On-Point: Design Leadership, Proofing Fonts and More

Designers must stop Coronagrifting, a free new way to proof fonts, is Art Deco coming back and design leadership at IBM

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Coronagrifting: A Design Phenomenon

Kate Wagner, creator of the blog McMansionHell usually ‘roasts the world’s ugliest houses’. In this piece, she takes aim at the phenomenon of ‘Coronagrifting’ on design websites. Coronagrifting,she says,offers ridiculous and rarely useful design solutions to Covid-related problems.

Wagner’s rant is that design websites like Dezeen and Designboom are “increasingly dominated by text and mockups from the desks of a firm’s public relations department.” She calls this PR-chitecture – architecture and design content that has been dreamed up from scratch to look good on Instagram feeds or garner clicks.  

In March 2020, for instance, Dezeen carried a prototype of a full mask and body-shield that “would protect a wearer during a coronavirus outbreak by using UV light to sterilise itself.” The project was titled ‘Be a Bat Man.’ Soon after, says Wagner, “every artist, architect, designer, and sharp-eyed PR rep at firms and companies only tangentially related to design realized that, with the small investment of a Photoshop mockup and some B-minus marketing text, they too could end up on the front page of these websites.”

The result is a flood of concepts and collateral from masks to posters, pillows to wearables, which could be titled ‘A Designer Has Done Something Cute to Capitalise on Information Meant to Save Lives.’ 

Brands too, have jumped on the bandwagon, flaunting socially distanced logos and more outrageous concepts like the Burger King 5 feet wide crowns. Not to be left behind, architects have proposed a stream of ludicrous solutions from 3D printed elbow door openers to proposals for turning entire airports into Covid hospitals.

“Enough already,” says Wagner. The design and art world must stop using such a crisis for shameless self-promotion while providing little to no material benefit to those at risk and on the frontlines. And publications need to exercise much greater discretion about what they put on their front pages!

Text for Proofing Fonts

Legendary type designer Jonathon Hoefler proposes an alternative approach to proofing fonts. Pangrams or sentences that contain each letter of the alphabet at least once, have long been used in lettering and type design. Remember ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog?’

However, English, like all languages, has a natural distribution of letters where E accounts for one-eighth of what we read while Z appears just once every 1,111 letters. This makes pangrams singularly useless in type design because they so poorly portray what letterforms will actually look like, when they are used in multiple permutations.

To solve this problem, Hoefler has created proofs from scratch for better type evaluation.

The new proof begins with each of the capital letters bounded by flat-sided and round-sided neighbors: the capital A up against the flat side of the n, and then the round side of the d, in the pair “Angel Adept.” This pattern continues through the Z, with “Zloty Zodiac.”

The words are a mix of algorithmic dictionary searches and Hoefler’s personal choices. The result is a string of words that look familiar and are comfortable to read. They have a calm rhythm that makes any issue in a letter easy to identify. 

There are also proofs for evaluating both capitals and small caps.  All proofs are available free for download from

Art Deco Will Be The Visual Language of 2021

Well-known designer Tobias Van Schneider predicts that Art Deco will make a comeback next year. He says that the last few decades have been about building fast and a minimal aesthetic has dominated. We have celebrated function over form. Our clothes, our homes, our offices – even our cities have become homogenous. Minimalism, however, has had its run and Art Deco is set to return because we will crave self-expression and human connectedness, as we rebuild the world after the pandemic.

Art Deco, as a genre, emerged before World War I and found its footing in the 1920s. It is an ornate, geometric luxurious style that pays homage to craftsmanship. Van Schneider envisages a new kind of Art Deco emerging in the next few years – one that maybe more technological but still celebratory.

Now That We Have a Seat at the Table, How Do We Prove We Belong?

Douglas Powell is Vice President, Design at IBM. Before he joined IBM in 2013, he was part of a small design studio.  In order to operate in IBM’s large, complex environment, he found that he needed to completely re-tool his skills. He points out that many designers like him, who now find themselves in senior leadership roles, have no formal training that equips them for the position.  “It’s safe to assume that literally thousands of designers are being thrust into leadership roles for which they are unprepared (and even unqualified).” This poses an important question:

What are the missing business skills required to effectively play senior leadership roles in complex organizations, and how do designers acquire these business skills in the middle of our careers?

Powell questions the assumption that the traditional ‘MBA’ skills are the best way to lead a business. Designers are empathisers, prototypers, system-thinkers, picture-makers, divergent-thinkers, facilitators, storytellers, critiquers and detailers – and all of these are super-powers. Instead of the natural tendency to relegate design skills as they climb the corporate ladder, design leaders must learn to enhance them.

To illustrate how design skills can be applied to business leadership, Powell shares some examples that have proved successful for his team.  He points to a large colour-coded org chart that he has created to navigate decision making at IBM. This very visible artifact has become an essential daily resource and reference point for his team.

Powell’s team also does close to 30 Design Program Reviews with General Managers. They approach the reviews as a user experience design problem.  The team has identified that all managers have some common traits: Super-busy, data-driven, opinionated, competitive, no-bullshit. The review decks are carefully designed for ‘these users’.  The decks highlight gaps in designer staffing and visually connect data points to user outcomes, so GMs can quickly understand and interpret them – creating a compelling story in support of design investment.

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