Design thinking in interior design

Learnings from diving into a few interior design projects

Covering topics from urban mobility and architecture to interior design and dream homes, a newsletter that reminds us where we are matters.

Hi friends 🗽

I’ve settled in New York City, it is where I can see myself building roots. I’m a little nomadic in nature, but here, I want to stay for a long while.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my home will look like, and wanted to summarize some learnings from delving into the field of interior design.

(If anyone would like a second opinion on interior design, I’m happy to help!)

Earlier this year, I decided to focus on developing competence in interior design.

I've always admired beautiful interiors, from the eclectic decor of light-filled cafes to the cozy furnishing of a friend's home. However, I was never able to articulate why one space looked better than another and what specific elements made the difference. It was comparable to appreciating great food without identifying the ingredients and spices.

Six clients/friends and four projects later, I’d love to share some takeaways.

Listen to space

Each space is unique. A house is full of history and each fixture tells a story of the past. Instead of coming with an agenda of what the space will look like, it is about taking note of and respecting what has come before. For example, in a rather traditional neighborhood, it would be imposing to juxtapose with high contemporary and futuristic architecture.[1]

In interior design, I learned to observe and take into consideration existing architectural features and materials. For example, when the undertone of an existing wood column skews red, we may reconsider whether to mix cooler wood furniture in this warm-colored environment. 

The warmer toned interior (left, Chrysoline de Gastines et Victorien) contrasts with the cooler undertones of the cabinets (right, Casa Leggera).

In designing digital products, creativity is limited by lines of code and the screen in front of us. Whereas in the physical world, creativity is restrained by conditions of the space. The canvas extends beyond the home to the neighborhood and the city, affected by factors such as lighting, climate, and ventilation. 

Great interior design comes from the act of spending time in the space we are designing: feeling where the sunlight refracts against the walls and noting the elements in each vantage point. Through experiencing a space, we understand more intimately which corner we like to sit at; we point out where lighting is needed; we come up with a design solution tailored to our needs in response to the space.

Think in 3D

It is powerful when we are able to translate a vision in our mind into something more concrete — a 3D model.

When I first learned Adobe Illustrator, I felt empowered to actualize onto the screen the images I had imagined. It became a tool that helped me think as the designs evolved. In interior design, adding the z-axis required a new mode of thinking. 3D modeling tools opened up a world of possibilities to explore and a broader mental space to create. This time, the tools helped me think in 3D.

My interior design teacher once said, "you have to stop thinking in [2D] plan, you have to model the space in 3D because vertical space will affect the footprint so much." Design solutions that work in 2D do not always work in 3D and it takes extruding into 3D models to make the judgment.

Instead of trying to achieve pixel perfection in 2D, it is about transitioning to thinking in 3D as quickly as possible while leaving room for play and experimentation.

Designing a bathroom in plan mode (left) vs visualizing in 3D (right) for my parents’ home. An image in 3D tells the story of a specific moment and evokes an emotion: in this case, the visualization helped my stepmom imagine herself taking a bath after a long day while looking out the window.

See what we couldn't see before

In creative disciplines, we train our senses to tell subtle differences, let it be tracking and padding in graphic design, corner radius in UI design, or taste profiles in cooking. 

In interior design, subtleties come from the difference in distinguishing material finishing, craftsmanship, and built quality. For example, a wider floor plank evokes a different feeling than thinner strips of flooring. These are intentional design choices that I couldn’t see before.

In the built world, aesthetics often directly correlates with cost. A matte black shower head with a sloping curbless shower costs more than a chrome finish with a curbed shower because curbless drainage requires a lot more waterproofing. A cabinet without handles for a minimal flat appearance costs a lot more than those with handles because a push-to-open cabinet door is harder to make than slapping on handles. A casement window not only has a more romantic quality but comes with more hardware components, and therefore costs more than a sliding window. The list goes on.

I like to draw the parallel of quality interior design with clean code in software as opposed to code that works. It takes time and meticulous effort to build something that is “clean”, in both the digital and the physical world.

They’re wooden cabinets but vary greatly in cost: from the most affordable with visible handles, medium with hidden handles, to custom panels that we’d have a hard time finding in America (in this case, quality wood with beautiful grain patterns along with the more unique design result in a higher cost that lack economies of scale).

When I appreciate an interior, I no longer just appreciate the beauty and aesthetic qualities, I learned to observe the opening of a window, the thickness of wood, and the work that went into the details. It's the power of knowing what we didn’t know and seeing what we couldn’t see before, which in turn allows us to appreciate good design on a more intimate level.

Developing our own style

Seeing the differences and understanding of material leads us to critically think beyond Pinterest inspirations and to develop our own style. It is parallel to moving away from Dribbble in interface design to showing more personality.

We transition from the safe design choices of mid-century modern to being more bold and experimental with colors and contrast. Instead of simply following others’ design decisions, we look into the architectural elements of a place, study the context and the personality and background of the persons who will occupy the same, and justify our design choices with our research.

Designers nowadays spend all day following other people on the Internet and don't look outside of what is immediately in their face. It is more invaluable to come up with something that is honest, to dig deep and come up with a concept, like a college thesis, that explains why we do what we do.” — Darrell Long

I love sketching out interiors and modeling from scratch. It forces me to think critically about what fits the space as opposed to pulling existing assets.

Timeless design and lasting impact

I think what I find the most exciting about the design of physical spaces is that it is long-lasting. They may take significantly longer to implement, yet the impact is timeless. 

We may compare marketing and product design. Marketing flyers last through a campaign, a few seconds to a few days at the most. On the contrary, product design outlives a specific campaign. It takes a little longer to implement a product change compared to updating a marketing graphic, yet the change affects the daily usage of the product and thus calls for a greater level of user research. 

In architectural and interior design, attention to the smallest detail is even more critical because every mistake is exponentially more costly. In the case of designing a home, when we know that someone will go through this process once in their lifetime, we put the utmost care into thinking through every detail.

There is a sense of permanency when a building can live through generations. Product design in a tech product is about making a small change that affects millions and billions, yet interior design is about making a big change to one individual's lifetime. In terms of scale, it’s hard to argue which is greater.

[1] China Moves to Halt ‘Weird’ Architecture

Written by Coco, a designtrepreneur that has a heartfelt appreciation for architecture and the built world.

Reach me @cocobliu

At my family’s ADU.