Before COVID-19, a lot of us probably weren’t aware of just how many objects and surfaces we touched on an average day. Yes, from the moment you walk out your front door to the moment you arrive home, you might place your fingers on dozens of the same dirty surfaces touched by thousands of other people. Gloves aren’t an ideal solution, either, since most people forget to change them often enough to keep things sanitary, and they’re really only adding to a mountain of pandemic-related trash.

The foot-based

One workaround is to carry an antimicrobial tool for opening doors and pushing buttons. But as we all grow more aware of potential public health concerns, designers are coming up with some clever built-in solutions, too.

“Dropkick” addresses one high-touch urban surface: pedestrian buttons at crosswalks. Noticing people contorting their bodies in order to push the waist-height buttons with their feet, the folks at One Design Office realized there’s a really obvious way to solve the problem.

As it is, people are already going pretty far out of their way to avoid touching crosswalk buttons with their hands.

They explain: “diving deeper into this, there was a general consensus that these buttons were not hygienic. The negative connotation is further amplified with the rampant rise of COVID-19 and the growing obsession with public hygiene. As reported in the Journal, studies show that the surfaces of these buttons have been breeding grounds for bacteria, with swabs showing significant colonies of bacteria dwelling on them. Even active wiping down of these buttons may prove to be futile with the bacteria becoming more dominant if they survive. Re-appropriating this to the context of COVID-19, traces of the COVID virus were found on stainless steel surfaces as long as 72 hours after initial contact.”

Working the Dropkick system into real life is as easy as putting another crosswalk button under the existing one.

You’d imagine that in the 21st century that technology would advance beyond needing to operate buttons. In fact, some cities are already putting in place sensor-activated pedestrian crossing buttons. It was also discovered that many of these buttons don’t actually contribute to the timing or speed of activating a crossing, as most of them work to a pre-determined schedule during peak hours, making them “placebo buttons,” as quoted in the Guardian article. Could it be that these buttons exist for the sole purpose of satisfying the human need of feeling as though they have actively done something to reduce waiting times, much like the ‘close’ button in elevators? We suspect that there could not be a replacement for the tactility of a physical button.”

Graphics illustrate exactly how easy it is to interact with the Dropkick button.

Their solution, developed in collaboration with Greenpoint Media, is a kickable, hands-free pedestrian button set at ground level. They hope Dropkick can help reduce the transmission of germs while allowing the buttons to continue what is essentially a placebo function. The pill-like shape of the button allows it to be pressed from multiple directions, and it’s backlit for visibility, especially as pedestrians get used to looking further down the light pole than usual. But as the designers point out, having the button on the ground comes with an additional benefit: most people standing at crosswalks are already looking down at their smartphones, anyway.

The button features a hard one-piece aluminum shell for strength and durability, with holes drilled to let the green or red arrow lights pass through. The buttons also contain speakers that can alert pedestrians when it’s time to cross the road, or introduce “biophilic sounds” to the urban environment, like those of singing birds.

Nighttime image of the Dropkick hands-free crosswalk button alternative.

This hands-free approach is just one example of how urban design and even home interior design might change as a result of COVID-19. Check out some essential interior design takeaways from the coronavirus crisis, and what we might be able to expect from major cities in the years to come.