Designers discuss 2020's impact on the industry

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Illustrations by Petra Eriksson

Following a year like no other, we join leading designers to explore 2020’s repercussions and look ahead at what’s to come.

9 min read

An illustrated group portrait of 9 smiling designers by Petra Eriksson

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The past year has been transformative for many of us. Unparalleled global events have impacted us both personally and professionally in ways we may not yet fully understand. As the year draws to a close and another begins, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the future.

With the world as we know it shifting beneath our feet, the creative industry has also undergone unique changes. We’ve seen many designers struggle to find work, while others grapple with serious questions and challenges, exploring how they can use their creativity to inspire change and support important causes.

We invited leading designers into our virtual living rooms to sum up 2020 and discuss their expectations for the year ahead.

An illustrated portrait of Mitzi Okou by Petra Eriksson

Mitzi Okou

Visual and interaction designer, co-founder of Where Are the Black Designers.

The events of the past year led visual and interaction designer Mitzi Okou to make significant changes in her life. After quitting her job at HP, she placed her focus on Where Are the Black Designers, an initiative fighting to amplify Black voices in design.

Although she was always passionate about social justice, race design activism was never part of Mitzi’s plans. “2020 awakened that activism in me that I didn't honestly think I even had,” she tells Shaping Design.

The first virtual conference for Where Are the Black Designers took place in June. She has since continued to use the platform, as well as her other projects, to support Black designers and change the way the world looks at diversity and representation.

Mitzi stresses that “Black designers are out there, and the talent is extreme,” yet the design industry doesn’t reflect these facts. She calls for better, more inclusive hiring practices, encouraging brands to take meaningful action so as to not exclude people of various races, genders, abilities and ages from their workforces.

“All these circumstances are causing me to think, how can I amplify Black designers? How can I put them in the forefront? How can I center Blackness, or what Blackness means to me in my work?”

Watch the full interview with Mitzi >

An illustrated portrait of Debbie Millman by Petra Eriksson

Debbie Millman

Writer, designer, educator, artist, brand consultant and host of the podcast Design Matters.

With the pandemic leading her to temporarily move homes and adapt her lifestyle, Debbie Millman has found solace this year in growing vegetables and caring for her newly adopted puppy. While the changes may have caused “a lot of tears,” she’s kept as busy as ever: teaching, producing new episodes of her well known Design Matters podcast, creating animated visual stories for TED’s conferences, presenting on the new CBS series, New York by Design, and much, much more.

As the co-founder of the branding graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, Debbie and her team had to move the program online in just three days. “We ended up having to produce an entire thesis with technology as opposed to in-person,” she recalls. “I was very pleased with the way that it ultimately came to life, but it was really stressful.”

Another big change was adapting Design Matters to fit a new socially distanced format. Unable to interview her guests face-to-face, which she feels adds warmth and intimacy to the conversations, Debbie shifted the communication online and set up an in-home studio.

Following a year full of uncertainty, social turmoil and political unrest, Debbie is deeply concerned by the state of the world. “That’s what designers need to be thinking about: politics and the environment,” she concludes.

“I think that people are using the discipline of branding to create movements that unite and connect people to make a better world. But there are very few brands that are risking anything for their beliefs.”

An illustrated portrait of Marina Willer by Petra Eriksson

Marina Willer

Designer, filmmaker and a partner at Pentagram.

Between working on the design of a digital bank or a new identity for Rolls-Royce with her team at Pentagram, London-based Marina Willer has been spending her free time during lockdown away from the screen.

“I’ve developed almost an addiction to creating nice things to compensate for all the time we have online,” she says. Filling her home desk with paints, brushes and a typewriter, she’s taken pleasure in engaging in various analog projects. Whether painting pebbles, doodling or creating compositions with neon stickers, these graphic exercises ultimately end up informing her professional work.

With plenty of projects keeping her busy at work, Marina points out how fortunate they’ve been at Pentagram. At the same time, she acknowledges how the new remote environment has pressured the team to push themselves further, communicate better and work faster than ever before.

