A Digital Feng Shui
(Alternate Title: My Design Manifesto)
When I was a kid, I was really into creating my dream house in my head. I could vividly picture each room, each turn, the physical space between railings, how tall the walls were. I wanted to make the space comfortable, easy-to-navigate, easy to make home. Spacious, but not overwhelming. I wanted the patterns to be cozy. Quirky enough, alive, and fun, because home is where you smile. I wanted the light to be warm. The floors to be wide, the doors to be open.
Recently in November, I moved into my new(est) two-story apartment near USC. If I could imagine the complete opposite of my childhood dream house, this would be it. A narrow kitchen, no dining room table, gray paneling. Gray floors. My six housemates and I take turns to move around. Conversations are always hard. Dialogue occurs in a monologue space. When we eat dinner, for example, someone sits on the couch, someone sits at the counter, and someone stands at the stairs. Someone is always facing someone’s back. It’s awkward.
The front door opens and the first thing you see are the stairs. Dead ahead — a serious feng shui violation. A natural grain is being interrupted already: the placement doesn’t allow you to enjoy the living area, the common downstairs… then, you realize, there really isn’t a living area. The tightest kitchen you’ve ever seen. Can you imagine a floor plan with no latitude? Our townhouse innards exist on one dimension. Gray, and the lines are too straight. There is no horizontal space. The lines never round out or give into a communal space. You walk in, you move dead ahead.
I had never lived in a space so uncomfortable, but I don’t regret it. It made me pay more attention to this feng shui. The movement of energy was incorrect — if you were to ever step foot in my apartment, you would know. It made me pay attention to the natural cadence of things around us. Our realities require an environmental, spatial harmony. We don’t notice it, but we do.
When I was a kid, I really wanted to be an interior designer or architect. I loved dreaming up my dream house, drawing out new spaces, walking through imaginary bedrooms. I liked crafting the experience of navigation. When you enter a room, you should have some choices; not one, not too many. The stairs shouldn’t be overwhelming and dead center ahead. They should be off to the side. A prominent option. The bathroom should be near. An exit. Kitchens and couches and comfort spots should be convenient. Possibilities should reveal themselves with abundance. Dancing should be possible. Freedom to choose, even if the whole point of the downstairs is to cook in the kitchen, or perhaps go upstairs, or serve as a common area. The options should be obvious, but not all dominant. The space should follow a natural grain.
I’m constantly thinking about why I’m attracted to 2D graphics and web design. Sometimes I think it’s only because I latched onto digital art at a young age, put a whole lot of brute force and time in, and now it’s the skill I’m stuck with. Maybe that’s too cynical. As I look back on my digital childhood, my laptop screen was truly another playground. A friend’s house. Another space I was familiar with and comfortable in. My body in this space was my cursor. Orientation existed: I opened applications like drawers, scrolled through pixels like monkey bars. Dimension existed. Sometimes I miss the purple of the old Yahoo homepage, just as I would miss the smell of my room, or the lighting in my kitchen. It was another reality and something I feel nostalgia toward, too. And like all spatial realities, there is a natural grain. A rule of feng shui that just is. A seamless ideal for comfort and easiness.
I design for this sense of nostalgia. I design because it is familiar terrain; I serve dimensions I’m comfortable with. I also design because I believe there is a most comfortable grain for every situation, even digitally. Where horizontal navigation works for one context, vertical navigation may not. Digital interface design is seeking out the most pleasing movement of energy, just like household feng shui; it’s managing data while maintaining visual harmony. Have you ever imagined Amazon.com as a huge, unorganized mansion with doors that lead circuitous places? Vice versa, have you ever imagined Bilbo’s house in The Shire as the sweetest two-column scrolling feed, contained in a small wrapper? Swipe left into your settings menu, turn left into your bathroom. Scroll through your feed, walk down a hallway of rooms. Furniture styles, aesthetic tendencies, Web 2.0, modernism… these are all touches, metaphors, accents to a language.
When I was a kid, I was really into creating my dream house in my head. I could vividly picture each room, each turn, the physical space between railings, how tall the walls were. I wanted to make the space comfortable, easy-to-navigate, easy to make home. Spacious, but not overwhelming. I wanted the patterns to be cozy. Quirky enough, alive, and fun, because home is where you smile. I wanted the light to be warm. The floors to be wide, the doors to be open…
For cadence, for ease, for familiarity. I design digitally with these same goals.