face maskFace mask innovators need to step up their game. It looks like COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while. Rather than a temporary inconvenience, the wearing of face masks is becoming part of the new normal. An opportunity for better design has arisen because current masks fail in so many ways:

Where current face masks fail

They’re uncomfortable, especially when they’re worn for long periods. They’re hot, they restrict breathing, they smell, they hurt your face, they hurt your ears. If you wear eyeglasses, it’s difficult to get a fit that won’t cause your breath to fog them up. Masks are not exactly a fashion statement. They call attention to themselves and to the wearer in the most obvious way.

Although better than nothing, current masks are not very effective. They are meant more to protect others from the germs you might be carrying. They’re not meant to protect you from the germs of others. For that you need a respirator, not a face mask. Respirators, if properly fit to form a seal, can block most viral organisms. Masks, on the other hand, are made from materials that are too porous to effectively block the coronavirus. Their loose fit also significantly reduces their effectiveness. They can’t prevent the virus from infiltrating the body through the eyes.

Attempts at better face mask design since the advent of COVID-19

A number of new mask designs have been rushed to market, with more on the way. So far they’ve either focused on filtering systems priced beyond the reach of most people,  or they’ve been solutions focused on style but with all the same functional drawbacks.

What’s needed

What’s really needed is for face mask innovators to entire re-imagine the problem the use of face masks is trying to solve. Face mask design is the way it is because, one, we’ve been reacting to a crisis. Naturally, the tendency is to grasp the first solution that is workable. Almost all solutions in such a scenario will take existing design as the jumping off point. Little consideration will be given to novel solutions, and that is what we’ve seen so far in the COVID pandemic. Also, the hope that the virus could be contained and we would soon be back to conducting our lives as we used to, meant that delving deeply into mask redesign would yield a questionable payoff. Why waste the energy and resources on what could essentially be a very temporary problem?

Now that mask wearing threatens to be a longer term prospect, there is incentive to give mask design more serious thought. Here are some approaches that could be used for achieving meaningful innovation in mask design:

  • Focus on the real problem that needs to be solved: how to prevent a person from being infected with the coronavirus and, if they are infected but are asymptomatic, how to prevent them from infecting others. A mask is just one solution. How else might you look at this problem?
  • A mask is a blocking strategy. What other ways might the virus organisms be blocked?
  • Are there strategies other than blocking that can be used?
  • Fiber-based filtration systems are the norm. What other ways might the virus be blocked/trapped?
  • Is there a mechanism that kills the virus, or at least makes it inactive? How could it be deployed as an element of personal protective equipment?
  • Might there be a way to make a cloud of virus organisms visible so they could be avoided then captured? Could the organisms be detected in another way?

The coronavirus has caused massive disruption throughout the world. It has also created opportunity for smart design minds to tackle significant problems and find solutions that can actually save lives. Good luck.