The House That ‘Design Home’ (and Millennial Anxiety) Built

Design Home : EveryEvery so often, an otherwise superfluous mobile game taps into our subconscious and becomes an instant cultural touchstone. Flappy Bird catered to a newly minted class of smartphone commuters who had at least one hand free to fidget with their screens, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood allowed a generation raised on tabloids to play out familiar reality-star narratives, and Pokémon Go turned errand runs into nostalgic scavenger hunts.

Now, people are tapping away at Design Home, an app with a premise slightly more grown-up than its predecessors. Each day, Design Home users are presented with a few empty rooms that they are responsible for virtually furnishing. They choose one, fill it with furniture, submit the design to be rated by other users, and then move on to the next one. The guidelines for how to furnish these rooms—referred to as “challenges”—are written like HGTV erotica, or the plot of your favorite Property Brothers episode with a few influencer-esque details. “To create the iconic look from her favorite part of the world, this travel writer started with white walls and dark wood beams,” reads one recent prompt. “Next step is adding warm colorful decor. Furnish a Mediterranean-style living room for a travel writer’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.” Nevermind the budget of this suspiciously well-off travel writer, the only thing a player needs to worry about is the bedside table that best matches those beams. After a player submits a finished design, she receives a small “payment,” and waits for other users to score their work out of five stars. If she scores high enough, she receives a bonus piece of furniture for later use. (Though it’s rarely the one she wants.) If that player does really well, her design might be featured on an in-app feed. No matter what, people will see the design and—per the structure of the game—be obligated to judge it.

Millions of people have been sucked into the Design Home vortex. “It launched like a house on fire,” Design Home general manager Chris McGill said. Since it came out in November of 2016, the free game has been downloaded over 50 million times. More than a million people play the game every day, most of whom are women between the ages 25 and 55. It currently ranks 20th in the App Store’s Simulation category and its last major challenge received 53,716,633 submissions, according to Design Home’s Facebook page. In 2018, it generated $157.7 million via in-app purchases (which range from $1.99 to $100), which is $60 million more than it made in the previous year.

In essence, Design Home is a more furniture-centric version of The Sims. But what truly sets it apart from other life simulation games is its merchandise. Decorating a room requires consulting a catalog of furniture from “partners,” which include major chains like West Elm, smaller startups like Article, and the infamous Kathy Kuo (a New York-based designer whose eclectic offerings have puzzled and enraged users). In a brilliant act of gamified advertising, these partners submit their inventories to be included in the game, and the app’s content team decides which to include. The pieces that end up on the screens of Design Home’s giant user base get automatic exposure.

The empty rooms in each challenge are styled to be hyper-realistic so that subtle details like the stain of wood flooring, crown molding, and the print on a wallpaper can all shine through. In fact, Design Home—which is owned by Glu, the same game development company that made Kim Kardashian: Hollywood an instant success—employs a team of 3D artists and architects who digitally recreate each individual piece of their partners’ furniture based on its specs. “It is an arduous and handcrafted process,” McGill said. The fact that Design Home must fit into less than six inches of a smartphone screen means that bolder pieces of furniture will always catch the eye of its users. Whether the game’s millions of users see a piece of furniture ultimately depends on its ability to pop mid-scroll. While at a recent interior design expo in Las Vegas, McGill realized the game had warped his ability to evaluate decor normally. “My eyes see what would look good, and what does not look good within the context of the game,” he said. “Things with more detail and contrast and texture look better in the game than things that are super beautiful, but are more flat and plain in real life. So I literally can’t see things in real life anymore.”