There are two kinds of people in this world—those who think of design as an entirely optional and sometimes pricey aesthetic overlay, and those who understand its potential to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. In 2020, aka The Year of the World’s Most Pressing Problems, or The Great Reset as strategist Michelle Barretto likes to call it, there needs to be only one kind: the ones who dare to imagine and build a better reality.
In the panic-stricken and chaotic early weeks of the pandemic, shortly after Metro Manila had gone into lockdown and the future was a dark and gaping unknown, Barretto and her team at the Ortigas-based boutique branding agency Vitamin B made quick decisions: they were going to spend the pause in commerce learning new things and pitching in.
It was time well-spent. Barretto and her team met with disaster and rescue protocol expert Ruel Kapunan to discuss disaster response in a metropolis suddenly paralyzed by a novel coronavirus, not to mention a deadly cocktail of compounding aggravations. Metro Manila was on full work-from-home mode. Public transport had also been banned, with no alternative for those who needed to stay mobile. COVID cases continued to climb every day, threatening to overwhelm hospitals and medical facilities.
“We started by asking them three things,” Barretto recalls in her typically brisk and logical manner. “What was the biggest problem? What was the most urgent problem? And, finally, what was a comparably small problem that wasn’t being addressed?” The lady has a talent for organizing discussions in an efficient sequence that from the very start assures you a solution is forthcoming. A quick catchup over coffee with her can feel like listening to a welcome TED Talk or a Pecha Kucha presentation. Half your mind is blown with new insights in under 18 minutes, or in 20 slides—20 seconds per slide.
The ‘comparably small problem’ that Kapunan identified was an issue of mobility, especially for PUIs and PUMs, as well as medical workers. There weren’t enough ambulances to keep up with the demand, on top of the fact that ambulances, by design, were proving less than ideal in COVID-19 situations. The risk of virus transmission within a confined and airconditioned space is much higher and the safety protocols for every ambulance run are costly and complicated. For starters, an ambulance driver has to gear up in a full hazmat suit.
By late March, Vitamin B had designed MediDyip, a point-to-point COVID-19 medical transport, along with an entire system of deployment using existing resources. Following IATF protocols, jeepneys, with their open windows and entryways, were retrofitted with simple features such as plastic sheets to form different compartments and prevent transmission, as well as hygiene kits. Drivers were trained on safety procedures, from donning PPE, ferrying PUIs and health workers, to deep-cleaning their own vehicles after each trip. It was crucial that they ferried passengers directly from point A to B, a feature based on one of Kapunan’s insights. “He told us that if people had to walk because there was no transport, they were very likely to drop by a 7-11 for a drink, and if they had the virus but were asymptomatic, they would still be spreading it,” Barretto says.
Barangay workers served as the point of contact for passengers and dispatchers for jeepneys. The whole operation was a cheap, fast and viable alternative to ambulances. In April, Mandaluyong became the first local government unit to implement the system. Other LGUs, such as Caloocan and parts of Quezon City, soon followed.
In looking for solutions, Barretto and her team like to dig deep. Jeepney drivers were among the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of daily wage earners who saw their livelihoods vanish in a day. Job loss during a global health crisis is its own kind of emergency, the effects of which go well beyond finances. In the case of those jeepney drivers, there was the added anxiety of potentially contracting the virus. “It can be unnerving to suddenly become a frontliner, which was essentially what became of MediDyip drivers,” says Barretto. “But they did it because they had to—not just so they could somehow keep providing for their families but also to be able to help the community basically fight a war. That’s a big deal. And that gives people a sense of dignity, which is important during bleak and trying times.”
In September, the Design Vanguard, a community of the world’s foremost design thinkers across a range of industries, listed MediDyip alongside other notable and innovative responses to the pandemic in its Covid19 Design Directory. Design Vanguard co-founder Tim Brown of IDEO, the design and consulting firm founded by design thinking pioneers (and best known, perhaps, as the guys Steve Jobs called on to create Apple’s first computer mouse), calls these times “a defining moment for design”. Brown writes: “In a matter of weeks, our world radically shifted as an invisible agent invaded almost every aspect of our lives. Our systems were found wanting. A tsunami of new problems confronted us. Our preparations turned out to be wildly insufficient. In the first days and weeks of the crisis, we observed designers jumping in wherever they could help.”
The directory reads like a roll call of all who have stepped up with ideas for meeting the challenges presented by the pandemic and for pathfinding into the future. Ideas ranged from reopening guidelines, such as one specifically for museums, crafted by the American Institute of Architects, to manuals on adapting fixed furniture and built structures for the age of physical distancing.
“It feels very validating to be in the company of people with the same mindset,” says Barretto, who’s thrilled that her team’s efforts are recognized on a platform supported by IDEO and her own heroes of design, the MASS Design Group, an architectural practice that specializes in healing spaces, from hospitals in Africa to a social justice memorial in Alabama, USA.
Many of Vitamin B’s clients are leading property developers and lifestyle products—they’ve done branding work for the Philippines’ top real estate companies, and created sustainable business strategies for civic spaces such as the Mind Museum in Bonifacio Global City. But it’s the growing portfolio of social enterprises—such as Mano Amiga and My Shelter Foundation—whom they work with for free that have, in many ways, sharpened their experience and credentials in designing for impact. “It occurred to us that we’re multipliers for businesses, essentially amplifying their reach and boosting the bottom line,” she says. “And we thought we should do the same for social enterprises and multiply all the good that they do.”
Spaces in general—from large civic spaces to small offices—and how they affect people, are of particular interest to Barretto. In 2018, when her firm moved to a new, higher-floor office address, she worked with interior designer Bambam Mendoza to execute several key non-negotiables. One of them was that everyone had to have instant access to the amazing vista beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, a sprawl that stretched from Bonifacio Global City to the distant outlines of the Sierra Madre mountain range.
“Right from the entrance of the office you can see the view,” Barretto tells me during an office tour shortly after they had moved in. We walk through her minimalist private office, past the cubes of creative directors Bogey Bernardo and Jon Morales who regularly join her on the company’s annual trek to the Business of Design Week in Hong Kong. We carry on past a meeting room with vintage Eames chairs and one wall peppered with Post-Its—remnants of a recent journey-mapping and prototyping session—and past a counter of work stations pushed against the glass wall. “The guest lounge and the library are by the window instead of the usual spot, by the entrance. Our offices and meeting rooms are walled off by glass so you get some privacy without compromising the view. I like to call it ‘democratic views’—it’s available to everyone. You can see it every time you look up from your desk or away from your computer. I know I keep talking about it but having this sense of space, and something nice to look at, can be a real mood-changer. It can trigger a lot of creativity.”
It’s a deceptively simple but telling office feature that captures Barretto’s work philosophy: people and their welfare need to be at the heart of design.
It’s as true for marching into the new normal as it was for pre-pandemic human-centered office design. “The only way to move forward is to change and put people first,” says Barretto, “and one of the biggest hurdles to real change is mindset. Some people just want things the way they were, because they were doing well. And if some people still insist on maintaining the kind of profit margin they had before the pandemic, that’s not going to work. So it’s also a question of leadership. Those who have the great privilege of steering the boat—business owners, company leaders, policy-makers—have to be ready and able to work for the greater good.”
If 2020 threw all our plans out the window and left us wide-eyed and sideways on the pavement, holding on for dear life to a few random tools—resilience in one hand, a can of Spam in the other—then fingers crossed 2021 turns out to be The Great Do-Over. And design thinkers, seeking the greatest impact, will know exactly what to do with those tools.