Unliked this year's virtual event, last year's Atlanta Design Festival included a reception and an in-person showcase. Photo: MA! Design is Human

Elayne DeLeo, co-founding partner of MA! Design Is Human and co-founder and director of the Atlanta Design Festival, which this year will be held virtually Sept. 12-30. 

Elayne DeLeo

To face down the coronavirus, Georgia has formed a variety of task forces on shoring up the economy, primary health care, emergency preparedness, homelessness and more.

These groups all contain influential decision-makers, but underrepresented among their ranks is a group that could infuse their efforts with even more insight: Atlanta’s burgeoning design and creative community.

Creatives are often seen as occupying a separate realm of cultural and artistic influence in a city, but in reality, they solve business and societal problems. Atlanta’s technologists, architects, interior designers, industrial designers and communicators are uniquely positioned to help local policy makers shift their focus toward practical social impact in the long term.

Think about it: Designers are trained to identify what is working and point out what has failed or needs improvement. That’s the essence of creating a winning consumer product, fixing a bug in code or designing a more efficient building.

Research also suggests that incorporating more of these ideas could also bolsters the local economy, a theme we plan to explore more deeply at this year’s virtual Atlanta Design Festival held Sept. 12-30.

In 2018, MA!/Atlanta Design Festival commissioned U.K.-based Ortus Research on the economic impact of design in Atlanta. The firm found that designers accounted for 10 percent of Atlanta’s total GDP.

Beyond that, design workers were found to be more than twice as productive as the average Atlanta worker, and they account for 4.3 percent of the total workforce — a larger proportion than in New York (3.6%) and a larger proportion than the U.S. average (also 3.6 percent). The evidence tells us that Atlanta has an advantage that it can build on to stimulate further growth and enhance all aspects of the city now and into the future.

At the Atlanta Design Festival, we have seen the pandemic provide a golden opportunity for rethinking our approaches to various problems.

[pullquote]Designers are trained to identify what is working and point out what has failed or needs improvement.[/pullquote]

We’re all being forced to innovate when it comes to educating our children, maintaining mental health and creating new ways to stay engaged with work across physical distance. We’re seeing the society embrace deeper empathy for people in later life and the most vulnerable during this time. Networking is taking on a new dimension. Cities are tweaking the way they deliver service

None of this is desired, but it’s all fertile ground for innovation, and design is at the heart of that process.

Atlanta Design Festival has embraced the broad notion of design that includes ‘design thinking’, the use of empathy, brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and other techniques to solve practical problems in areas not traditionally associated with design. We explore a few of these, along with current examples, below:

Advancing Equity and Diversity

Covid-19 has put a spotlight on inequities in our communities in access to health care. African Americans and people in lower socioeconomic groups are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

People-first approaches by health care offcials, with input from designers, can help draw attention to the problem and drive solutions.

An example is the COVID-19 Health Equity Dashboard developed by Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. The digital dashboard allows users to compare counties within the same state, aggregating key metrics that tell a story of a community’s social and economic health. The result is side-by-side, color-coded maps that allow users to visualize the relationship between the virus’s health impact and social determinants of health at a county level.

Data-Visualization for Communication

It’s more important than ever for public health agencies, cities and businesses to use data visualization to communicate with the masses. Small errors can make big differences in the way data is perceived and utilized. Graphic and digital designers in international design and digital agencies such as AKQA and Havas (both with offices in Atlanta) should be engaged to create data visualization of complex information for understanding by citizens and customers who range in ages, abilities and languages.


As Global Atlanta has reported, many manufacturers retooled their processes to create needed products at a crucial times. Foreign-owned firms have been particularly helpful in this regard. Korean-owned plastic film producer SKC, which in five days went from making films used in packaging and other applications to material for face shields.

Japan-owned YKK Corp. of America, based in Marietta with multiple factories in Georgia, was pulled into making fastening parts for PPE, supplying zippers for government contractors making hazmat suits and portable isolation wards. It’s also making fastening products for medical masks, hospital gowns and beds in partnership with apparel firms that have reoriented their factories during the crisis.

Open Spaces

COVID-19 has taught us how to split teams, work in shifts or work from home, as well as redesign work spaces and increase productivity while rethinking the future of office layouts.

Global interior design firm Gensler believes that rather than open-plan floors, the future office will be “open section” — providing multi-level settings where views, movements and ideas are not constrained by windows and walls — that are better for health and well-being and better for the environment, while incorporating “smart” elements that use technology to provide us contextualized information and cut carbon emissions.

Testing and Tracing for COVID-19

Most relevant in the short term, we need solutions that drive testing and tracing for COVID-19, encouraging citizen interaction with public health leaders and sharing health information with while safeguarding privacy and data.

CENTEGIX, an Atlanta-based tech company, has entered the fight against COVID-19 with a system to help schools trace potential exposure to the virus while protecting personal data.

By reworking their existing “CrisisAlert” system, they can now enable district leaders to protect their teachers and staff with “ContactAlert” by anonymously contact tracing school constituents that may have been in contact for a defined period of time with infected individuals. The technology can also be used for visitors that enter the school so that employees can be better protected against infections coming from outside of the school.

These local examples show how design solves a multitude of issues. People want to thrive, not just survive. Design will help get us there. We call upon our state and federal governments to embrace design at the core of creating solutions for adapting and pivoting to a “new normal.”

Atlanta Design Festival is inviting consulates and chambers to promote their country’s innovation and design talent via a virtual product showcase. Submission can include furniture, accessories, smart technology products and services, innovative building materials and systems, and craft. To submit: https://atlantadesignfestival.net/takepart/product-submission/
In 2021, Atlanta Design Festival and Global Atlanta are set to partner with Smart City Expo for a “Smart Technology Expo” where consulates and chambers will be invited to host country pavilions to promote their investments in smart technology and services for cities, infrastructure, and transportation. For more information, contact elayne@ma-designishuman.com.

Learn more at the Atlanta Design Festival at https://atlantadesignfestival.net.