Upgrade the background of your video chats

March 25, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

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Videoconferencing has proved its worth as millions of employees work from home amid the coronavirus pandemic, but participating in a virtual meeting is also causing a new predicament to take form: the anxiety of what we look like on-screen.

Whether it’s showing up to a meeting sans makeup, dealing with funky rental apartment lighting, or hoping to cover the messy room in the backdrop, videoconferences have now invaded our personal space. It’s not unusual for the occasional cameo by a child, a significant other, or a pet—and that has some people nervous about keeping a line drawn between the outside world and the inside one.

Erin O’Brien’s gallery wall that she uses on calls from home.
Erin O’Brien

Interior decorators and designers have advice on how to create a delightful backdrop in your home, work your best angles, or just swap it all for a virtual set as you take the video calls from your work life into digital social hour.

“Make your backdrop a reflection of yourself, a happy place, and most of all, a comfortable and safe environment that makes you feel like you are actually face-to-face,” explains Erin O’Brien, a prop stylist who has worked with Bergdorf Goodman, Chanel, and HBO. “There are so many ways to make your background interesting and cheerful.”

To start, she says, decide if you want to go virtual or physical. Though she prefers creating her own gallery wall or framing by a window with plants for her video calls, there are ways to create a virtual backdrop.

A sampling of West Elm’s videoconferencing background setups.
Courtesy of West Elm

Zoom, the popular videoconference software that’s seen a major uptick in usage during the COVID-19 outbreak, offers an option to add a virtual backdrop, such as a tropical beach or galaxy in space, to “maintain some distance between professional and personal lives,” says a spokesperson for the company. The program also allows you to add your own image, such as a photo featuring your work: Event planners, for instance, often upload an image of a room they have designed, and marketers may add a branded logo as their scenery. Simply go to the settings menu in Zoom and click the virtual background tab. There, you can upload any image.

West Elm has seen such a demand for virtual backdrops—to hide unsightly messes, kids’ toys, and other family members working remotely—that last week, the company launched downloadable videoconference backdrops that look like perfectly designed West Elm spaces: a pool lined with cushioned chaise longues, a summer chalet–inspired patio, a cozy living room with enticing bar cart, and a scenic window overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. One “living room” even features a cute pup by the coffee table.

“Users are downloading our backdrops for work gatherings, socializing with friends, and catching up with family,” says Dru Ortega, West Elm’s director of PR and marketing. “We hope this offers daily users a new way to express themselves and their creativity from home.”

A friendly (albeit furry) face in one of West Elm’s downloadable backgrounds.
Courtesy of West Elm

If you do want to show off your personal space, there are tips for doing that well too. Jonathan Adler, a potter and designer who founded the popular home decor brand of the same name, explains there’s a mix between your backdrop and how you present yourself, physically, on camera that makes or breaks a video call. “This might be the only time your colleagues get to see chez vous, so make sure everything looks kapow,” he says. “Courtesy of your carefully composed frame, you’re now impossibly chic.”

Adler developed a catchy acronym for looking great on a video call: LAFFF. It stands for lighting, angles, fashion (looking presentable), festoon (personalized backdrop), and fight (unbecoming facial expressions)—five easy things to remember when you hop onto a virtual chat.

Lighting, he says, is super important. Banish the backlight and opt instead for soft lighting coming from the front. It’s a tip echoed by Mike Perlow, president of Perlow Productions and 30-year veteran of the video production space. He suggests finding a spot in your apartment with natural light and experimenting with what it looks like at different times of day. One pro tip, he adds, is to check the video five minutes before you get on the call to make any adjustments.

Angles make a big difference too. Adler says to put the camera a bit higher than you want to be so you are not looking down, “thus creating multiple chins and sagging flesh,” he adds. Try propping the monitor or laptop on a stack of books or investing in a monitor riser. Poppin sells an unassuming white one, and an Amazon search results in many more.

Experts also agree that what you wear is just as important as what’s in the background. Fashion, as Adler advises. “Don’t jump on a video call in a T-shirt or sweatshirt looking like you just rolled out of bed—even if you did,” Perlow says. At the very least, throw on a blazer with pocket square over a T-shirt and joggers or pull back your hair and don a pair of colorful earrings. Dress (from the waist up) as if you are going to a power meeting, Adler recommends.

Jonathan Adler’s workspace at his home on Shelter Island, N.Y.
Josh McHugh

Composing a nice frame for the camera is one hugely effective thing you can do. Adler calls it “festoon,” essentially taking curio items from around the house to place on shelves or the wall behind you as the backdrop. O’Brien designed a poppy gallery wall with photographs and art pieces, and takes her calls there. She notes that people comment on how it cheers them up all the time, and she likes the intimacy it creates by looking inviting and personal.

For Perlow, it’s as simple as removing ugly items, such as trash cans, stacks of papers, and half-eaten food. “Think of it as free advertising,” he says. “Have company signage, sample products, or any other branded items that represent who you are. Then make sure you’re not blocking them when you sit in front of the camera.”

Finally, present yourself as you would in person, which is sometimes easier said than done—it’s a slippery slope to forgetting you’re on a call and indulging in bad habits like nail biting, twirling your hair, or even picking your nose. “Fight against ‘rest bitch face,’” Adler says, noting his final letter of LAFFF. “I perk up my posture and put on a positive pout. The result? Glamour.”

Adler admits even he overlooks the fact that he’s on a call sometimes, and that’s where a buddy comes in, such as a roommate, partner, or family member. “When I’m videoconferencing, my husband passes me notes reminding me to look interested and amused,” he says. “Even if you feel dire, you have to fake it until you make it. You owe it to your colleagues to be life-enhancing.”

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