This Field Guide article is the first in this series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 16 weeks on designassembly.org.nz and culminate in a downloadable PDF publication which will be distributed nationally.
We are incredibly grateful to Creative New Zealand who funded this 2020 Field Guide, which actively investigates, celebrates, nurtures and challenges current design thinking, methodology and practitioners in the Aotearoa design community.
The project is “a multidisciplinary exploration of New Zealand’s post-COVID design practice”. It is produced by five authors, five illustrators, with art direction, design, editorial, publishing and production support from the Design Assembly team & RUN Agency.
Supported by Creative New Zealand
The artwork to accompany this article (Above) is by Carol Green a freelance illustrator who creates a range of work – from posters and communication-assistance resources, to live sketching and illustrations for storytelling.
The Design Assembly team are designers too. Each of us works in our industry. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our community, and while we believe insight is the precursor to action, we also know that our people are more than statistics.
So when DA set out to research how the Aotearoa design community was doing during the pandemic response, rather than focusing solely on the metrics – we took a holistic approach, through multiple initiatives, including interviews, recorded conversations, and a survey. We asked about your experiences, your wellbeing, your responsibilities and encouraged you to tell your stories. We wanted to understand how you were feeling, working, living, earning, what you missed and what you enjoyed – we wanted to learn about your challenges and what hopes you had for the future.
This article is the first of four by Nicole Arnett Phillips, exploring what our community had to say about life and practice in April & May 2020 and the conversations we are having today as we begin to re-imagine Aotearoa NZ design together.
From March 25 until today (June 4 2020), we have heard from 198 designers from diverse backgrounds of how the COVID response and the economic shock affected their practice. Our recorded Pulse check conversations (ongoing) focused on design leaders from micro-businesses to our larger studios, with a range of disciplines and service offerings. DA’s Take 10 with… interview series (ongoing) speaks with designers of differing levels of experience including design educators and industry partners from throughout NZ.
Our survey ran mid-April through mid-May 2020 and had 144 respondents from the Aotearoa Design community. 79% were leaders (including business owners/directors/studio managers.)
This article unpacks the findings and sentiment from those 144 survey participants.
97% were able to work from home during the Category 3 & 4; however, 84% struggled to balance their work/life duties while working in their home environment. We asked respondents to rate (0-100) their ability to deliver their service during the lockdown the average response was the community was operating at 41% of our usual performance.
33% identified their most significant challenge to working from home as general anxiety about the situation. 30% of respondents struggled to prioritise their mental & physical wellbeing during the lockdown.
27% of respondents were unable to keep to their designated work hours. 24% felt they were less productive working in the home environment than their studios. 20% were distracted from creative flow by home duties. 11% of respondents said motivation & focus were the most significant barrier to them working from home.
29% of respondents were responsible for homeschooling children during the lockdown, 19% said homeschooling was their greatest challenge during categories 3 & 4 of our COVID response.
25% of respondents said communication and connectivity with co-workers were barriers to their workflow. 21% of respondents struggled with social isolation and prefered the buzz of collaborative team environments.
However, 24% thought their collaboration with co-workers improved using remote work technology like screen share and video conferencing. 7% said they found new ways of connecting and collaborating that they will adopt in their practice going forward… 13% felt more efficient with the quiet space that working from home enabled.
67% of respondents had space and infrastructure already set up to work from home, but 19% of respondents said their physical workspace was a barrier to them being able to work efficiently.
38% identified a need to upskill their clients, and 13% identified a need to upskill their teams in digital tools to facilitate remote.
4% of respondents have cancelled their studio lease to work remotely going forward. (And more noted it as an option they will consider as their lease comes up for renewal).
Designers made the most of this “quiet moment”. They spoke of enjoying a slower pace of life, mealtimes shared and the activity times gained with family by not needing to commute. The leaders of our community consistently noted that while we’ll hopefully never have to experience this situation again, there were welcome, enjoyable and unexpected benefits to lockdown. 17% of respondents said they hope studios will enable parents to work from home more regularly. 13% wanted more flexible office hours to avoid peak commute times and work around family commitments. Our designers celebrated the environmental benefits of the lockdown with many identifying the reduced carbon emissions as being a silver lining. We also enjoyed business being ‘more personal’ getting to know our colleagues and clients families with glimpses inside their “bubble”.
Routine and healthy habits are crucial to productivity, as is our work environment. Our community needs help defining home/work/life boundaries this was brought sharply into focus during the pandemic response, but the designers we heard from identified this as an issue before the lockdown and want to work on improving and supporting one another with this going forward.
