The Process and Outcomes of the COVID-19 Design Challenge

The 2020 SEOUL DESIGN INTERNATONAL FORUM has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

SPEAKER: Karel Vredenburg (Director of Design at IBM)

Insights and Applications for the Post-Corona Era; The start of a design challenge related to COVID-19

Design has great power. Design has the power to motivate people to do many things, such as taking action, creating products and services that make life simple and rich, and deriving a whole new experience. Designers basically carry out design work assigned to their organizations, but in addition to these daily tasks, they have the power to solve the world's biggest problems. I expressed these ideas in the keynote speech last August at the Design for America Summit, where I urged designers to solve the biggest challenges facing the international community through a bold approach.

And it wasn't long before the COVID-19 virus outbreak, which had effects worldwide. I thought that there must be a solution that designers can bring to meet the huge challenge of the Corona crisis. After discussing how we should contribute to this challenge by making a difference together with like-minded people like World Design Organization’s Srini Srinivasan and Rebecca Breuer and Liz Gerber of Design for America, we decided to launch the COVID-19 Design Challenge and bring the designer community together.

Our starting point was to reach out to designers in each community and ask them what challenges they might face with COVID-19. Altogether, there were over 180 challenges, and they were recorded on Post-it notes and categorized according to themes. We grouped the related ones together and marked them on the priority grid in order of high impact and urgency, considering whether it is a task we need to address, what impact it will have, and whether it can affect urgency and resolution.


The urgent task was organized into 7 keywords, including, how designers design communication methods to inspire behavioral change to inspire people to behave safely, how they can help reduce infection rates, how to help hospitals' medical staff struggling with the growing number of patients, how to help vulnerable and elderly with health concerns, how to increase the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), how to access a digitized educational environment, and ways to help many people who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 lockdown. A total of 21 teams were created across three continents of the (United States, Europe/Africa, and Asia) for the "How Might We Challenge," and 350 designers in 17 different time zones worked remotely and collaborated for each challenge.

- Collaboration through remote work

We worked together using remote platforms such as Zoom, Webex, Slack, etc. A tool called Mural was used. These teams were led by design thinking experts from IBM, Design for America, and the Design Organization, and we attended team meetings remotely. We tried to check the progress of each group through daily check-in calls with the leaders of the working group to see how the project was progressing and to facilitate smooth collaboration. Through 'catchers', we kept checking who came up with ideas and how activities were being carried out, so that our teams could continue to participate in the work, and new participants could join in as well. We also created a website to share this information.

- IBM's approach to design thinking (Enterprise Design Thinking)

IBM's 'Enterprise Design Thinking' has fundamental three concepts.


The concept of The principles focuses on the very fundamentals of user outcomes. Focusing on the basics, iterating over and over, students from design schools around the world, and diverse people from design agencies and IBM come together to solve problems. This is a very important point. The loop starts with people from different places observing, understanding, and reacting to each other, exploring problems, gathering information, and prototyping. The keys is a concept of sharing who did what, how, and what the experience was, and they review each other's progress in the middle of the project and play back what solution came out from the user's point of view. There are sponsors who can improve each other's lives by thinking about how they affect each other, and those who help will receive a coach badge. There are leaders who have expertise in a design thinking approach and have a high enough level of knowledge to lead a team. These are the people who help us succeed in our challenges. If you visit IBM's design thinking site, you can train, receive badges, and participate.

Actual progress of the design challenge project

Designers from all over the world engaged in various activities such as multiple people posting Post-it notes, marking dots, or writing at the same time through a digital whiteboard platform called Mural. The image below is an example of a project board where 21 teams used Mural.


We started by identifying users and stakeholders, and thought deeply about who the key users are, how to actively promote this business and promote participation, and how to increase people's understanding. We tried to understand the core users in depth by envisaging a real user, focusing on that person and empathizing with how they would actually feel. Knowing for whom and why we are working on a project is very important, because when we come up with a solution, we need to be able to apply it to the specific people we designate as key users. In addition, in relation to the area we want to deal with, we identified the areas and areas that really need help through the scenario map, and thought about the best way to solve the problems we identified. Creating a scenario by selecting the most influential issues through voting and identifying the most realistic and urgent tasks. It helps to answer questions such as ‘what future solutions are there to the problem?’ and ‘what are the best ideas and best ways to solve the problems we have discovered?’ In order to come up with one solution after going through a sufficient stage of ideation, the most influential and feasible ideas were prototyped and feedback was received. We developed the idea by iterating over a short period of just a few weeks, and two playbacks reflected additional feedback on the idea.

All of this information was made public and shared freely so that it could have the greatest impact on the world. By opening up our copyrights, we allow people to freely use our software, either under a Creative Commons license (one of the copyright licenses that allows the distribution of works under certain conditions in the CCL) or open source licensing.

We collected and shared the challenges, solutions, and ideas of all the projects we did through our website ( It is easy to see what the overall challenge was, and what the solutions and means were.

An example of the design challenge outcome

A total of 30 projects were carried out in the design challenge. Communication campaign was conducted to personally motivate people to practice effective hygiene management while maintaining social distance, and the app was designed for social distancing and optimizing distance education. We designed various physical devices such as social distancing belts and stickers reminding us of safe behavior. He also designed personal protective equipment (PPE) that does not come into contact with the skin.

