The New Normal revisited one year on
In May 2020, we looked towards a summer of lockdown easing and a return to normality by the autumn. Here today we find ourselves in an eerily similar situation. I have written before about our societal lack of imagination; about our failure to foresee the blindingly obvious and perhaps our misplaced surprise and outrage when the (un)imaginable happens. So, we are torn. Happy to make plans for work, with our families and even perhaps travel; but also, unable to ignore the possibility that this is simply not over yet. Psychologists call this Cognitive Dissonance, and it is the human ability to hold two directly opposing ideas in your mind simultaneously and believe both to be equally true. Typically, this will be the clash between our core beliefs and our fleeting needs or situations – I know this is bad for me, but I will do it anyway. Dissonance is uncomfortable, we try to resolve it either through additional input or through a change to our core beliefs.
One year ago, I wrote a piece asking, “Will the New Normal be normal?”. It focused on our work at the time with Hospitality brands to reinvent themselves for the future of the sector. Returning to my thoughts at the time, it is surprising and perhaps even unimaginable, that we do not know much more now than we did then. Are we really any closer to understanding the landscape of the sector or indeed addressing the other burning questions around how we live and work from home.
Back then, I asked whether the time for a bold reimagining was upon us and whether designers would embrace the opportunity for change. In returning to these questions, I feel compelled in my state of dissonance to ask if change is necessary at all? Is the pandemic enough of a catalyst to fundamentally change the way we live, work and play? For so many tragically, the change has been unbearable. The human cost and economic impact have sent shockwaves across the world. Yet still as a community we yearn for a return to normality, absent of a better plan we simply wait for Boris to unlock the gates. We know this might be bad for us, but we will do it anyway.
In the spirit of asking stupid questions, I think it is important to avoid design oversteer in the short term. Good design should be a thoughtful response to the way we want to live, both an answer to our human shortcomings and a vision of our better selves. So, as we look hopefully towards post-pandemic design, we need to be careful not to upset the balance and hold our dissonance while we wait for more data rather than ditching our core beliefs.
We have all now looked inwards at our homes and seen them through the lens of lockdown. The mini boom in the housing market and the seeming mass exodus from our cities to live in the country has been sold in the press as a miracle cure to the daily grind. But cities aren’t buildings, they are people and communities and they function on the prehistoric premise that static resources are better shared than replicated. And this is not only our buildings and services, but also our communities. People are better together; stronger and more resilient. If blissful isolation in the countryside in the age of Zoom seems idyllic, we must also fast forward to a post-Zoom age where increased traffic and our creaking mass transit network will once again crush our souls, if only 3 days a week.
The office as we know it is dead; maybe. But the workplace is not dead. The studio, the workshop, the building site and hospital are not dead and as long as we have a need to centralise some parts of our city, our cities are not dead. As long as we have people who need to be somewhere and maybe some people who choose to be there too, cities will flourish as they serve the working community. We will have to adapt, of course. I can see a seismic shift towards quality over quantity in our workplaces. It will no longer be tenable for our teams to sit in darkened rooms at a screen with a 5’ x 2’ desk for 8 hours a day. The adoption of remote working will not change the way we work, but it will give power to the people to demand better spaces, better than being at home, better than sitting in the garden studio. It is here that change will really happen.
I have described this most recent lockdown glibly as all the tough parts of my life, with all the fun bits taken out. I still think this is true. The escapism of cinema, theatres, pubs and dare I say the gym, cannot be replicated at home. Spin bikes, takeaway and Netflix – it’s just not the same. So here too I think the opportunity for change is not to reinvent a sector, but to re-engage with the customer journey. We need to focus on quality. The new normal needs to be better than the old normal. Our customers have more choice now, the landscape is much broader. The local restaurant is now competing with the delivery scooter from the next town. This is a battle that can only be won by connecting deeply with customers and creating genuine experiences.
More data is needed. Our dissonance persists. Yes, the pandemic has made us question notions of normality and make acceptable concepts widely rejected before. But we need to protect our core beliefs and hold on to those things that make us human – a sense of community, a sharing of ideas and coming together. The reason we yearn for a return to normality is not so that we can dust off the suit and get back on the train. We long to spend time with friends and family, we look towards a time when we can hear the buzz of a Soho pub; feel the energy of the curtain rising before the opening act and gather to talk rubbish into the small hours. These are our core beliefs, and we should hold on to them with both hands. Instead of knee-jerking to the here and now, designers must take a step back and re-engage with the things that make us truly human.