Marina feels that the current circumstances have opened up interesting opportunities for designers, forcing us to be more inventive and create work that is optimistic and helps drive change. Looking ahead, she believes that it’s up to designers to be flexible, learn new tools and understand the changes in people’s lives—in business and the way they live—in order to stay relevant.

“There are a lot of obstacles to finding work and getting work done. But I always think that design is one of the professions that is very privileged because we need to keep redesigning our lives and the way people live."

Watch the full interview with Marina >

An illustrated portrait of Natasha Jen by Petra Eriksson

Natasha Jen

Designer, educator and a partner at Pentagram.

For Pentagram partner Natasha Jen, this past year has been extremely enlightening and impossibly difficult at the same time. With the shift to remote work eliminating all real-life interactions within her team, she grew to appreciate the social aspect in her design practice and the ability to share creative ideas in the same space.

Natasha notes how virtual meetings make our communication less flexible and more sterile, especially in the creative industry. “It's really hard to design when you remove the social activity to it,” she remarks. She mentions the importance of communal chit chat and coffee breaks with both team members and clients, which she sees as integral to the shared experience that design really is.

Thinking ahead to 2021, Natasha identifies the climate crisis as a growing concern that’ll deeply affect the design industry. She hopes that creative professionals will question their roles in fighting against climate change, whether choosing to work with sustainable materials or carefully contemplating the clients and projects they take on.

“There's a heightened awareness of environmental issues and it’s become a bigger consideration for designers. How do we participate in that? Do we have a role in that at all? Those are decisions we need to make.”

Watch the full interview with Natasha >

An illustrated portrait of Chelsea Alexander by Petra Eriksson

Chelsea Alexander

Freelance designer and former brand

designer at Biden for President.

For NY-based graphic designer Chelsea Alexander, 2020 has brought on a distinct change in her work and subject matter.

Earlier this year, she joined the Biden for President campaign as brand designer. With Covid-19 and the culmination of racial injustices, she felt driven to make an impact in society. “A lot of people also feel the same way,” says Chelsea. “It's life and death situations at this point."

She describes the collaborative spirit of the campaign as a welcome change: “It made me realize that I really need to work with people who have different perspectives than I do.” The team was made up of designers from different backgrounds, with a broad range of experiences and skill sets.

Chelsea sees the diversity and inclusion within her team as an intentional statement. “My immediate bosses and collaborators are very invested in the people that they put on the team,” she reflects. “And I think even more so now because we’re trying to make a statement that we are the team that is going to get Joe Biden elected.”

Another project she worked on this year was a virtual face mask for Snapchat saying “Our voices have power.” With many individuals feeling like they’ve lost a sense of community this year, she wanted to send a message of hope and help people feel that their opinion is understood and valued.

"The biggest concern for designers is opening up to designers who might not think like them, or who might work in different ways, or might even challenge them on certain things."

Watch the full interview with Chelsea >

An illustrated portrait of Aarron Walter by Petra Eriksson

Aarron Walter

Senior Product and Design Lead at Resolve To Save Lives.

Aarron Walter was Head of Design Education at InVision when Covid-19 hit. As the world came to an abrupt halt, he took the opportunity to contemplate his priorities, purpose and use of time.

This soul-searching led Aarron to quit his job and join a software team fighting Covid at Resolve to Save Lives, a public health nonprofit. “Ironically, a recession and global pandemic is probably the worst time to switch jobs,” he says of the move.

Speaking of his new role, Aarron shares that he’s interested in how design and technology can communicate medical challenges through storytelling. “When you're addressing medical challenges or a pandemic or epidemic, a big part of it is not creating software, it's just helping people see what the problem is,” he explains.

While Aarron has personally worked remotely long before the pandemic, he’s excited to see how the move might bring about positive change to workplaces. With people now living farther from the office, he hopes work environments will become more diverse, allowing people of various backgrounds and perspectives to get a seat at the table.

