Design Week’s most popular long reads of 2020

This year, we saw how design intersected with some of 2020’s biggest stories – including Covid and Black Lives Matter – and helped people adapt and survive.

Covid-19: How graphic design can support vulnerable communities

As the world went into lockdown in March, many people faced a situation like no other. “I’ve been feeling pretty helpless watching the news,” Becky Wass wrote on Facebook. “I wanted to do something about it, so I’ve made a postcard that I’ll be posting to my older neighbours as this progresses.”

The postcard was a simple piece of graphic design – asking people if they needed help picking up shopping, posting mail or if they simply wanted a friend phone call. “If just one person feels less lonely or isolated when aced with his pandemic, then I’ll feel better about it,” Wass added.

Design Week explored the power of graphic design in helping communities during this time. Brand strategist Emily Penny created a similar postcard for her local community in Chichester, and pointed out that physical messages helped to reach vulnerable communities who might not be as online. “Any situation like this, designers are best placed to look at problem-solving,” she said. “Thinking ahead, there are lots of things designers could do to help.”

While Design Week collected many stories about designers’ efforts in our coronavirus page, another popular piece looked directly at the power of graphic design – this time in a project commissioned by the UN – at how it could help fight misinformation.

Black Lives Matter: graphic design’s role in the protest movement

Bunbury’s poster

In May, George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota, US, sparked international race protests. The latest death in a long list, the movement’s slogans became mainstream this year: “I can’t breathe”, “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice for George”, among them. We looked at how graphics and branding intersected with these protest movements, such as the branding of Black Lives Matter and in particular its proficiency with social media.

London-based graphic designer Greg Bunbury spoke to Design Week about how “graphic design could be a tool for social change”. Bunbury was responsible for the tribute to Eric Garner, an African American man died from suffocation in 2014, also at the hands of police. He updated the poster for this year’s riots for Floyd, with designs going up around London, from Camden to Hyde Park.

Speaking about its ability to create communities and develop social projects, Bunbury also spoke of the graphic design’s ability to confront people. “If I can put three words and make people visibly uncomfortable then I’m doing my job. I want ideas like this to be disruptive,” Bunbury told us. “And I don’t want this to stop with an image.”

Cultural appropriation: can designers ever responsibly “borrow” from other cultures?

Products designed by Urban Outfitters, identified by Pater in his book, The Politics of Design

Designers often find inspiration in unusual places but what happens when those places are sacred to another culture? Cultural appropriation was put in the spotlight again this year following a dispute between a Hindu statesman and British Brewery Veda whose design for an India Pale Ale was accused of “trivialising” of a holy Hindu image.

Indian graphic designer Kawal Oberoi spoke to Design Week about creating his own platform which sought to promote authentic “desi aesthetics” which he believed was being increasingly lost. Native American student advocate Sadie Red Wing also warned of designers using symbols and icon without much historical knowledge. “I notice many objects use symbolic tribal motifs to decorate something that has no relation to the Indigenous culture,” she said.

Dutch design researcher Ruben Pater said that the problem started with design education, where students are not taught about the philosophy and sociology that explain cultural processes. “Designers need greater exposure to design practices outside of western tradition,” he said. A consensus emerged that other cultures are not necessarily off-limits, however. “My advice on taking consideration of traditional cultures in design practices is having the designer defend their design choices without the simple answer: ‘because it looks cool’,” Red Wing said.

Throughout the year, Design Week explored different cultures in our country profile series where a recurring thread was how designers are resisting clichés and finding their own aesthetics, from Nigeria to Trinidad and Mexico to India.

What’s driving so many car brands to redesign their identity?

Toyota’s latest logo

BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Rolls-Royce, Vauxhall, Opel are some of the marques that have adjusted their identity in the past year. Time and time again, we saw a familiar pattern: a flat logo. So what was driving this trend, and why were so many brands doing it all of a sudden?

It was prompted by a shift to digital spaces, according to Saffron chief creative officer Gabor Schreirer where a “digital dictatorship” rules over a variety of guidelines, from accessibility to typeface legibility. Car brands were, Schreirer said, racing to brand themselves in this space because of the “dramatic changes”, from electrification to mobility services. Brandpie designer Katy Scott echoed that it was part of a bigger picture of automobile branding – about how marques might move into the lifestyle space or create an icon for the new era. “Who is going to create the next VW Beetle?” she asked.

