Designing Our Way Through Uncertain Times – San Francisco Design Week Recap

Suzanna Smith ·

We’re in a moment of unprecedented change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many product designers to face a variety of new professional challenges. We’ve paused co-located work. We’re unable to see users and co-workers in person. We’re required to explore new ways of collaboration, all while navigating the ups and downs of today’s economy.

Furthermore, the changes caused by the pandemic aren’t the only powerful force shifting our society right now. The push for reforms around social justice are also reshaping our lives daily. These experiences, combined with a feeling of uncertainty, have created many new questions for designers to examine.

Carbon Five joined San Francisco Design Week’s (SFDW) virtual festival to host Designing Our Way Through Uncertain Times, a panel discussion examining our roles and responsibilities as designers and user experience researchers. Panelists at the event included:

During the conversation, speakers of the panel shared the lessons they’ve learned since the pandemic hit, how they’re experimenting within their professional roles, and discussed the commitments they’ve made to take care of themselves and their communities.

A few panel discussion highlights…

Working in remote environments is challenging.

“We’re losing a lot of context and don’t get a three-dimensional experience of really noticing the texture of people’s homes, noticing the nonverbal communication, the pauses between a sentence, there are a lot of moments filled with conversations.” –Nadia Surtees, IDEO

“Over-communication is the biggest tactic that has been amplified … Constantly repeating goals and outcomes is important since we don’t have it on a wall or whiteboard. It’s a very tunnel-visioned through one screen now.” –Mandy Valladares, Carbon Five

But there are benefits to working remotely as well.

“When you are doing in-person work, you are restricted with who you can put in the room together. The benefit of working remotely is that you are not restricted to your geography … When you’re collecting data, it’s important to travel or use remote tools [to capture data from a wide demographic].” –Lisa Ratner, User Experience Researcher

“When I’m in a [remote] meeting with co-workers, I’m able to fully pay attention to the topic of the meeting. There are no [side] conversations, we’re not shuffling in and out of conference rooms, people are more or less on time for meetings. People are more relaxed and start their days relaxed without having to commute in. Those benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.” –Lex Roman, Lex Roman Inc.

Leveraging powerful design tools can help. Some favorites include:

There isn’t a quick fix, but design has a role to play in helping to dismantle the inequitable systems in our society.

“Acknowledging that this is a lifelong journey for all of us to become aware and change things is key…on the design side…what does it look like for black designers to lead the future of design? What does it look like to shift the lens and say how do we highlight and uplift black designers to take the lead here?… the future as led by black creators is compelling and important to watch and support.” –Lex Roman, Lex Roman Inc.

“If you want to do social impact work and you work for a private organization, I’d recommend building a business case. Moral imperative gets the social impact projects into the backlog, but business cases are what gets it shipped.” –Lisa Ratner, User Experience Researcher 

To jump to the complete discussion on this important topic, forward to [41:38] on the video recap.

Recommended BIPOC resources and groups

For the full panel conversation, watch the video recap on Carbon Five’s YouTube channel

About San Francisco Design Week 

SFDW is a week-long city-wide festival that showcases the unique intersection of ideas, design, business, and entrepreneurialism that makes the Bay Area the birthplace of the future. Through studio tours and events, SFDW provides unique access to exhibitions and conversations with the designers who are shaping the future.

Interested in attending our next event? Visit to view our calendar and save your seat.