IDEO Fellow Ingrid Fetell Lee is a purveyor of joy. Not just with her buoyant personality and quickdraw collection of delightful stories. Her blog, The Aesthetics of Joy, collects the sights, sounds, sunflowers, and playground slides that can brighten a room, buoy a mood, and reinvigorate a community.
Now, Fetell Lee has curated that project into a book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. In each chapter, Fetell Lee explores delight-inducing characteristics like abundance, harmony, and surprise and the creatives who have prioritized the benefits of joyful aesthetics in their homes, work, and communities.
99U sat down with Fetell Lee to talk about the origins of Joyful, how aesthetics impact our work performance, and how you’ve been thinking about your favorite color all wrong.
The Aesthetics of Joy started while you were a grad student at Pratt. What was the origin of the project?
I went into Pratt with very serious intentions. I was volunteering with a nonprofit that worked to prevent roadside injuries among children in Africa and I designed low cost reflective backpacks with them. That was the sort of stuff I was interested in. So, there was this moment of cognitive dissonance when, a year into the Pratt program, a professor said to me, “Your work gives me a feeling of joy.” And I was like “What? That wasn’t what I was going for.” Joy seemed so light and fluffy. It took a while for me to come around to the understanding that joy could be quite serious in its impact.
How can joy be serious in impact?
We think of aesthetics as frivolous or superfluous. We’re inculcated with the view that this isn’t really what matters in life. But, these aesthetics of joy have deep effects. There’s an emerging body of research that shows that our surroundings have a profound influence on our well-being and performance. A reader recently sent me an example of confetti dots for kindness. They started in a classroom and each dot is a kind act that someone did. Now the whole hallway is covered in confetti. It’s a way to visualize the kindness of the community in an aesthetically joyful way. It spreads that visceral, unconscious experience to everyone in the school.
The book begins with color and light. Which color is the most joyful?
We think about color as hue. “What’s your favorite color?” “Red.” “Blue.” That’s opposed to the other two dimensions of color, which designers are well acquainted with: saturation and lightness, or value. Brighter colors, purer colors are considered to be the most joyful. It actually doesn’t matter what color you choose. I find that really freeing. You can have whatever favorite color you want. As long as you bring up the saturation and the brightness, it will be seen as more joyful.
Where can something like the aesthetics of color and saturation have a really powerful effect?
Aesthetics enliven a community. They bring a sense of dignity. We’ve created cities that are so void of the sensory stimulation that makes us feel alive. You walk into a typical downtown and go, “Woah, how did we end up in a world that looks like this?” There’s a real equity issue here too. In public housing, for example, aesthetics don’t get any consideration. The most benign form of it is, “We don’t have resources to put toward to that.” But at the end of the day, most aesthetic questions, like the color paint you choose is not a cost consideration. It’s a choice. I’d like to see the places that house the people who are most vulnerable designed with as much aesthetic sensitivity as the places that house the people who have tons of resources: nursing homes, schools in underserved neighborhoods. And infrastructure, that’s an area that’s so overlooked.
It seems counterintuitive that design needs convincing of the importance of aesthetics. What happened there?
Over the past 15 to 20 years there’s been this evolution where design is now seen as a serious tool for business. Design swung hard to the functional as a way to be taken seriously in board rooms and C-suites. Designers tried to move away from being seen as stylists or people who just put the frills on top. But it’s really important to make a distinction between style and aesthetics. Style relates to taste and what’s current. Aesthetics has to do with the fundamental sensory experience of the place that you’re surrounded by. There’s a deeper core to aesthetics.
How do you convince the business side of the value of what you’re talking about?
It’s an ongoing conversation. The point of resistance lies in the fact that these effects are tricky to quantify. “How much is wall color connected to bottom line performance?” is a really hard question to answer. The most important thing is getting people to experience it for themselves. The most powerful moment is when I say, “Here are the things that bring us joy and here’s the office that most people work in.” People have been looking at all these brightly colored, wonderful things and then they see this grey cube farm and they burst out laughing. But it’s nervous laughter.