the space doing?


What probably galls me most are the ads I see on TV. Messages of “hope” to sell Facebook, WalMart, et al. Hey, let’s use tragedy to make money! One step below of the typical PR stunts of making a facemask from a steel-rule die. I really hope these companies are using their huge cash reserves to pay their employees instead of kicking them to the curb and having the feds pick up the tab. I expect them to continue with privatizing gains, socializing losses.

I’d recommend just do something at the local level. There is an immediate need that is easy to do. We donated the “stimulus” to the local food bank. We’re buying more carry out. Home improvement projects we usually tackle ourselves will get contracted when restrictions are off.

Unfortunately, covid does nothing strategically for work. Our projects haven’t changed and won’t change because of a pandemic.

Reminds me of that article about the e-bike-sharing schemes in China imploding, and the resulting square miles of brand new discarded e-bike trash. There will be piles of 3D printed face shields and failed ventilator parts scattered across the world. Someone else on here called out Apple’s face shield effort as misguided and I’d tend to agree - if you have access to massive AI computing power and metric f***-tons of cash why are you bothering sending masks around?

Companies are trying to make money and if there’s demand then its only logical they try to match their offerings to that demand. We tried to be a sub-contractor for Ventec but I don’t think it went through…so its back to treadmill rollers for us.

Another promotion that is closer to home for us designers which strikes me as well-meaning but still tacky is the ‘COVID-19 Business Pivot Challenge’ from OpenIDEO. “How might businesses of all kinds rapidly adapt to support the immediate needs of the COVID-19 response, and enable a more just and resilient future?”

…What makes IDEO think that businesses want to change their strategy NOW, when they need to protect cash and enable their people to return to work? Businesses don’t WANT to make face-shields for free! They want to get back to making and selling their widgets! It comes across as preying on business insecurity, a distraction from the real matters at hand.

The Economist 3/28 issue has a good piece on the CEO of Unilever, basically saying “strategy is not the main priority”, favoring “operational brains” e.g. HR, supply-chain, and operations people, distributed responsibilities, tolerance for quick decision making on the ground, and the ability to deal with local governments.

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I’ll be the naive dissenter here, not because I disagree with anything that’s said, but given the current state of affairs I have to think of these problems from the perspective of a different lens.

If problem X exists, what might you be able to do with the economic and human capital of an entire country to solve that problem?

This was brought up in the other thread already but we mentioned problems of supply chain - IE if company A can’t get part B, it’s probably impossible. But has anyone asked the question? It’s easy to make up excuses and say that this is hard, but I have read enough books on the space race, WWII, and the Lockheed Skunkworks to know that in extraordinary times countries have been incredibly resilient and I don’t think this country has leveraged all of that yet in any form of an efficient and streamlined manner.

So it may be naive that companies like Makerbot are saying “hey what can we print for you” - but in my head I’d rather put my health at risk and chip in to help solve a problem that was asked of me then say that it’s actually impossible. None of these manufacturing problems seem like they are impossible to solve, but they seem like the companies trying need help because as we mentioned - not everyone has the right tooling with China shut down, some parts will be unavailable, and some parts (like the actual electronics to drive a ventilator) might be a lot harder to source than the motor.

OT, but yes, ads with every brand trying to make up their own unownable hashtag to “help” are ridiculous #wesupportstayinghomeandkeepinghealthybyblackanddecker

Worse are the ads by companies not even mentioning anything and just pushing more product. Thanks Adidas. I don’t need to know about your “hot for spring new styles!”.

I’m also not at all into the “here’s some other random content for you to do at home since we have no idea what to do on social right now”…

Back OT though, I have to think that the downstream effect of this could be better helped by many brands more than everyone trying to (poorly) make masks. Making things more accessible. Affordable. Getting things from A to B. Connecting people. Helping business.

I think there are really opportunities for brands and companies to innovate and help the bottom line and help others. I just don’t really see it being done all that creatively.

Can P&G not send around a tanker truck house to house to refill soap or something? Can we bring back the milkman powered by Amazon drones?


Hmm good to see a few positives mixed in–lots of interesting thoughts, but I also don’t want to start a rant page on cringeworthy marketing efforts (even though I know there’s plenty of crappy profiteering occurring).

I was just curious if any of the new products are actually getting made and distributed? Is there a success story mixed in there? Has anyone with an existing design been able to expand their production through a creative route? I was kind of hoping someone could site some good examples where I am wrong.

I know there’s been some pretty half-hearted pushes from the federal government for car manufacturers to help, but it’s sounding like it’s too little too late, even if those employees are working their butts off ( as described in this article ). And again, I really don’t feel like starting a discussion on politics and what should of happened. I have my strong opinions too, but unfortunately blasting them in a forum isn’t going to change where we are right now.

