designing with surprise to be WFH ready

So it's been ~20 months now since COVID-19 changed the game. How ready is your home, to work from home? After working from bedroom home in a 500 square foot condo, I learned a few things along the way to spark joy in my 9-5 life. Here are 4 of them.


According to IKEA's "Home Report", only 46% of people around the world felt that their homes met their emotional needs during lockdown, in 2020. As a designer, I took on this challenge — but not in the way of, "let's knock down walls and buy all new furniture in order to work successfully from my home". Instead, I used what I learned from designing for play to hone in on the details; the things that I might (maybe) notice in-and-between my 250 daily steps between my kitchen, bedroom/office, and bathroom.

For me, breaking the rhythm of seeing the confines of my small-ish home day-in and day-out meant looking to elements of surprise, and how I might be able to design to surprise. I think it's an understatement to say that my home got real familiar, real quick. So I looked to how I could surprise myself In the smallest of details, throughout the day. I asked myself, how might you keep the home experience fresh, each and every day?

What is surprise?

Let's get to a definition first. According to Wikipedia (ahem), "surprise is a brief mental and physiological state, a startle response experienced by animals and humans as the result of an unexpected event. Surprise can have any valence; that is, it can be neutral/moderate, pleasant, unpleasant, positive, or negative."

Taking from all that I learned from the world of theme parks, entertainment design, and brand experiences, I decided to implement four elements of unexpected surprises.

Here are 4 ways to design for surprise:

  1. Shareable Cuteness
  2. Unexpected Romance
  3. Excessively Expressive
  4. Random Acts of Ridiculousness

1. Shareable Cuteness

👏 Add 👏 all 👏 the 👏 googley 👏 eyes 👀

A great friend (and former office desk-neighbour) of mine lives by a simple, but effective, strategy in life: "When in doubt, add some googley eyes." She would never be without a pack of googley eyes in her desk to lighten the mood by anthropomorphizing anything and everything — whether a rock or a pen or a planter or the back of her computer (which I used to stare at for 40 hours a week).

But it wasn't just about making a mundane object human (and adorbs! 🥺), but it was the inherent need for someone else to share the unexpected joy it brought with the rest of the world. For her, the infectious part of adding googley eyes to random objects around us was that it was not a selfish act: it was about spreading and sharing the joy of something as random, trivial, and simple as googley eyes. She lived for the moment that you just noticed the subtle eyes peering from the clutter of your desk, burst out laughing (or cackling, in my case) and immediately telling someone else.

And this kind of joy checks out with the research: according to the University of Berkley, "giving to others makes us happy, even happier than spending on ourselves. What’s more, our kindness might create a virtuous cycle that promotes lasting happiness and altruism."

“A good party not only has a lively guest list, but also creates conditions that capitalize on the inherent tendency of joy to spread.”
- Ingrid Fetell-Lee

It’s with this approach that I began to look at the interfaces of both my apartment and my devices. Where can I find unexpected cuteness, to a point that I feel absolutely compelled to share it with a friend?

I love a detail, and I’ve gained an affinity towards tiny cute objects to hide based on my vantage points. In setting up my make-shift, janky-ass cardboard standing desk atop my kitchen cart, my plant propagation station hides a dinosaur planter — literally looking like a purple brachiosaurus gnawing at the leaves of my Hoya Mathilde (aka, Tilly the Mathilde). And on the topic of plant pet names, yes I’m the crazy person that names them and talks to them while giving them a shower. How else do I refer to them when I post them excessively on my Instagram story? More on that later.


In virtual-land, I started to shift to a simple tactic to bring unexpected surprises: ⌘ ^ + SPACE BAR — and inserting an emoji in everything from sending calendar invites, OneNote headings, in an (informal) email, or Teams/Slack message. I mean, let’s be real, how mundane does your back-to-back calendar look with just blocks of text? But the simplicity of seeing Easter eggs of emojis all over it makes it relatively more palatable.


While small, minute, and subtle, these small moments of cuteness in various parts of my WFH areas always bring a smile to my face. Even though I’m in this space literally 24/7 nowadays, I often forget about these small moments of joy that, when it comes time to say water my googley eyed Spider Plant (aka Pedro #7), I see the googley-eyed face it’s making, and less so the neutral tone of the gray planter it sits in.

2. Unexpected Romances

Bringing sexy back. 🌶️

I love an accent. With the plethora of voice-activated interfaces now accessible anywhere in my tiny home, I decided to make another simple switch: change the AI’s voice and accent. And you guessed it: my “Hey Google…” moment now results in a sexy British man telling me the weather, and using IFTT integrations, also “Executes Order 66” with as much oomf as Emperor Palaptine brings in radiating through the Star Wars Empire. Really making my Jarvis/Iron Man dreams come true.


With something non-visual, this element of romance sparks the unexpected surprise way more because we inherently focus on what we see, and less on what we hear. In fact, the ocular-centric nature of how we design our world in general can take a listen from this: create romance for the senses everywhere you go.

Cooking more, while WFH, I also upped my plating game when it came to my breakfast and lunches. With my entire kitchen now at my disposal, I put the extra 5 minutes in to make my avocado toast as ughhhhhhhhhhhhh 🥵 as possible — all with the addition of a garnish or a circle of olive oil wrapping the perimeter of the plate. Again, super shareable, super delicious, but also a moment where you feel like you’re treating yourself to that one extra “thing” a loved one may bring to you. If you get my drift.

