Design starts from understanding issues and studying them. Especially when it comes to life-saving devices such as masks. Considerations on what happened during the pandemic (and the lessons that can be drawn from it)

* Raffaella Mangiarotti is an architect and designer, based in Milan. She teaches at the Milan Polytechnic.

Function, looks, ergonomics. These are the fundamental parameters for the design of masks, now a device of public safety indispensable for all. Designing them poorly means generating danger, putting everyone’s health at risk.

At the start of the lockdown, designers and companies worked on mask projects without swapping ideas, all following their own path. Designers focused almost exclusively on looks, while companies thought only about the material to be utilized. Lack of knowledge of medicine and the haste to at least do something drove institutions to spend millions of euros, importing items that were probably useless. In the meantime, the Milan Polytechnic launched the project Polimask: it evaluated 2000 types of masks  – made in various materials, from all over the world – and concluded that only 10 of them could be considered valid.

What is required is clarity, without bickering, but with the serious expertise of our profession. To design is to understand and to study. To find solutions that are not improvised, in spite of the urgency. It is to share correct information, know-how from different fields, experience, before picking up your pencil.

Understanding the issues is the first task of designers

What are the parameters of filtering efficiency that are fundamental to design a functional mask in hygienic terms? The Polytechnic has clarified this: surgical masks and PPE devices (the so-called FFP2 and FFP3) have to be made with 2-3 layers of material – usually TNT, a non-woven fabric with a polymer base – which acts as a mechanical filter (to 10 microns of diameter) and as an electrostatic filter to capture the smaller particles.

There are also parameters of ergonomics, wearability, usability. The way we wear, use and remove masks has a strong impact on their efficiency: the gesture of putting them on or removing them puts us at risk if it is not done properly. Wearing a mask is not an action to be taken for granted, above all in the Western world: it deprives us of an expressive part of the face. It is a human and emotional aspect doctors and nurses have experienced and indicated, as in the care of Covid-19 patients in isolation.

Then there are issues connected with washing, sanitizing and the possibility of sterilizing filters, to limit the consumption of disposable materials over the long term. The circular economics and environmental impact of these devices are open questions: from one-use masks, indispensable in certain situations, to pollution from microplastics (the microfibers of polypropylene), for example.

The challenge for industrial designers is therefore an open one: Milan has been badly hit by Covid-19, but that also makes it fertile territory for creativity and innovation, which will be need to start again. Much design work still has to be done for the Covid-19 emergency. Let’s do our best, without looking for easy shortcuts. Trusting in the positive force of design.



Open-source project iSphere developed by the Berlin studio Plastique Fantastique (Marco Canevacci e Yena Young). The iconic design is inspired by the science fiction comics of the 50s and the creations of the utopian movements of the 60s. Photos and video shooting: Marco Barotti.