Room to Breathe

On living UX design principles in everyday life

In modern design, we talk a lot about white space. “Give your designs room to breathe,” they say. “Don’t overstimulate your user.”

It seems true that the best designs are the cleanest, the most pure — those that let your attention rest in what’s really there. They don’t distract or overwhelm; they breathe with the user, allowing them a moment for pause.

Everyday from 9–5, I design for enterprise — for the consumer at work. I design for complex workflows and highly technical domains. But as the consumer space and the workplace meld together, these enterprise users are no different from consumers after all. In truth, they are consumers. And today’s consumers, maybe even more so at work, seek a digital experience with minimum cognitive load and maximum impact. So, as I design, I seek to provide that white space, to give my users room to breathe and to focus, to almost sit back while they “dial in.”

It’s only recently occurred to me why this idea of white space feels so significant in modern design. It’s not just a fad or a trend; it’s a craving of the human spirit. Our world is so busy. Our lives are so distracted that we rarely take a moment to breathe.

When our days consist of continuous bouncing between a Macbook Pro, an iPhone and a tablet, we don’t even realize how much noise we’re cramming into our heads. We’re taking the endless stream of Buzzfeed articles, perfectly-curated Instagram feeds, Spotify playlists, and Snapchat stories into the black hole of our minds — never to be revisited, but also never to be recovered.

With all this talk about “don’t overstimulate your user,” we forget to ask the question: are we overstimulating ourselves? We have this legion of words and pictures and videos instantly at our fingertips; truly, the Internet is a beautiful thing. But with so much to read and watch and do and post, we’re creating this superficial boredom that we feel the instant our brain isn’t being captivated by something on-screen.

I was walking out of work the other day, head down, right arm at 90-degrees, thumb at the ready for infinite scrolling — the usual “walking from one place to the next” position.

And I looked up.

I looked at the trees and the grass. I looked at the clouds in the sky and felt the wind roll across my face. And it occurred to me: I don’t want to be someone who misses the world around me for the sake of what’s happening inside my phone. I want to look at the person walking next to me; I want to make eye contact and really see each other. I want to be more comfortable interacting with a human-stranger than I am with my BFF-phone.

This year I’m making a promise to myself: less screen time, more breathe time. No matter how easy Apple makes it to unlock my phone and dive into the digital, it’s up to me to put the phone down. And I owe it to myself to look up, to see the world and the people around me — to build a new habit.

Technology is a beautiful thing. I love connecting with my friends and family across the country and around the globe, always having a camera at the ready, and finding answers to my questions anytime, anywhere. But even these things should have a time and a place. When I design for consumers at work, I strive to make their workday smoother so they can get home faster. I pray that when they get there, they can put the phone down and put the computer away… I pray that they can give themselves room to breathe.