The design challenge attracted many talented designers from all over the world. We created content that can be shared on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and uploaded it on social media so that it can be freely shared. I tried to make the type of content more relatable and interesting to the younger generation, and I tried to convey a message of warning, sometimes a message of persuasion, using metaphorical expressions. Messages to encourage people to act a little more safely, messages to wear masks properly, and messages to protect those who cannot protect themselves are included.



The method expressed in the form of a scenario was a work that could attract people's attention. Wearing a mask alone created an image of a fashionista or encouraged people to stay at home with insight and interest. It also tried to convey a message of gratitude to those who work on the front line or those who still go out to work and risk their lives.


We had to maintain social distance while keeping physical distance. Although we could not meet in person, we tried to encourage campaigns through interesting methods, such as having to maintain contact with elderly families. To this end, we looked at various apps, websites, and physical items. Maps were provided to avoid crowded places, focusing on the experiences of people living in certain areas, especially corona-related experiences, and social distancing belts were used to measure the distance 2M that people should maintain. In fact, social media such as WhatsApp recommended wearing masks by providing emojis, and recommended wearing masks by attaching stickers to physical objects. In addition, stickers were allowed to be attached to food delivery bags to convey gratitude, and a wide variety of solutions were derived, such as optimizing artificial intelligence technology through applications and implementing them in personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves. We are introducing more content on the website.

What we have learned from the COVID-19 Design Challenge

For those who are planning to do such a project, here's a summary of what we've learned from our challenges. First, large and urgent projects involving multiple people require just in time (JIT planning). By leveraging the pivot applied by many new startups (the act of checking market response after launching a product and switching to a different business model if problems arise), executives regularly change the way we work in the context we are given, and should seek constant change.

Also, don't embark on an impossible task or project or make it more difficult than necessary (Don't ‘boil the ocean’). Focus on what is most urgent and impactful. What we judged ourselves to have done well on was to focus on the most pressing and influential issues at the time. Most problems are multifaceted. But you can't solve all of them at once. You should start by identifying what kind of problem you are experiencing within the task at hand, and identify what is most urgent and impactful and develop it.

If you are collaborating with other organizations, continuous communication is also important. We have worked from home with hundreds of people around the world based on our three agencies. Managers at each agency spent a lot of time trying to communicate almost every day to ensure that their work was going smoothly. The 17 different timezones depending on the cities in which the participants lived was one kind of challenge we faced, coordinating all participants to work from all over the world, and in fact worked almost all day. There were also benefits to be gained from this. Teams located on opposite sides of the globe crossed over and worked on a project quickly. Another advantage of this approach was that it was able to provide an appropriate solution with a deep understanding of the different cultures.

What makes this collaboration beneficial and rewarding is that it is not limited to a certain area to which an individual belongs, but deals with social issues and considers how to make the world a better place. Everyone who took part in the project to solve the core problem felt it rewarding in this respect, and the form of telecommuting, which many were concerned about, also gained positive evaluations.

No one predicted COVID-19, and still no one knows it very well. We don't know when this infectious disease will end, but rather than sitting alone at home and worrying about the infectious disease, we worked together to have an impact and make friends with people from the other side of the world we had never seen before. Students fresh out of college or still attending college gained new value through practical experience, and those with years of experience in the industry could gain new insights from them.

After the project

What should we do after the project?

The issues addressed in the project are still valid, and a website was created and shared to encourage safe behavior. A number of projects are currently in development and we are looking for new team members. Many people are applying to our team to contribute their talents and skills to specific projects. Some of the projects that were actually in progress became start-ups or formed individual organizations. The various achievements and processes we share will provide new ideas.

We predict that the second wave will occur in early 2021. We will continue to explore topics that remain unresolved. Since the topics discussed above were the most influential and urgent at the time, it is necessary to look at other items or topics that need to be addressed at this time.

Problems that can be addressed using design techniques and methods need to be considered from a broader perspective. In addition to 'how to influence climate change or environmental improvement' and 'how to prevent infectious diseases', 'how to respond if such a pandemic recurs in the future' is not a problem that will be resolved in just a few months. Even if it passes, we will face the post-COVID era rather than going back to the pre-COVID era. Daily life is expected to be markedly different from how it was before the pandemic. Depending on the incentive to work from home, the space plan of the office will be different, and a plan to prevent overcrowding of public space may be established.

This is like a warning bell to inform the members of our society that different practices are required in the future. We need to design how the new normal should be positioned. You should take a step back and consider what the world was like before the epidemic, and use this as an opportunity to design a new world. It is to design a world where there is no racism, inequality, or division, which has never been seen in any other country in the world.

The world is currently at an inflection point, and governments, organizations and businesses must openly embrace new ideas. Rather than suggesting a few new ideas, a small number of people use methods such as enterprise design thinking to conduct business, and at the same time look at trends, societies, and epidemics occurring in society and come up with alternatives for the future. You will find it. We need to look at the work we all have to do, and what kinds of challenges we face in general.

Looking at the results of the design challenge project, it can be seen that the problems we need to solve are not limited to product design or service design, but also include practical social problems. I want you to think for a moment about the challenges that each of you are actually facing. Even if it's not a huge problem, you can start thinking about the small problems found at work, at home, and in society right away. I think we can design a better world by starting with small movements and working together. For continuous communication of these discourses, the website is used. We hope that everyone will join us in our efforts to make the world a better place.

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