More than pretty pictures: all-new Teams backgrounds
How psychology, semiotics, and dazzling imagery are converging to improve the future of hybrid work
By Angela N. Bradley
Physical spaces have the potential to evoke different moods and actions, whether you’re inspired by the buzzy atmosphere of a coffee shop, energized by nature in a sun-kissed setting, or calmed in a dimly lit, minimalist room. Feeling comfortable and empowered within your personal space can significantly influence how you authentically show up, especially in virtual environments which can have a profound impact on your mental health and overall well-being. Whether it’s a tranquil beach setting that soothes the mind, a bustling cityscape that ignites motivation, or an imaginative backdrop that sparks creativity, the right virtual background can influence how you feel.
As more people turn to video in virtual meetings to establish and nurture human connections — people are turning on video in Teams meetings two times more than they did pre-pandemic — virtual backgrounds have become more prominent in calls. The power of backgrounds as catalysts for communication and self-expression fueled the refresh of the Teams in-app background library. The most extensive update since the first collection released in 2020, the new backgrounds that are beginning to rollout reflect Teams’ continued desire to elevate personal expression and they’re tailor-made to address top concerns of the modern workforce: collaboration, well-being, productivity, and focus. Every detail is crafted so you can turn on your camera with confidence, empowered to connect and collaborate amidst an atmosphere that supports your personal needs and style.
Featuring all-new images, the reimagined visual library for Teams has been thoughtfully designed to represent the people that use them and how they work best. Looking at the popularity of certain images, we noticed that customers are equally enthusiastic about being depicted in fun and imaginative scenes as they are being portrayed in realistic spaces like a coworking space, office, or home. By mapping out a series of user needs and meeting types, the Teams crew applied a fresh lens to craft and organize the new backgrounds into six categories.
With the prevalence of wood and light, the In the zone category offers focused environments for day-to-day interactions inspired by reality. In this collection, you’ll find a selection of contemporary rooms presented in calmer tones. “The goal is to help people feel at ease, at home. Home means different things to everyone. So, our goal was not to define an actual singular location, but rather convey a feeling of it — a sense of presence, calm, beauty in an imaginary space where you can express your individuality,” Sven Seger, Global Creative Director shared.
Straddling between the real and imaginary, possible and impossible, the Escape artist group infuses a sense of wonder and awe with evocative, completely unreal, yet somehow familiar environments designed to invigorate your routine. It’s about a sense of mood — staying in the flow, and being creative, with a feeling of space. To create striking design elements, the team blended contrasting geometric modern forms and more free-flowing organic shapes, like sand, wind, flowers, or steps.
With floating petals, wind swaying a bush, and lush scenery at night, the Feeling dreamy collection is poetry and dreams visualized. This collection offers the most sensual, immersive, and for some people, audacious scenes. The feelings-first environments deliver an immersive, touched-by-human experience crafted to elevate your virtual presence and transport you to a new realm of self-expression.
Inspired by bright, unexpected colors and scenes, and gaming metaphors and worlds, the Imagination at play category is for the adventurous. Featuring unusual color combinations and unique, otherworldly spaces, these surreal backdrops are designed to spark conversation and leave an impression — the perfect complement for unconventional calls.
In addition to the new backgrounds, people can still upload their own images. “We’re excited to make forward progress like this with our library, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of what’s essential: unique people expressing themselves in genuine ways. So, it’s also important to continue giving them ways to upload their own images to use as backgrounds,” Principal Creative Director Colin Day remarked.
Identifying needs — designing for people
At the heart of every captivating image lies a carefully curated design process. “We didn’t want to be constrained by what was done before. So, we started with customer needs, then challenged ourselves to consider what unique emotions backgrounds can evoke,” Creative Producer Kaity Butcher expressed. Thoughtful consideration was given to creating tailored spaces for a specific purpose that positively influences and heightens the individual’s experience by tapping into human emotions. By harnessing market insights and learnings on the emotional and functional desires of people on video calls, the Teams crew mapped out a series of individual needs and meeting types.
For the new backgrounds rolling out, the team leveraged insights from the studies and semiotic reports from researchers across Microsoft, LinkedIn, and GitHub conducted on The Future of Work, an initiative to use research for a future of work that is meaningful, productive, and equitable. The report includes an exploration of the unique challenges of hybrid and remote workers, which is critical considering that 54% of leaders are currently redesigning meeting spaces for hybrid work, or plan to in the year ahead. With 43% of remote employees and 44% of hybrid employees sharing they don’t feel included in meetings, digital backgrounds can become far more than pretty covers for messy rooms or design one-offs for cultural months and holidays. They’ve emerged as an essential feature for helping people feel more comfortable and confident in online meetings.
