Shoes off. Masks on.

As a design object, masks have had a pretty crazy 2020. Cameron Hurst reports from lockdown in Narrm / Melbourne on how to choose the right mask for the job.

With masks, as with everything in life, design matters. Freo expat Cameron Hurst reports from an extended lockdown in Melbourne on balancing comfort, form and function.

In Fremantle, masks are a little bit like shoes. Freo people wear them a lot less than people in other parts of the world. Of course, getting sandy feet and catching coronavirus are not equivalent.

I’m writing this from Narrm/ Melbourne as a Freo expatriate, and I bloody hope that WA can continue on safely without masks. However, Covid isn’t disappearing any time soon. Being prepared is important. And being prepared means thinking about design.

As a design object, masks have had a pretty crazy 2020. There aren’t many instances in history where a garment goes from niche personal choice to mandated global ubiquity over the course of a season. I’ve got a few months of experience guinea-pigging as a regular mask-user now, and I’ll tell you this: not all masks are equal.

My friend Will’s pandemic birthday

The truism of good design is that it marries form with function. First and foremost, masks have got to work. Masks stop the spread of coronavirus by protecting the wearer and people they come into contact with by blocking potentially infectious droplets. Gross, I know. In order for a mask to be effective in limiting the spread of the virus, there are key functional specifications that are crucial.

If you wear a surgical mask, it must be binned after use. In Fremantle, land of not just one but two zero waste stores, single-use is simply not going to cut it. But we can’t just be wrapping a scarf around our face and calling it PPE. The best fabric masks have strict specifications and cleaning requirements. 

Three layers of fabric are highly recommended. For the outer layer, a water resistant fabric like polyester or polypropylene. The middle layer needs to be a fabric blend like cotton polyester or polypropylene, and the inner layer should be a water-absorbent cotton. Also: wash it. Please. Every day after use. Those things get sticky.

This leads me to my next point. To follow health guidelines, you’re going to need a couple of masks on rotation. I’ve got two fabulous sleek black masks to pair with my Melbourne winter monochrome, and another soft brown nylon for my chilled earth tone days. The latter, made by Melbourne designer STASEV, has great toggled drawstrings. Department of Health and Services advice is that a mask needs to ‘snugly’ cover the wearer’s nose and mouth. This generates a classic design problem, in the tension between effectiveness and comfort. Ear flaps are too loose. Elastic is fine, but it can become irritably tight when the mask is worn for longer periods. In my experience, the humble toggle rules – sometimes a small adjustment can make a huge difference.

Workwear – my cyborg look
Branching out in brown with Ellie
Toggles are best but can’t help with straws

Another thing to design-think about is how masks interact with people’s accessibility requirements. For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, masks that cover the face can make communication difficult. It’s important to be mindful of people’s different access needs and actively respond to any preferences expressed by people around you. I’ve got a clear plastic face-shield that I wear to my cafe job. I’ve found that it’s made communicating with older customers with hearing difficulties a lot easier, although they have had a laugh at my cyborg look. Or thinking laterally, some people may prefer to communicate through text-based communication apps. Responding to people’s self-determined accessibility requirements instead of making assumptions is the way to go.

If you told me in January that everyone in Melbourne would be wearing a mask to go to Woolies in August, I would’ve said: what the…..? And will the Dockers still be bringing home a premiership from the G? But here we are. In the pandemic, good design couldn’t be more important. So if (Mark McGowan forbid) Covid risk increases in Freo, forget the Chemist Warehouse multi-packs. Buy local, buy quality, buy considered design. Shoes off, masks on.

Cameron Hurst is a writer and curator based in Narrm / Melbourne

Published 17 August 2020