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The three types of Virus-times trend (and the core dimension they all sit on)

Three weeks ago we authored an article "Design has to go faster" that outlined the imperative and opportunity facing design in these virus-times today; that because markets will have new post-virus priorities and sensibilities, and are becoming accustomed to so much change during the pandemic, so there will be unparalleled opportunity to truly innovate with new types of design that will shape and enrich our future world.   

But is there really going to be much change that has long-term impact — won’t everything slowly revert back to ‘before-virus’? And if it is going to change, how can we navigate ‘virus-times’ socio-cultural trends to establish which could lead to the most significant implications and opportunities for future design?  

Whilst most people’s lives today are affected by the virus, they are also expecting a progressive return-to-normal over the coming months — most countries are seeing infection rates decline, and, even with the prospect of a second wave and no pending vaccine to be sure of, there is consensus that Covid-19 will be beaten. And people are willing this to happen too — not succumbing to the comforting idea of a return to pre-virus life would be almost perverse. So whilst the extent and rate of this return-to-normal is unclear at the time of writing, it will undoubtably bring a decline in many directly virus-related trends, not least social-distancing.  

Even though this global pandemic may not be landing a knock-out punch to the world, it would be strange to think it will not make a lasting impact. We now have 7 million reported cases and 400 thousand deaths, along with the burden of the stress of those who know these people (and the related anxiety of many others), about 20% of the world’s population have lived in lock-down for weeks on end, and we sit at the foothills of the largest global economic depression ever.

And whilst we can see some return to normality, and the waning of some direct virus-times trends, we have yet to see much of the knock-on secondary and tertiary trends mature. This virus is cutting deep, it will be the biggest agent of change of our times — it’s just at the moment it is hard to see the shape of these changes, and, as people are returning to the high-street and looking forward to meeting up with family and friends again, it is naturally not something they have much appetite to to think about either.

So what will these changed market needs be — how should ‘virus-times’ socio-cultural trends be researched in a way that usefully establishes implications and opportunities for design?

The first step is to seek-out trends by undertaking primary research observing trends, and secondary research surveying outputs of other bodies’ primary research. This in itself is an important and generally large task that has a variety of different methodologies and much benefits from experienced practitioners being central to the research, albeit ideally working alongside designers who may be less familiar with this process. Then, different ‘models’ can be used to help consider the relevance of these trends — what they are contingent on, how trends may inter-relate with each other, etc — and ultimately to establish if and how they might inform and inspire design. Without sharing so much detail on this (we have proprietary tools in design research honed over many years) the core ‘virus-times’ specific tool, the first model a set of trends might be considered with, is the Virus-times Trend Relationship Model — a simple tool that maps out the essential nature of the trend and its relationship with the virus: 

This first part of the Virus-times Trend Relationship Model highlights the causal relationship of a trend to virus-times: If trends are related to, or affected by virus-times — if a trend in some way is shaped by the new conditions that the virus has created. And if trends are pre-existing to virus-times — if a trend originated without connection to the new conditions that the virus has created.  

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These two conditions then intersect — as our simple Venn diagram shows — to mean they then define three core types of trend relative to the virus: those originated by the virus; those accelerated by the virus; and those independent of the virus:
* Virus Originated Trends (VOT) : trends that are new and are born from, and directly relate to, virus-times 
* Virus Accelerated Trends (VAT): trends that were pre-existing — they pre-date the virus — but have been accelerated by virus-times 
* Virus Independent Trends (VIT): trends unrelated to virus-times — neither originated not accelerated by virus-times 

Whist these three VOT, VIT, and VAT types of trend are distinct, there is some blurring between their boundaries — socialising on Zoom might be considered by most to be a Virus Originated Trend (VOT), but for some it would be considered a Virus Accelerated Trend (VAT) — but most trends can be ascribed to one of these three fairly easily, so the tool works to make an initial cut of trends that then is a useful basis for later tools to progress the analysis. 

The second part of our Virus-times Trend Relationship Model, is the core dimension that all trends sit on: a progressive scale from ‘hard’, quantitative trends, to ‘soft’, qualitative trends. This dimension is not inherently virus-times specific, but helps to map-out a balanced set of different trends for the early stage of all trend analysis (including those of virus-times). 
* ‘Hard’, quantitative trends that are typically objective, tangible, rationale in how they are evident and what they are. 
* ‘Soft’, qualitative trends that are typically more subjective, intangible, emotive in how they are evident and what they are. 

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As well as helping to ensure a balance of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ trends, this aspect of the model also helps to show correlations between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ trends, for example: social-distancing measures leading to more widespread loneliness. This then means that the tool functionals also to prompt researchers to seek to find corresponding trends that connect to already evident trends of the opposite type.  

The inter-relationship of ‘hard’ and ‘soft trends’ becomes a more complex field to navigate as trends are considered in compound form, and when they are used to springboard into forecasting likely future trends and developments; for example: the ‘hard trend’ of an increase in number of face-mask wearers will perhaps lead to a ’soft trend’ of dehumanising pedestrian and retail spaces (which in turn might lead to a ‘hard trend’ of a reduction in high-street spending) — but these compound trends and forecasts can be very insightful.  

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These two parts of the model then combine to form the Virus-times Trend Relationship Model, with ‘hard quantitative trend’ to ‘soft qualitative trend’ dimension, sitting across the core causal relationship of a trend to virus-times.

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Whilst this is the first model a set of trends might be considered with, other subsequent tools are necessary to establish the significance, robustness, and other attributes of socio-cultural trends before then going through creative processes that explores implications and opportunities on design. This later creative process, ideally realised in part as a co-creation sessions with clients’ design teams, works towards design ideation of future concepts in different areas of design — and we will describe some of how this can work in subsequent articles. 

Right now it is hard to clearly see virus-times trends beyond the most obvious, or even, perhaps, to want to try. But there is a imperative to start exploring ‘virus-times’ trends now, to starting creative processes that engage with these new opportunities and challenges, and to setting out design programmes that can step way further that the (valuable) short-term responses like applying easier to clean surfaces or putting up screens between people. Designers that do this will ensure their work is more relevant and successful, businesses that do this will be ahead of their competitors — and, broadly, this will bring forward the benefits of good design for customers. By initiating engagement with virus-times trends, this Virus-times Trend Relationship Model hopefully helps starts this journey.  

[This is the second of in a series of articles about designing for post-virus]