Careful consideration was taken to create tailored spaces for a specific purpose that positively influences and heightens your experience by tapping into human emotions. For example, in some contexts, having a strong stage presence and confidently commanding a room is important, while in others it’s all about creating a safe space that invites others to freely share their feelings or ideas. The nature of meetings also runs the gamut, from deep discussions where everyone has an equal voice to big presentations with a listening audience. Thoughtfully designed digital environments can help support diverse needs and the Teams crew crafted a wide spectrum of backgrounds, from traditional spaces to experimental and fantastical ones.
Crafted with your position in mind, the new backgrounds avoid obstructing key elements and awkward framing. You are the hero of the scene, for example, smaller archways are intentionally off-centered to ensure you’re not blocking the most engaging part of the image. The new Teams backgrounds have been built to not only be a delightful tool for self-expression but an effortless way to enhance your digital presence.
Purposefully created to also evoke a specific emotional response, the new library of images caters to the unique needs of people. To bring the new backgrounds to life, the group meticulously studied how colors, light, depth, and lens angles can elevate a scene to transform a simple visual into a cohesive story. For instance, we constructed spaces with minimal distractions to encourage focus and others to spark curiosity by showcasing the depth of certain locations.
With a deeper understanding of how backgrounds can speak to individuals, infusing humanity within the 3D spaces that also feel uniquely Microsoft was essential for the team. The crew accepted the multifaceted design challenge to show a sense of presence. Through this lens, elements like wind, sand, and patterns were considered — an indication that the digital space is alive, vibrant, and existing in a world. To celebrate nuance and convey a human touch, they added small and large items — a rumpled blanket, a few objects imperfectly arrayed on a table, or an off-centered reflection in the mirror.
Designing global and inclusive experiences
With over 300 million users, Teams is currently available in 181 countries and 44 languages, and the group designed this collection of backgrounds through a global lens. Recognizing that people attend virtual meetings in different time zones and not everyone has the same access to daylight, this update contains brighter scenes to simulate daylit rooms and darker backdrops more suitable for evening or nighttime calls. Crafted to seamlessly blend into any space, the new visual backgrounds will transport you to familiar, yet distinctive worlds. Each visual detail selected in the refreshed library was thoroughly assessed to maintain a cohesive look and feel to maximize customer delight and satisfaction.
For the team, inclusion is also a top priority and they’ve taken care to design visual backgrounds that not only enrich your experience but are also accessible. For instance, they’re being mindful of how different patterns and materials may affect people on the autism spectrum and making changes to reflect the needs of neurodivergent individuals. As over 1 billion people have a disability, it’s clear that creating a more accessible world for everyone takes all of us. That’s why the team introduced a new Belonging category that spotlights vision, hearing, learning, mental health, neurodiversity, and mobility. The new backdrops celebrate disability as a universal human experience and they’re specifically nuanced to leave room for interpretation that drives awareness and inspires conversations, and action through allyship.
As Director of Global Brand Marketing Aleksey Fedorov explains, “We aim to drive progress for everyone, and we’re excited to create more avenues for representation and allyship in our products.” This Teams release also contains an all-new Sustainability collection. Featuring distinctive backgrounds crafted to reflect ambitious commitments needed to protect our planet by reducing carbon, protecting water, reducing waste, and protecting ecosystems, this collection reflects Microsoft’s desire to make a difference in support of people and our environment.
Designing for the future of Teams backgrounds
Truly a celebration of many hours of iteration and cross-team collaboration, this refresh is just the beginning of more to come. As Teams evolves, we’ll continue to share more fun features that complement the product and promotes connection, like the 20+ most popular Snapchat Lenses recently introduced to Teams customers globally, and the new Teams currently in private preview includes more dynamic forms of expression, such as “together emoji.” Artfully crafted, this background update represents the team’s desire to enhance collaboration, well-being, productivity, and focus, so people feel comfortable and empowered to bring their full selves to the world of hybrid. It’s an evolutionary process and commitment for the crew to continue to listen, learn, and transform their approach to meet the needs of people in an ever-changing society.
For the group, virtual backgrounds are more than just pretty pictures — they’re conduits for authenticity, connection, and communication. This is your invitation to experience a whole new level of fun and self-expression with Teams’ visually stunning backgrounds. We’re excited to debut this next chapter of visual expression with Teams, and we welcome your thoughts and comments. Help inform the future of Teams backgrounds, share your feedback, and become a part of the team’s design journey to grow, refine, and organize the in-app background library.
Special thanks to Harin Lee, Andrew Spiziri, Pia Rodriguez, Jooyeon Chae, and the teams at SO Dsgn, Makeshift, TwistedPoly, NotReal, and O0 for their work on this initiative.
Designing the new era of Teams
Behind-the-Design: Meet Copilot
Designing in the Open(Source)
Want to read more? Check out some of our recent articles on our homepage! To stay in the know with Microsoft Design, follow us on Twitter and Instagram — and if you’re interested in working with us at Microsoft, head over to aka.ms/DesignCareers.