“The pandemic caused me to reflect on how I'm spending my time. It became clear that I wanted to do something for the greater good, or do work that contributes to the world in some significant way.”

Watch the full interview with Aarron >

An illustrated portrait of Vanessa Newman by Petra Eriksson

Vanessa Newman

Head of Product at Somewhere Good,

a social platform for people of color.

As a creator of spaces and communities for queer POC and nightlife music events, New York-based Vanessa Newman (they/them) usually does work that brings people together in a physical space. While social distancing and the transition online did have its share of challenges, Vanessa is excited about the possibilities that came with it.

“A lot of the spaces that I've made during this time have had such a broader reach, with people from all over the world joining,” they say. This wider reach is especially significant when dealing with trans or non-binary people of color, who in many parts of the world might not have community as readily accessible to them.

Thinking of the year ahead, Vanessa highlights the importance of equitable systems in work culture and within design teams. Moving forward, they claim, teams will be judged by the cultural sensitivity of both their employees and product. “Companies that do not figure out how to diversify their design teams and shift their culture to retain diverse teams are going to become irrelevant,” predicts Vanessa.

"Challenges are becoming increasingly unavoidable, in every aspect of life—from climate change to racial justice, to politics to technology. We can no longer avoid the problems that have presented themselves to us."

Watch the full interview with Vanessa >

An illustrated portrait of Alex Bec by Petra Eriksson

Alex Bec

Managing Director at the HudsonBec Group

(It's Nice That, Anyways Creative, Lecture in Progress, If You Could Jobs).

While the pandemic and social distancing have made working a little harder this year, Alex Bec feels it’s his duty to spread a sense of hope and optimism. He emphasizes the importance of kindness, particularly at a difficult time like this. As a manager, he believes it’s vital to let people have bad days or work a little slower than usual, as well as empower them to find their own work-life balance.

Alex notes how remote work has unexpectedly brought people together. Seeing each other’s homes, pets and kids has enabled him to open up more personally with team members. The new framework has also given everyone more time with family, which could have a positive long lasting impact for many of us.

Our new reality also led the team to move their monthly event, Nicer Tuesdays, online. “It was completely game changing,” says Alex. From hosting 450 people in a space in East London, they could suddenly invite thousands of people from across the globe to listen to four different creatives sharing their stories. “You now no longer need to feel confident enough to go to that space; you can be in your bedroom, feeling shy, unhappy or not wanting to talk to anyone, and listen for an hour and a half in complete silence.”

On top of caring for the health of ourselves and our loved ones, another major concern Alex sees among designers is finding work. With unemployment soaring, he hopes to use the company’s platforms to find opportunities for others and to encourage people to do what they can to help each other.

“I believe that if we have any type of chance to do something for someone else, that’s what we need to do.”

Watch the full interview with Alex >

An illustrated portrait of Carly Ayres by Petra Eriksson

Carly Ayres

UX Community and Culture Lead at Google Design.

For Carly Ayres, the main takeaway from 2020 has been practicing more intentionality in her life and work choices. Taking the time to journal and learn new skills, such as sign language, Carly feels that this year has made her more thoughtful about the types of experiences or connections she chooses to nurture.

Within her team at Google Design, Carly and her colleagues try to find creative workarounds to cultivate relationships while working remotely. As an example, she mentions a team postcard-swap which to her was “infinitely better” than a virtual get-together. While these sorts of solutions require more logistics and planning, they allow for meaningful interactions and a deeper sense of community.

Another topic Carly tries to address with increased intentionality is equity and inclusion. “As designers, we have a responsibility to implement these topics in our work, process and practice,” she says. As part of her role as an editor at Google Design, Carly aims to be mindful of the speakers and voices she chooses to amplify.

"It's really important that we keep these conversations going. We really should be bringing equity and inclusion to the forefront of our conversations and practice, and figuring out ways to infuse that into our workplaces."

Watch the full interview with Carly >

Check out more from our Design Today series.