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September 22, 2020

This is the web version of Business By Design, a weekly newsletter exploring design’s transformative influence on industry and enterprise. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox.


Curiouser and curiouser. That’s the only way to describe the trans-Pacific food fight over TikTok, the insanely popular, Chinese-owned short video app.


The saga has taken new twists and turns this week. President Trump, after vowing to ban TikTok on privacy and national security grounds, appeared to offer his blessing to a deal brokered by his Treasury Secretary to sell a stake in the company to a coalition of American investors led by Oracle Corp. and Walmart. But TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, and Oracle have said different things about who’d own how much of the company, and how its data and technology would be managed.


Trump now says he won’t approve any deal that doesn’t leave Americans with majority ownership and control—a prospect Beijing has said it can’t abide. As I write, it’s not clear the deal is real.


For designers, though, possibly the most intriguing aspect of the Tik Tok tug-of-war is the report, first floated in the New York Times, that the leading candidate for CEO of the restructured entity is Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom.


Phillip Faraone—Getty Images for The Wall Street Journal and WSJ. Magazine

Systrom and Stanford classmate Mike Krieger launched Instagram in 2010. Two years later, Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire the photo-sharing app which, at the time, had 13 employees and no revenue.


That price turned out to be a bargain. Systrom stayed on as CEO on the understanding that Instagram would retain operational independence. Over the next six years, monthly users surged to more than a billion, and the platform emerged as a key component of Facebook’s social media dominance. In crucial market segments—including younger users and key influencers in technology and media—Instagram proved a more popular platform than Facebook itself.


But Systrom and Krieger abruptly resigned from Instagram in September 2018. It has been widely reported that they clashed with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over Instagram’s autonomy and Facebook’s growth strategies. One source of tension was that Facebook seemed to be diverting users away from Instagram to its main app where it could charge more for advertisements. Organizational issues also rankled, as Zuckerberg began to delegate oversight of Instagram to Facebook loyalists, creating a new layer of management between himself and the Instagram co-founders.


And the two founders had fundamentally different ideas about design. Since college, Systrom has been a photo buff and an aesthete, not just a tech wizard. He says he drew inspiration for Instagram’s design ethos from the radical simplicity of a Holga camera. And yet, as Wired reported, while Systrom was on paternity leave in August 2018, Facebook forced Instagram to install a location-tracking service, the kind of intrusive feature Systrom disdained, and added a “hamburger button” Instagram developers considered a hallmark of lazy design.


Just as Systrom and Krieger departed Instagram, TikTok became available in the U.S. It now claims more than 100 million U.S. users, has been downloaded globally more than 2 billion times, and emerged as one of Facebook’s biggest competitors.


It’s far from clear that Systrom, now 36 and with an estimated net worth of $1.8 billion, will see much upside to assuming the reins of a company at the center of political controversy and ultimately beholden to a Chinese founder, an American enterprise software giant, and a sprawling global supermarket chain. But it is interesting to contemplate his design decisions should he accept the challenge.


TikTok, as Wired pointed out last year, is a “brilliant design nightmare”—an endless scroll of 15-second videos that seem to play at random, with hard-to-read fonts, and a jumble of non-intuitive icons. As London-based design expert Cennyd Bowles told the magazine, TikTok “just contravenes everything I’ve been taught and everything I practiced in my design career to date.” Moreover, any developers contend that TikTok, even if it doesn’t pose a serious threat to national security, collects far more data from users in a far more invasive way than Facebook.


Would Systrom be able to steer the app out of political controversy, address critics’ privacy concerns, and keep its shareholders happy, all while preserving the quirkiness that users seem to love? If he takes the job, it will be a fascinating high-wire act.


More design news below!


Clay Chandler
clay.chandler@fortune.com


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NEWS BY DESIGN


Museums on trial


An African artist who attempted to remove art works from several museums across France is going to trial this month. Mwazulu Diyabanza lifted several African artifacts from French museums, in protest of France’s colonial legacy. In 2018, France said it would return 26 artworks taken from Benin, marking a sea change in the state’s attitude towards colonial looting. But the 26 pieces still remain in France.


Rubric


Hungarian architecture professor and inventor of the eponymous Rubik’s Cube, Erno Rubik, has published a book on the popular puzzle. The book—part memoir, part philosophical treatise—is deliberately as disorienting as the cube itself. Why, 46 years after its creation, is the enigmatic cube still so engaging?


New Bauhaus


The European Commission has called for a “new European Bauhaus” movement to complement the EU’s Green New Deal. The new movement—so far conceptual—intends to bring together interdisciplinary thinkers and makers from across Europe’s borders to devise a sustainable growth path that also looks good.


Airship


Airbus has unveiled designs for a new fleet of zero-emission planes that it says could be in service by 2035. The ZEROe concept craft are fueled by hydrogen and—at their max—can apparently carry 200 passengers up to 2,000 miles.


Design standards


The British Housing Secretary has tasked Nicholas Boys Smith with leading a new design body to consult local districts on city planning. Boys Smith is founder of Create Streets—a consultancy that advocates for building affordable homes as terraced housing rather than tower blocks. The new design body is the latest step in the U.K. government’s move, initiated last month, to decentralize planning permission and embed “beauty, design and quality” into the system.


Badlands


Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta has won the contract to build the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota, following a competition hosted by the library's funding partners. The low-lying, undulating design mimics the gentle slopes of the Badlands in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It will be the 14th Presidential Library.


EVENTS BY DESIGN


September


Design Matters in Copenhagen is going ahead September 23-24 with tickets available to view a livestream of the event.


October


Dubai had, perhaps, the misfortune of hosting the World Expo this year. Originally scheduled to open in October and run until April next year, the Dubai Expo 2020 has been delayed until October next year instead. World Expos come but once every five years, so perhaps waiting one more year is okay.


Italy’s materia independent design festival will return to showcasing young Italian designers October 2, taking the exhibition online via Instagram and Facebook.


November


Dubai’s inaugural architecture festival, d3 Architecture Festival, will run November 11-13 on the sidelines of Dubai Design Week. The event will focus on sustainability—an existential issue for the desert city.


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QUOTED BY DESIGN


“It’s 100% our fault. No one should say otherwise. Now the next step is fixing it.”


Twitter users noted an apparent bias in the platform’s cropping algorithm over the weekend. In a number of experiments run by users, the algorithm, which determines what part of an image to show in a thumbnail, appeared to select white faces rather than Black ones. The finding sparked a lively debate about A.I. bias. Twitter’s chief design officer, Dantley Davis, stepped in to say that the algorithm was tested for bias before being deployed but, evidently, more work was needed.


This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him tips and ideas at eamon.barrett@fortune.com


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