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Design Pros’ Tips for Leveling Up Your Zoom Game

Video calls are here to stay. 8 easy background ideas to maintain your professional image, personality — and privacy. Plus: Peep looks from high-profile Black women.

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Remember those first few weeks of video calling with coworkers as cities went into lockdown 19(!) months ago? The faces silhouetted by kitchen windows. The blazers thrown over pajamas. The glimpses of unwitting (or underdressed) family members passing in the background. The extreme awkwardness of adopting, overnight, a technology that can take months to master. (We’re looking at you, Jeffrey Toobin.)

Over a year later, the backgrounds most people use on Zoom, Skype or Teams fall somewhere on a spectrum between utilitarian and uber-chic. A Twitter account, Room Rater (@ratemyskyperoom) boasts over 400,000 video call voyeurs among its followers. Now that we are sharing the insides of our homes with our coworkers, is the ring light the new power suit? And how do we maintain a private sanctuary while projecting that professional image? I asked a few talented Black women who are interior designers to weigh in. Plus, we’ve linked to looks that some of the top women in media, Hollywood, politics and sports are showing off.

Get lit. “Great lighting can produce the perfect vibe,” says interior designer Kati Carter of K Carter Interiors. Try repositioning your desk so that you face the window, bathing yourself in natural light. Carter also suggests investing in a ring light, often used by social media influencers and photographers, to give you the perfect glow no matter the time of day. Floor and table lamps can also make a stylish statement. Bring in reflective elements like crystal, mirrors, metals, polished wood. Check out this play of textures by Patti LaBelle.

Be a quick-change artist. Janelle Williams Hughes of KJ Design and Mortar Styling favors flexible setups allowing clients to adjust their background based on the purpose of the call, time of day and the audience. In one “she room”/home office, for example, Hughes left a large wall blank, installing a picture rail molding. Typically, these systems dangle attractive S-hooks (for hanging art) from wire at varying heights along a sturdy horizontal bar on the wall. Easily repositioned, they allow you to swap out photos, prints, signage, wall hangings or other décor in about a minute.

Now that we are sharing the insides of our homes with our coworkers, is the ring light the new power suit?

Go deep. Having a wall rather than a high-traffic area as your background allows you to limit how much of your space and family is seen. But if you’re lucky enough to have a dedicated room to Zoom, consider arranging a more set-like space. This can create the effect (and clout) of welcoming viewers into your turf, as you would when a meeting is held in your office. Note how White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor adds depth, here. Working from a stunning historic space, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones flips her chair to provide a behind-the-desk view of her bomb-ass office.

Show your true colors. “Many professionals suggest a plain or neutral background,” Yannette Lebrun of YL Designz points out, “but that can be uninspiring.” Many of us are exhausted from the emotional weight of global affairs, not to mention the extended hours that working from home seems to have made the norm. A vibrant space can lift the mood and energy. Lebrun suggests centering abstract art above a console to anchor other accents. That's what The Boston Globe’s Kimberly Atkins Stohr does here. Then you can play with varying heights (a tall table lamp, a low stack of books, a vase of medium height), shapes (linear and curved pieces) and textures (wood, metal, stone, etc.). Gabrielle Union does this to perfection. Don’t forget organic elements such as flowers, plants, driftwood, feathers, etc.

Repurpose pieces to suit your situation, advises Hughes. Virtual happy hour with coworkers? Roll that bar cart from the den into view. Bring in that bookcase from your bedroom and curate it with photos and mementos. When grouping pieces, look for one cohesive element such as color family, shape or material. Look how reporter Deneen L. Brown highlights the color blue.

Mix real with faux (no one will know). Some of us became serious plant mammas while spending so much time at home. Others love the look of foliage and flowers, but not the maintenance. “Greenery boosts your mood, increases productivity and adds liveliness and color,” says Hughes, adding that you get the biggest style boost by bringing in several specimens of varying sizes, heights and fullness. Nicol Turner Lee of the Brookings Institution has the idea.

Style your storage. Opt for artful containment rather than clutter-free. If you’re a book lover, a bookcase can become a showcase for floral arrangements, coffee table books and other decor. Check out how CNBC’s Sharon Epperson features titles by displaying the cover rather than the spine. Other attractive storage options are cachepots, trays, baskets, bins, bulletin or peg boards. Don’t forget the space under your console table. 

Show off your personality. “Your background should show off your personality while still maintaining a clean and professional look,” says Carter. Don’t limit yourself to functional pieces like task lighting and a desk.  Look how former U.S. soccer team goalie Brianna Scurry shows off her Olympic memorabilia, Sports Illustrated cover and Wheaties box! Florida educator Dr. Rosalind Osgood, an AKA, proudly displays her sorority colors.