A reoccurring thread throughout our conversations and survey responses was the impact of stress on our creativity and productivity. The weight of these uncertain times, coupled with the isolation of lockdown, had an adverse effect on our practitioners and our design outcomes.
Our respondents identified a critical difference between choosing to work from home ‘under normal circumstances’ vs being required to work from home under these extraordinary conditions. Particularly our freelance and sole-practitioners who typically work at home noted their level of distraction, anxiety and stress dialled up and in correlation, their motivation and creativity decreased during this time.
During the lockdown, 58% of our respondents had less than half of their usual paid workload. (However, many noted a significant increase in hours spent on unpaid duties such as child care, cooking and other domestic responsibilities).
35% of designers with full-time contracts (& those who typically work 40 or more hours per week) worked less than 18 paid hours per week throughout category 3 & 4.
Conversely, 6% of the studios who responded identified challenges with an increased workload and decreased staffing capacity. 3% of respondents were looking to hire in the immediate or short term.
We asked our respondents about the sectors they service and mapped this data alongside the general trend toward a reduction in hours to map contraction.
We did not include charity/not-for-profit or faith-based services in our query; however, 11.27% (16) respondents identified this category as being critical sources for their work both before and during the lockdown.
The most stable sectors funnelling work to our community during lockdown appeared to be:
(Note that our findings here differs to results from our peers in other countries and we will compare and contrast their industry findings with our own in future articles).
What we learned here: Diversify your client sectors. Businesses which worked across broader segments of industry had more confidence in their ability to meet their financial obligations and their paid work hours contracted less.
Infometrics and Statistics NZ cite our GDP will decline 8% yet when you put that lens on the creative sector, the projected decline doubles to 16.4%. Nationally they forecast employment decline of 9.8% across the economy, but modelling predicts the creative sector will decline by 11.7% in the year to March 2021. While it is too early to understand the full economic impacts, the start of this contraction is reflected in our data at least 11% of respondents have already downsized their workforce *(note we did not canvas this as a question rather people offered the data in the comments so this number could be under-reporting).
65% of respondents had applied for the wage subsidy and other government support packages. Only 48% of had the financial resources to cover 12 weeks of business expenses.
We asked how confident respondents felt in their ability to meet their personal financial obligations. The average response was 71%, this number skewed due to the high number of people who responded they were 100% confident. There was a disparity between being very confident and having little confidence.
When asked about clients’ ability to meet their obligations 47% said their clients were currently paying their invoices on time, and 16% of respondents said their clients had overdue invoices that they were unable to pay. The remaining respondents were unaware or said it was too soon to tell how their clients cashflow had been affected.
The consensus was our clients were cautious but optimistic and entrepreneurial; identifying new ways to generate cashflow. 15% of respondents secured new design work through digital transformation opportunities, assisting their existing clients in adapting to trade restrictions brought about by the COVID alert level circumstances.
16% were renegotiating contract terms with existing clients. 15% of respondents had cut their rates *(note we did not canvas this as a question rather people offered the data in the comments so this number could be inaccurate). 5% of respondents introduced flexible payment terms for their clients, and 3% were offering ‘pay what you want’ options to generate new work leads.
Our communities projections for the financial year:
COVID-19 presents the most significant economic shock since the great depression. The speed at which the pandemic disrupted our way of living, working, our freedom of movement and our relationships was unprecedented. Globally, COVID is a crisis of a still unknown scale, and it compounds the climate and social crises we face.
Pivot has become a bit of a buzz word, but tough times have a way of making people reevaluate and shift direction. We are resilient and agile; we will get through the uncertainty. We have an opportunity to change course to create better outcomes for our clients and ourselves.
While we don’t yet know the full impact of our lockdown, our government took decisive action and is providing a clear path forward. New Zealand’s COVID response has positioned us to recover quickly – ahead of our peers in other countries. We are a nation of innovation. New Zealand has a reputation for our creativity and ingenuity worldwide. We need to capitalise on these advantages, what we learnt working remotely and re-imagine Aotearoa NZ design together.
In subsequent articles in this series we will dive deeper into your stories and the lessons we learnt during the lockdown, we will compare our findings with our peers overseas, and look at your hopes for the future of our design practice.
We extend our heartfelt thanks to all the participants and supporters of our research thus far.
*National Economic projections from Alistair Schorn and Andrew Whiteford, with assistance from Paul Barkle and Dr Adolf Stroombergen. “Impact of COVID-19 on the Arts and Creative Sector Ministry of Culture and Heritage”