Design Week’s most popular long reads of 2021

Design Week’s most popular long reads of 2021
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Design Week’s most popular long reads of 2021

In 2021 designers took to new platforms and rethought how their practice affects the natural world around them.

Delayed by the pandemic, in the first half of this year many designers were preparing to shift their working practices in accordance with new IR35 legislation. The new rules sought to distinguish between employees and freelancers, and mandate the payment of PAYE taxes associated with the former where deemed appropriate. While the government’s aim was to make things simpler, the dominant feeling among designers was uncertainty and frustration.

The main problem with the new tax rules, according to Design Business Association head of services Adam Fennelow, was that the introduction of a “deemed employee” status would make it more expensive to hire freelancers. “What we’re worried about is that freelancers might be less inclined to work for larger agencies because it’s going to cost both freelancers and agencies more money to do so,” Fennelow said at the time.

To help prepare designers for the impending change, we spoke to media law firm Wiggin LLP partner Ceri Stoner who shared several tips. Her main piece of advice was complete transparency when it came to the frameworks that design studios needed to put in place. “This is a huge relationship management exercise,” she said.


It was a huge year for the crypto world in 2021. The surge in popularity of NFTs and crypto art around March had many designers wondering whether this would be the next medium through which they could profit from their work. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, represented a new way to trace ownership of digital-only work, and potentially make big money while doing it.

We spoke with designer and artists Brendan Dawes who had already begun making money through the sale of his NFTs. He said the best thing about the new medium was the agency he got from it. “No one is telling you to do anything, and being able to make money from your own creativity and direction is a really good feeling,” Dawes explained.

But NFTs weren’t welcomed by all. The significant energy expenditure that all crypto actions have led many to lambast crypto art as environmentally disastrous. Handsome Frank illustration agency founder Jon Cockley said the environmental cost of NFTs was “just too high” when asked if the agency would support its talent in the field. However, several others, including offsetting platform Offsetra founder Brendan McGill, thought actions like carbon offsetting could tackle these issues.


Back in January, we spoke to the brains behind Reframd, a design-led company using technology to develop glasses for Black people. Most glasses, according to founder Ackeem Ngwenya, are designed with typically Caucasian features in mind. Those with lower and wider nasal bridges have fewer choices when it comes to eyewear and must adapt to glasses that don’t fit as well.

“At some point, I realised the problem wasn’t with me or my face, but with the product itself,” Ngwenya said. Reframd, he said, had its roots in years’ worth of “personal frustrations”. The challenger start-up works by using a parametric algorithm that runs in a 3D program. Essentially, customers use the front-facing camera on the smartphones to capture what Reframd calls “face landmarks”.

The tech-driven process promises each user a tailor-made pair of frames, but as Ngwenya explained, the mission for Reframd goes beyond the individual. “We’re not a hobby product,” he said. “We’re putting effort into developing industry standards that other manufacturers can use.”


In early August we shared a story about design leaders from Deliveroo and Ikea calling out portfolios as “old-fashioned”. Ikea Retail global experience design operations head Karolina Boremalm labelled portfolios as “a legacy from ad agencies” which in the past focused on “nice posters” and not much else.

The message proved divisive when we put the question of portfolios to a wider group of designers. Some, like Templo founder and creative director Pali Palavathanan, believed portfolios were still an “invaluable tool” for his studio. He said hiring managers wanted to see “raw technical talent” alongside “real-time research and evidence”.

While others considered them an imperfect solution. “Portfolios only show one part of the story,” said Wildish & Co co-founder Sam Fresco. Instead, he urged people to opt for more detailed case studies over portfolios than only offer surface-level insight. “Let us see how it went wrong and how you got it back on track, not just the pretty work produced.”


From Colonel Sanders to Coco the Monkey, mascots can be some of the most resonant parts of brands. But when designers are brought in to shake up their look, the ensuing public attention can be negative as people show their aversion to change. When Pringles gave Mr P a haircut in a recent rebrand, many were left unimpressed, prompting us to ask designers just what goes into a good mascot.

Della Lawrence was the JKR creative director behind Mr P’s new look gave insight into the thinking behind the project. She explained the haircut and eyebrows were an attempt to modernise the character, which was originally designed by Arch Drummond in 1967, and put the character front and centre of the new identity.

We asked other designers their thoughts too. Derek&Eric creative partner Adam Swan – who had a hand in the development of Peppy, the Fox’s Glacier Mints mascot’s redesign – remarked the reason we love mascots so much comes from our ability to relate to them better, over an abstract icon.


As we got closer to COP26, much of the design world was reflecting on how it could and should play a role in fighting the climate crisis. Around the time, we interviewed Don Norman, the “godfather” of UX (having coined the term UX several decades earlier), who believes “climate change is a symptom to a problem that designers had a hand in creating.”

As a result, he urged that is was design’s job to hep fix it. The best tool in our arsenal, he said, was design education. “[We need] to prepare students for tackling these issues,” Norman explained. For too long, he said, design education had concentrated on aesthetics. Instead, he says, studying the impact of a design, and its afterlife should be just as important.

He added that further solutions to the climate crisis will come from cross-disciplinary knowledge, possibly informed by the past. “I read a lot of history, economics and politics, because I know the future is going to be informed by what has already happened,” he said.


The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was one of many events delayed by the pandemic and held in 2021. In celebration, we took a look at just how the Games’ various touchpoint and elements had been designed – and in some cases adapted for a world affected by Covid.

One of the major changes discussed was the lack of spectators for key events like the opening and closing ceremonies. Despite the lack of an audience, organisers promised “fireworks, flagbearers and fanfare”, inside the Kengo Kuma-designed Japan National Stadium.

Plenty of design elements were untouched by the pandemic however. The Games logo sported the 2020 year despite being held a year later, for example. Meanwhile pictograms, which were first introduced in the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games were refreshed and reimagined.


Perhaps most commonly thought of as a birthplace for internet challenges and dance routines, back in April we explored the growing online community of Design TikTok. According to these design TikTokers, there are two main kinds of content. First are the “behind the scenes” videos which showcase the not so glamorous aspects of being a creative – from pricing to portfolios.

As German designer Julie Wieland explained, she uses the platform to both show her creative process while also sharing advice with other designers. “I believe in providing the tools instead of just showing them off,” she told us.

Then there are the designers using the social app to demystify the work that goes into a design project. Australian designer Robert Nowland, who regularly posts “work in progress” videos said he does so because “people enjoy seeing the process”. Additionally, he said it was good to combat feelings of inadequacy, explaining “as creatives we’re insecure and love to hide behind a perfect finished product.”


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