What I see that’s different between this scenario and WWII or the Space Race is that the conversion to a war effort didn’t have to happen in 3-4 weeks before it became obsolete (yes, I know there were earlier opportunities with Covid). We also didn’t have 3D printers or special tools where the average Joe could create a Sherman tank in their basement. Furthermore, we didn’t have social media, the internet, or 24 hour news cycles where every person in the country could shout their ideas for how to help into the void. If someone was making uniforms in their bedroom in 1944, it would be harder for them to actually get them to a soldier in France and they couldn’t brag about it to their Facebook friends.

I’m not trying to take a pessimistic viewpoint, I’m just trying to dig into what the reality of the situation actually is. I still do think there are things that can be done. I just want to know if anyone has had success? @KenoLeon- do you know if the hospitals have been able to use your masks? Are nurses & doctors afraid to use homemade stuff or are they grateful it’s there? @Cyberdemon has Makerbot been able to print anything useful that is being implemented? Are they going to get their pants fined off by the FDA or have they actually saved some lives?

Milk men still exist in Montreal, FWIW.

Something I was thinking about today is how long this shut down might be. Everyone is happy that we’re “peaking”…whatever that means. However, only 20k of 37 million Canadians have had Covid-19. That means there are still about 37 million people who are at risk. We can’t “return to normal” when 37 million people are able to catch this thing. That means we need to wait until the number of cases is 0 and stable at 0 for a period of time. Even then, we can’t start international flights since there are still cases somewhere else. I would guess that the lock down will be at least as long as it already has been in Wuhan. We’re talking months to years…

Now…given that, we need some real creative policy making. However, policy making has evolved (much like other forms of management) to discourage creativity. Now is the time that it would be beneficial to have some idealistic designers and artists in government to ask, “hey, why can’t we do ____?” even if 99% of the ideas are dumb. The only problem is, we have a global team of “yes men” running governments and NGOs. I hate to end on “we are effed”, but I find it real hard to come to any other conclusion.

As for masks/ventilators…The fastest I ever developed a product was a knock-off (i’m not proud…) stainless steel wine rack. It took 3 months to get the first shipment of a few hundred pieces. A ventilator? I would expect minimum 6 months without testing or certification. As said though, I expect most compnent makers are slammed at the moment. I would almost hate to try, because the parts I buy can’t be used by someone who actually knows how to build one…

Also rkuchinsky’s P&G tanker truck full of soap is interesting too. Gets the wheels turning on a think-tank approach where groups could brainstorm ways existing companies could use their existing resources and supply chains to help rather than trying to hastily re-purpose companies to do something they don’t normally do.

This is what I was thinking. Zoom ideation conference anyone?


I think solving the medical problem is secondary. This may seem obvious, but different pathogens behave differently. You don’t treat ebola the same way you treat covid. So ramping up vents is temporary and knowing what’s next is impossible. Having stockpiles of PPE is only a matter of commitment.

The real problem, which has been brought up in this thread, is how to prevent/lesson economic collapse in a pandemic. While design certainly can play a role in the solution, it is no doubt a collaborative effort. I also think the solution is going to be category specific. Why is GM making vents? Modern manufacturing is about automation which is a massive ship that cannot turn on a dime. 75 years ago, labor ruled the roost. Switching from cars to jeeps or tanks when the assembly line is people is easy, they can adapt. Robots, not so much.

Then this leads to a dilemma. The economic plight caused by this pandemic is as large as anything is recent history. Yet look at the clean air. I see families out walking with each other like never before. Is making more stuff again the real solution?

The problems I see are structural. I think some of the design making we are seeing is good in terms of filling some gaps and creating positive energy, but they won’t change the underlying issues which are frankly not design related. These are the two or three biggest issues I see:

1) US Health Insurance System. It just doesn’t work. Basically it is great if nothing goes wrong with you, and if there is one thing that is guaranteed about life, things will go wrong. At best bodies will break down, at worst, catastrophic failure. I’ve had two friends pass from cancer. Not only did their families lose their loved ones they also got saddled with $100k+ in medical debt after the death in the family. Now imagine that happening simultaneously to 100’s of thousands of people in the US. That is not a healthcare system, its a for profit mechanism to extract money while providing the minimum value possible.

2) Economy. The US Economy is built like the healthcare system, for nothing to go wrong… I’m not the smartest person in the world but I’m wise enough to have experienced Murphy’s law in my life. An economy with no resiliency is susceptible to the smallest cross breeze… what we are experiencing is a gale force wind on a global level.

