Interior design

April 4, 2013

I remember how it was exciting to start with a blank slate when I moved into my new apartment. I spent hours looking through furniture and interior design sites and magazines for ideas and inspiration. I day dreamed about what couch to get, what fridge to buy, even what kind of washing machine I'd get.

It wasn't daunting at first because I chose to live in a small place. It was a simple goal. "I want to live here." What did I need to make this place feel like home? I only had to fill two rooms so it seemed like the perfect balance of not having to decide on too many things and being able to make it right for me.

Then things got complicated. Every time I got a new essential thing for the place, three more essential things I didn't realize I needed came up. I got a refrigerator, so I could finally get grocieries. But where do I put the food that goes in a pantry, when I don't have a pantry? What spices do I need to buy to cook all this food? And shit, I don't have any plates or utensils to eat this stuff with. Later I realized I needed a microwave, a toaster, and I needed to fix my broken stove exhaust. All things I took for granted or didn't know I needed until it wasn't there. All new pain points that started from a simple goal.

This is what interface design is like. You start with the same thing — a simple goal. Take a problem I don't think anyone has completely solved yet (although some have gotten pretty damn close): "I want to manage my tasks." You need a checklist. No wait, you need multiple checklists. And you need to work with other people. And you need reminders. And you need figure out how to prioritize things. (That's only the beginning.)

And so you build a first version. Then you decide on your next feature. You're thinking about how to make this new thing play well with what's already there. Your first decisions are crucial because what you have guides where you're going next, but you have no way of knowing how exactly something will work out (although from what I've seen, this is something that gets better with experience).

Designing is making compromises. You want to make everything as easy as possible. But every time you make something easy, you make something else hard. Or impossible. Or maybe when you make something easy, it makes something else possible that you hadn't thought of, something that might be insanely great, and you wrack your brain to think of ways to make that new thing easy too. And eventually as your simple thing sprouts into something bigger, that other thing that was easy before inadvertedly gets harder to do. It's hard to keep this thing trimmed and upright and in control as you water it more and more.

Take my ugly rug. After a while and a lot of fidgeting, it actually doesn't look too bad. And it's actually serving a purpose I never thought it would. It's so soft, I find myself laying on it half the time I'm home. It's grown on me a lot. And through a series of small purchases and gifts, my place is slowly filling out. And I finally got the the right coffee table. Although it was different from what I was imagining, I knew it would be great the moment I stumbled on it at the store when I wasn't really looking for it.

So although design is a ton of compromises, it's also a lot of improvisation. You end up surprising yourself. You stumble on things you didn't see before. You find new ways to do old things, or you find entirely new things to do. People give you great ideas, and you find great ideas on your own.

My place finally feels like home. I look forward to sitting back on my couch and reading a good book after a long day's work. That's how you know you've designed something great. Not when everything is perfect and every possible thing is easy and simple. It's when you feel at home. When you look forward to using it.