If you want to thrive in your life, rethink the design of everything around you

There are ways you could be happier and you don’t know it yet. I’m not talking about obvious unattainable life improvements like having Idris Elba for a partner, or owning a villa in Tuscany.  I’m talking about changes you can make in an hour, or in a few months, or next year that are unclear at first but obvious in retrospect, that simply require asking good questions (okay, and sometimes money).

Our lives can always improve in small ways that can have a huge ripple effect. Sure, we adjust quickly to improved circumstances, and studies show that our happiness level will return to what it was. But using this as a reason to never strive or improve anything is such an unimaginative Eeyore perspective because changes don’t have to be big. I’m not saying you have to get divorced, move to the sea, and become a lesbian— though I can personally vouch for it! I’m saying that when you make a change in your life that delights you, and your happiness quotient returns to what it was, relax— there are 20,000 more changes you can make that can produce delight, relief, or both. It’s exciting! Life can always change!

This is design thinking. It’s making people happier and more productive through changes and iterations, and it applies EV-ER-Y-WHERE. (The term is overused and bloviated, as Natasha Jen explains in this excellent 99u talk, “Design Thinking is Bullshit“, but I’m not using it in this way.)

I’ve got two personal examples of what I mean.


Our family recently moved. Given that my partner and I care so much about the appearances of things (designers: what can you do?), we were thrilled about the herringbone tiled backsplash, custom wood doors, and black hexagon tiles in the bathroom. And ooh, the fancy stainless steel kitchen appliances be so fancy!

We talked about how the appliances would encourage us to cook more, especially now that we have a dishwasher again. (Hot tip: If you have to choose between owning a dishwasher or shoes, a dishwasher or a bed, a dishwasher or a toilet, choose a dishwasher.) (That’s barely hyperbole.) We thought we already knew how positively the move would impact our lives, so even though we were given little more than a week (aaah!) to pack and move, we didn’t just jump at the opportunity, we did a grand jeté. (Narrator voice: They did not actually do a grand jeté. They are not quite gravity defying types.)

We had no idea how positive a move it would really be.

The lack of dishwasher in our previous tiny apartment (sometimes we make mistakes in life and we only understand looking back at our misguided youth) and the layout required me to cook and clean with my back to my family, who were in the next room. I would miss out on conversation and feel isolated, like I was stuck doing a chore for everyone else. But I didn’t know that I felt isolated. “Hey, do I feel left out in my own family?” is not an obvious question to ask when there are other more obvious complaints about a kitchen design. Like the lack of a dishwasher.

Result: Our new layout allows me to participate in all the inside jokes our family has, catch all the references to RuPaul’s Drag Race and watch my daughter’s accidental huge-mouthful-of-wasabi eating. Priceless. But I only understood what a difference this makes after experiencing the difference. Now cooking has become enjoyable again. I no longer feel like I have to choose between showing love for my family and feeling one with my family.


I thought that flexibility of working conditions made me happiest. From my laptop, I could work from my favourite coffee shop, or from home, or from my coworking space in a variety of locations. Girl, I could work from Iceland if I wanted to.

Then the stressful and exciting move (see above) caused a terrible stress-induced back injury. At the same time, we’re juggling three important contracts so, I can’t afford to hurt my back further. The need for better ergonomics to protect my rehabilitation inspired me to set up a large monitor at my office and stay put.

I expected less back and shoulder pain. What I didn’t expect was a greater ability to concentrate. It turns out that I don’t like having people behind me. I didn’t know that. I feel skittish to have people working and walking behind me and I don’t like the lack of privacy as I work on drafts I don’t want people to see. I didn’t realize how often my attention drifted to this until the source of the problem was eliminated. I also didn’t expect that such a large screen means that it fills more of my peripheral vision, too, so there are fewer visual distractions.

Result: My productivity and emotional well-being while working has improved and I have more information about myself about how my working situation needs to be set up in the future.


Designers know how much small changes can have big impact.

Designers of kitchens know that there is a sacred triangular relationship between the fridge, sink and stove that needs to be maintained, and that if a kitchen is too big, it becomes an exhausting burden to cook in; people won’t use it.

This excellent Medium article How to Use the Psychology of Space to Boost Your Creativity by Donald M. Rattner also links to a great series titled How to Design Creative Workspaces using scientific findings about design.

And, of course, bringing it back around to what we do at Risk Creative, designers of websites know that if it takes too many clicks to get to information, users will be frustrated and impatient and leave. Or if sentences are too long or full of jargon. Or if text is white on a black background, it will make users’ brains mad. There are hundreds, thousands, more things to know about how people experience the design of websites, environments, and objects in ways that make them happy.

But here’s where I think things get really interesting:

Ask yourself why you don’t brush your teeth every night before bed or want to wash your face. Or, why don’t you exercise enough when it’s high on your goals list? Why don’t you hang up your clothes in your bedroom and toss them instead on a nearby chair?

Maybe your sink is too low and bending over hurts your back. Maybe the smell of your face wash reminds you of something or someone you don’t like. Maybe having several sets of clothes at the gym would help you take advantage of the urge to go after work, without having to remember to bring an outfit that day. Maybe having short hair would encourage you to swim more. Maybe you just need a cute coat rack in your room.

I believe that design problems are the biggest reason, or only reason, why we can’t seem to overcome our bad habits. There are places of friction you’re not noticing because they’re always there like air, and you take them for granted as intrinsic to your environment.

But perhaps you can start asking yourself about the tiniest things that annoy you about tasks you don’t like to do, and think of how you’d fix those things if you had a magic wand. Chances are, there are changes you can make.

My prediction is that in forty years, we will come to understand how everything is a fixable design, perception, or emotional problem.

Natasha Clark, Partner at Risk Creative. Republication is welcome only with attribution and a direct link to http://www.riskcreative.com. Thank you in advance for good behaviour. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s