In all seriousness though, adding “romantic” elements is less about what you might think about when you hear the word “romance”, but more so in leveraging romanticized moments to add unexpected surprises in your surroundings. It’s playing with idealized, sometimes unrealistic, or overly “heroic” moments in your day. Do what you need to do to create a “mood” wherever you might be in your home.

With my indoor jungle, I was recently being a nerdy tinkerer and decided to make a moisture-sensing alert to remind me to water some of my (ahem) needy plants. Perry (the Staghorn Fern) is one of those. So I decided to make it romantic. Why not integrate a geometric mood light into the moisture sensor itself: a gentle outer glow radiating against the brick wall of my loft, and turning aggressively red when Perry decides it needs my attention. Again, it’s a mood, and with its circular, colourful light form, (which, research shows, has a tendency to be associated with comfort) it brings a sense of joy every time I see it.


3. Excessively Expressive

📣 Overcompensating With Your Communications.

I think I’ve become a way more dramatic person. With most of my communications now being 100% virtual (I’m talking email, text, DMs), I’ve started to find new ways to express, react, scream, … with ALL the dimension that you might bring with your tone of voice in real life.

It’s why I love Slack over Microsoft Teams now. With Slack’s Reacji feature, you’re able to react, reply, celebrate, BASH — whatever you might need — to fully express yourself in a virtual setting. Although, I have gotten akin to the Cats In Suits stickers via Teams. If you don’t know these (rather limited but SO CUTE) sticker reactions, well you’re welcome. Go crazy. Be honest, how many gifs have you sent in the last year? Am I the only one that’s noticeably done that way more? Very Gen Z of me, I think.


When it comes to communication, one change I’ve made in my WFH experience is finding way more joy in the little things. The micro interactions you have with the interfaces you use to communicate with the world make a world of a difference. The excessiveness of a sound effect, the BOP that is the Microsoft Teams calling notification, the ability to change your virtual background to change the setting your colleagues see: it’s these small moments of excessive personal expression that makes the WFH experience way more human and joyful. It’s almost as if I’m over-compensating for my lack of human/face-to-face communication.

While it might seem trivial, this attention to the micro-moments in your day-to-day means looking for the wonder of human expression in everything.

4. Random Acts of Ridiculousness

You’re not as serious as you think.

When I think of surprise, I think of random. I think of the element of a scare, coming out of nowhere. It’s the random that shakes up the routine; that one moment that gets you out of the moment and resets your energy.

We’ve seen this a lot this year: embracing kids unexpectedly joining a work meeting and throwing everything off. The random conversations that are so off-topic, that they somehow spark an unexpected conversation. It’s random acts of ridiculousness that, I think, can catalyze innovation in your work while making your mundane day-to-day way more human and happy to experience. Embrace these interruptions. Embrace the foolishness. I swear I’m not crazy, just ask Will Guidara about his 95/5 rule for running the high-end restaurant, Eleven Madison Park.


Normalize working parents, and normalize kids being curious in the same room!

An old colleague of mine blew my mind with something I now call the "Poptart Theory". She told me that when there’s an awkward lull when meeting new people, she would blurt out, “I dislike pop tarts”, just to see the reaction. And miraculously, the amount of conversation that would ensue as a result of those 4 words is mind blowing. The thought-trains it puts you on, somehow end up bringing people closer together, or ultimately ending up back on-topic with a fresh sense of creativity and energy. The personal statement of disliking something SO nostalgic and universally-known as pop tarts forces the conversation to talk about yourself, and less about a more central (and probably boring) topic — especially at work.

To that end, the remnants of my Surprise 29th Birthday Party also now come in handy: fake moustaches. Especially when my Zoom calls result in some kind of screenshot group photo, I often pull out the dozen or so fake moustaches I have stashed next to my desk. Let’s call it my Moustache Stash (lol). Not only do I see this everyday (ahem “Shareable Cuteness”), but it’s also a ridiculous way to join a video call. See below for my cute family. And try it one day for yourself and see the reaction — although, please read the room!


Disclaimer: I am in no way responsible for your professional reputation should you decide to do this at the wrong place/wrong time and with the wrong crowd. I’m looking at you, lawyers and bankers out there.

A random act of ridiculousness is almost like a really good scare; the laughter ridiculousness often brings is sometimes enough to jolt you out of the monotony of sitting at the same desk and in the same chair, day-in and day-out.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about in his seminal book, Flow, I think these random moments bring a new kind of indescribable energy similar to being in a flow state. Mihaly describes flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." The routine of WFH plunges out of synchronicity, and for me, ridiculousness sometimes helps me re-focus my mind in order to return back into a productive and time-passing flow state that Mihaly so eloquently wrote about in the 1980s.

Between the elements of Shareable Cuteness, Unexpected Romances, Excessively Expressive, and Random Acts of Ridiculousness, hopefully this inspires you to reflect on how ready your home has become. These “features” of your home, these human characteristics embedded into the virtual and physical artefacts that now make up most of your day-to-day lives, they can’t be measured, nor can they be universal. Try something new, see what works for you. See what romance you enjoy, what you find insanely cute, and the dimensions of expression and randomness that you can add to your life. Ultimately, it’s about finding these small micro-moments of wonder. As Ingrid Fetell-Lee wrote, “Wonders never cease, as long as you’re willing to look.”

Published: @October 3, 2021

Next up...


a letter to 2023
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the living doc of designing for play
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designing with surprise to be WFH ready
October 3, 2021
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