The&Partnership head of design Dan Beckett, who designed Toyota’s new European identity, put the flat trend in perspective, however. “If you look at the stories of logos, from 3M to Windows to Audi, often what you see if that in the past the logo was very simple and then it got complicate din the middle and then it was simplified again,” Beckett explained. “You realise you had the answer the whole time.”

Designing confidence in public spaces: how cities will change post-lockdown

Visuals for the AR app proposed for Where We Stand by Dn&co

It has been difficult to know exactly how Covid will change our daily lives but it’s not stopped designers imagining how the future might look. One of the biggest concerns has been around public spaces – how would they adapt to follow regulations while still retaining comfort and familiarity?

Where We Stand – a project founded by Michon and Nicholas Bell – asked 15 studios to contribute solutions. Solutions were diverse. Dn&co put forward an Augmented Reality (AR) app which would help the public interact in London’s Parliament Square, while Accept & Proceed proposed a “keep your distance” football league on east London’s Hackney Marshes. Design consultancies Arup and Meristem revealed another way to reopen public spaces: parklets. These converted car parking spaces aimto provide greener places for people to gather. Meanwhile, New York-based David Rockwell developed DineOut, a design kit built for expanded outdoor dining.

Since our article exploring these possiblities, many parts of the UK have experienced two more states of lockdown so it’s arguably too soon to know how these visions might be applied. Most recently Camille Walala reimagined Oxford Street as a “plant-filled and people-focused” oasis.

Letterbox deliveries are booming. How are designers meeting this new demand?

At-home deliveries have become a way of life, from pasta and laundry detergent and even wine. In lockdown when shops were closed, this took on a life of its own; in March, a fifth of UK homes made an online delivery. And with many more of us working from home, we were likely more aware of just how many deliveries were arriving.

We spoke to product and packaging experts about designing for this booming trend. Santiago Navarro, who’s behind the flatpack wine bottle Garçon, revealed how he designed a letterbox wine bottle without compromising on the “ceremony” of the product. He also highlighted how the product could reduce shipping costs and has environmental benefits (thanks to its eco-material and more efficient packing ability).

Meanwhile, Pentagram’s Jon Marshall – who designed the packaging for a “brain health and wellness start-up” – explained that the letterbox framework was a great input for the unusual design. “Sometimes having one really strong constraint actually helps a project,” he added. Matt Gandy, creative director of laundry capsule service smol, pointed out how it opened up branding opportunities too – “our design doesn’t need to shout for attention on the shelf,” he said.

How to build a streetwear brand and influence people

Streetwear is worth an estimated $165 billion worldwide, though its branding often relies on mystery and subversive tactics. Design Week explored the secrets to creating an authentic and successful label, talking to leaders in the industry like Mikey Trapstar, the founders of label Done London and fashion brand Collusion.

Trapstar began his brand with burner phones and giving out his number over Myspace – when orders were placed, he’d deliver them in a pizza box. Since then, he signed onto Jay-Z’s Roc Nation record label – streetwear has strong ties to the music scene – but insists that the positioning is more important than any celebrity following. “It wasn’t just that we wanted to push this genre of clothing,” he said. “It was the whole culture around it.”

Collusion’s head of design Sian Ryan also pointed out that “self-expression and inclusivity” was crucial to the millennial and gen-Z targeting brand. “Our audience expects more than just clothes,” Ryan said. “They look to buy from brands who they relate to and share opinions with.”

Social distancing isn’t behaving distantly: how designers can deal with coronavirus

One of our most popular long reads of the year was from the start of the first lockdown as creatives contemplated what was dubbed the “new normal”. A range of studios spoke to Design Week about the relative ease of remote working. “You don’t need much more than FaceTime, Slack, Dropbox and a good internet connection to be bale to work remotely nowadays,” product design studio Morrama founder Jo Barnard said.

But while technology has made things easier, designers did draw attention to the “instant sparks” that can’t happen over an internet connection. A solution from London-based Free the Birds was a Friday kitchen disco session. More serious problems were presented for those in product design whose supply chains faced disruption and designers in the events space where cancellations caused a sudden loss of work.

Throughout the year, our stories on working practices were popular – whether designers were discussing virtual reality solutions, maintaining productivity or what a return to the office might look like.

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