Coronavirus forces design schools, studios and events to "transform a difficulty into an opportunity" by going digital

Designers, universities, events and brands with products to launch are taking their activities online as coronavirus forces the sector to consider replacing real-world interactions with virtual alternatives.

The move has been most dramatic in the education sector, with many schools sending all pupils home.

Schools switch to digital learning

Italy's Istituto Europeo di Design (IED), Austria's University of Innsbruck and dozens of US institutions including Harvard University, Stanford University and Columbia University are suspending in-person lessons and switching to digital learning materials and lectures.

"The University of Innsbruck is closed for teaching from tomorrow on," said the head of the school's architectural history department Bart Lootsma. "We switch to digital learning."

The IED announced it was replacing lessons at its seven locations in Italy with a "smart school". This features "streamed lessons, online tutoring, video hangouts and digital materials to tackle the closure of schools".

"Knowing how to transform a difficulty into an opportunity, even when leaving one's comfort zone, is a necessary talent for any designer of today and tomorrow," said IED academic director Riccardo Balbo.

Harvard gave all students just five days to move out of their dorms and instructed them not to return after Spring Break.

"We will begin transitioning to virtual instruction for graduate and undergraduate classes," said Harvard president Lawrence Bacow. "Our goal is to have this transition complete by Monday 23 March, which is the first day of scheduled classes following Spring Recess."

Classes at Harvard Graduate School of Design will continue remotely via the video-conferencing app Zoom, although workshops will not be accessible.

"I don't think anyone in the US will be sitting in a university classroom two [weeks] from now," predicted Harvard economics professor Jason Furman on Twitter.

Design studios embrace remote working

Meanwhile, design studios including Stockholm-based Note Design Studio, London studio PearsonLloyd and British designer Ross Lovegrove are exploring remote working for their teams.

"From next Monday, we will work remotely from home in advance of the outbreak escalating, which I think is inevitable," Lovegrove told Dezeen.

Luke Pearson and Tom Lloyd of PearsonLloyd said they were introducing remote working at their London studio.

"The one positive of the situation is that we can use it as an opportunity for the serious trial of remote working, making the most of our digital tools for maximum productivity and communication while travelling less," they said.

Note Design Studio is also exploring ways of replacing international travel and client meetings with virtual alternatives.

"We don't know to what extent the coronavirus will affect our business yet, but we might be sensitive to it because we do half of our businesses outside of Sweden," said the studio's interior architect Daniel Heckscher.

"So we have been considering how to show products and interiors using 3D renders and virtual reality, or using live streams so we don't have to travel for presentations."

Product launches go virtual

Chinese designer Mario Tsai said that movement restrictions in his country had forced him to explore digital alternatives to the traditional approach of launching products at trade fairs.

"None of my colleagues can go back to the Hangzhou office so we started working online two weeks ago," he said, adding that the process was "very inefficient for us".

Instead of showing his work in Milan, Tsai will use digital tools to present his products. "We will be releasing an online showroom, a virtual reality experience for our exhibition during Milan design week," he said.

Italian lighting design studio Slamp is hosting a webinar to present its new collections in replace of the Lighting + Build fair in Germany, which was postponed from March to September last month.

At Milan Fashion Week in February, Italian fashion house Giorgio Armani chose to live stream its show from an empty showroom rather than holding it in front of a physical audience.

Conferences and trade fairs move online

Coronavirus has caused dozens of trade fairs and conferences to be postponed or cancelled. Several of them are now launching virtual versions.

Hotel architecture and design awards programme AHEAD made the decision to replace its Asia winners ceremony, which was due to take place 12 March, with an online presentation that will be broadcast on Dezeen. A rearranged physical event has been scheduled for September.

The Geneva Motor Show, Toronto technology conference Collision and the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin have all decided to replace their physical events with virtual versions.

The Geneva Motor Show, which was forced to cancel its physical iteration due to a government ban on large events, has created a Virtual Press Day website, where journalists can watch press conferences that were due to take place at the show.

Organisers of the Collision technology conference said the event would be rebranded as Collision from Home. "Collision, 22-25 June 2020, will still happen for our 30,000 attendees. But online."

SXSW said it was "exploring options to reschedule the event and are working to provide a virtual SXSW online experience as soon as possible for 2020 participants".

Events "might as well stop organising"

The switch to digital platforms was predicted by trend forecaster Li Edelkoort in an interview with Dezeen earlier this week.

"Anyone still planning public events in the coming months might as well stop organising today and find innovative ways to communicate and relay the information differently," she said.

The updates come as the Covid-19 strain of coronavirus continues to spread across the world, with countries taking measures to contain outbreaks.

Italy has quarantined the entire country following a major outbreak in the north while Milan's Salone del Mobile and the Venice Architecture Biennale have been postponed.

Designers and brands including Plumen and Stellar Works told Dezeen that they are preparing for significant disruption to their businesses and supply chains as the virus spreads.

The photography is by Philippe Bout from Unsplash.