3) Global Cooperation. this brings me to my third factor, the lack of global cooperation (might be only the US but seems broader). Pandemics, economic collapse, climate change, these are things that require large scale global cooperation. Sure I can make individual changes, but I can’t force the utility company to not use coal, or ensure that every part in my EV is sustainable sourced.

So why shouldn’t we have a think-tank exercise to get some visibility for these problems and promote design based solutions? I think solutions already exist to most of these issues, they just haven’t been politically viable (which hurts even to type). Without the will or ability for people to influence politicians to do these things the ideas don’t matter. Or to put it the way my first boss would “ideas are cheap, execution is expensive”.

A few years ago I remember this tech start-up made an app in which people could pay a monthly subscription and the fees would go toward supporting things in their communities like shelters, urban improvement projects, cleaning up blight, etc. The headline on the article was 100% perfection and withering in its succinctness; “tech-bros think they just invented taxes”… I’d hate to see a similar headline come out of this; “design-nerds think they just invented government” … maybe I’m too jaded on this one?

That said I think there are plenty of new opportunities coming out of this for design to be involved in. I’ve definitely gotten an uptick in request for different kinds of projects. Some industries will be devastated by this, some will be flush with cash and looking to do R&D.

@sparkPD I appreciate your timely article urging caution and best practices. It’s a shame that our government was massively unprepared for a situation like this (despite repeated warnings). Every country will protect it’s own supply chain in a situation like this. We can’t be making this stuff in China.

As a result I think they grassroots effort to step up and help is mostly positive but I agree we should be very careful with what we are making and how, with proper functionality, testing and sterilization.

It feels like in the short term there is a less a need to design new things, but more a need to produce some of the good designs out there, which have already been tested. In the long term, we should absolutely be thinking about re-designing the n-95, ventilators, ect.

There are open source designs that are not FDA approved but have been tested for efficacy. For example I have been making a mask called a Montana Mask which utilizes replaceable filter materials:

As well, these protective visors which can use off the shelf transparency paper are in high demand. I have already donated 100 to a hospital.

I’m hearing of several hospitals running out of the recommended PPE as we speak, so there is some very serious urgency to this. I’m sure we’ve all heard about medical works re-using their equipment, weeks ago.

We should prioritize the better equipment for our front line medical workers. In the meantime, I don’t think it is rocket science for the public to make things that provide some protection. With a little research, the people can learn about different materials and efficacy. In most cases, something is better than nothing, if sterilized properly. As designers, we might have a special role in helping people learn how to optimize what they have.

I don’t feel it is rocket science for the public to learn how to make some of these things at home. Due to the massive shortage and urgency, something is far better than nothing. Even a cloth mask, which the CDC is currently recommending, comes in around 30% efficiency (There are better methods that of course). Here’s some more info on filter material efficacy:

Let me know if anyone has a 3D printer or laser cutter and wants to get involved. I am building a network with Matterhackers and the San Diego 3D Print group. There is a massive need right now to fill the shortages due to interrupted supply chains.

Great to see “the board” to come to the core of the matters within a few weeks.
This pandemic is a not only a health care crisis, but it also uncovers the deeply rooted social, economic and political scars, that globalized capitalizm has inflicted on our western societies.

Many systems are broken, as Mike has brightly pointed out.
We’ve known this for a good 2 decades, but have dealt with it on an individual basis, because we were eager, adapting beavers.
That won’t do anymore.

“We gona have to restart the economy after easter (no matter what), or otherwise we risk a revolution, that will originate out of the middle class.”
[Marco Buschman, MdB Liberal Democratic Party]
Well, good analysis, wrong conclusion…

(If the guy is right historically political revolutions did not start in situations, when “the people” were starving, but in economic decent times, when the average joe had to cope with (economic) that he felt were unfounded, not fair or just “too much”. Typically new taxes or new rules.)

So the Corona Crisis bears the risk (or potential) of a true revolution. And if you look at the picture of the american middle class, it is quiet obvious, that we have pressing necessity , but also the chance to now start the implementation of new ways. And those new ways need to start with creative thinking. I’d love to see some IDEO and FROG disciples running “the show” for some time.

Some friends of ours have begun 5 years ago to align their joint efforts not on more “design thinking” but on “sustainable economic thinking”, sadly all their stuff is developing on the pace of highly educated thinkers and writers, but I can’t wait for them to publish more and getting more of the limelight.

If we look at what iab posted above we see part of the problem being a potential solution:

  • we substituted lots of physical, human labor by automated processes leading to robotics.
  • we gained huge upsides in productivity through this
  • where did these gains go? you all know the answers.
  • why do robots not pay tax?
  • why do we all have to work for our earnings 8 to 12 hours a day?
  • Where does the money come from? Normally there is never no money there, but suddenly billions can be created

Do the wall street fairy tales still ad up?

The political systems seem to be broken.
The founding fathers of the US constitution longed for an “aristocracy” in which not by inheritance, but by proof in life the best, brightest and fittest would run the country. Is that really happening? Did Bill Gates ever run for congress?

happy easter, and take care of each other. Love !


Of course they are…

SparkPD is looking for results. This is a very American trait to want to see ROI immediately and measure everthing each hour. The reality is, this is what war looks like, and the fog of war is upon us now in the 21st century. Information is not reliable, uncertainty is at an all time high, the future is as mysterious as it has ever been and advasarial intent is unknown.

There are many on this particular platform that rely on the largess of large corporations to meet their needs. Large firms are now needing to go all in with solutioning to the CV19 crisis in order to survive. These soloutioning optics need to send the message that “we are doing something” in order to asuage guilt, meet statistical modeled demand and justify their place in line as they wait for federal bailout funding. Efforts to meet or not meet regulators standards are now off the table as we are now on a war footing, but many are in a quandry and do not know which side to choose.

For those who toil away on their own making masks, printing shields and fearing being left out, it is important to not lose sight of who it is that supports their existence. Any energy that goes into boosting the narrative for that greater statistical effort will attract business and in kind sympathies. Making masks for the hospital is good, but it will not pave the way for our future in design, business, economy and politics. There needs to be something more…

For those who believe the IDEOs and frogs to take the helm, forgive my presumption, but that sounds similar to those who thought Jony Ive would make a good CEO of Apple. This designer need to be in charge of the world and see it in your own vision is the weakness all designers suffer from. It is very a 20th century perspective.

In the coming weeks where analysis will bear down on the likes of the Gates Foundations, Wellcome Trust, US/Chinese university systems, American elites who partnered with the CCP, the WHO, CDC and NIH who created statistical models that now do not support reality, we will be able to see what the latest in US electioneering looks like during wartime. When FDR defeated Dewey in 1944 only to die in office during WWII, we were able to understand how the powers that prevailed during that era put an end to a war that lead to the most productive period in world history.

We are merely at the beginning of this…all efforts to advance the iterative process of designing an outcome will contribute to prosperity in the future. We just need to decide where to place our energies. Do we help to create a focus on more sickness or do we create a future with a focus on less sickness?

It is up to each individual to decide…

  1. As an American, I always consider renouncing my citizenship at tax time (more to do with that I have to file 2x more paperwork as an expat to prove that I don’t need to pay taxes than I would have to file if I lived in the US), but this year I feel it even more. The political reality has never been more out of touch with the reality of the needs and the reality of what people want. Moreover, the election system is just a mess from top (electoral college anyone?) to bottom (The recent Wisconsin primary disaster).

Ever since I moved to Canada, I’ve felt like I had governments that at least listened to people like me. That includes periods of conservative government and periods of liberal ones. I’ve only occasionally felt that way about the US at a municipal, state or federal level.

  1. Black swan events. Black swans are actually events that can not be predicted, but I believe that many leaders around the world had come to think of a pandemic as a black swan. An event that was so unlikely as to not be worthwhile to plan for (perhaps a 1 in a million year event versus the reality, 1 in a hundred year event). All of our governments are run with the short term mindset of business that no one bothered to plan for something that remote, but that’s exactly what governments should plan for. The events whose impacts are collective, unlikely and too costly (for an individual) to plan for.

  2. Global negative externalities. As a species, we have little experience dealing collectively with global threats. We did have the Geneva Convention and the Montreal protocol (an agreement to reduce ozone depletion), but beyond that, the history of globally enforced law is pretty slim.
    Something I would love to see happen is people to realize that the sacrifices to hit a 20% reduction in global warming gases wouldn’t actually impact our daily lives. We take a few less flights, work from home more and bingo, we get some reductions that might actually save the planet. Moreover, we an afford to compensate those that would be most negatively effected (petroleum workers, coal miners, etc.).
    Having said that, I’m ready for more of the same come the end of this thing….

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Good find, that is interesting…

Starting to think ahead is also a smart move. The more I’ve read, the more skeptical I have been getting about most any new physical product design getting implemented for this specific outbreak. Aside from masks and face shields, it doesn’t seem like anything will be finished in time unless it was a pre-existing design ramping up production or distribution. There may be some peripheral items that could provide support, and physicians may come up with other treatment practices that could improve outcomes, but right now I feel like the biggest impacts would be at a supply chain level. That, and people just following guidelines to limit becoming infected or spreading anything. If nothing else, perhaps we can learn how to better attack these problems in the future and build needed equipment rapidly, like that article discusses.