In this special live episode of Design Matters, Ingrid Fetell Lee reflects on her lifelong personal journey toward joy—and how we might find our own. 

Wheat Field

Design Matters Live: Ingrid Fetell Lee

DESIGNER / AUTHOR

2019

JOY / HAPPINESS / COLOR / HUMAN-CENTERED DESIGN / IDEO / INDUSTRIAL DESIGN / ALLAN CHOCHINOV / SVA / CHROMOPHOBIA / RESTORATION THERAPY / MARIE KONDO / DAN GILBERT / BRENE BROWN / BETH COMSTOCK / DAMIAN BORCHOK / REDSCOUT / LANDOR / IRELAND / GLAMOUR / VOGUE / MAGAZINES

Ingrid Fetell Lee was in a rut. A deep one.

And then she received an invitation to lead a workshop in Dublin, which promised the potential to shake things up in her life—but it got canceled. Stuck in the gray doldrums of the winter and no closer to escaping the grind, Fetell Lee made a decision: She’d cash in her frequent flyer miles and make the trip anyway. And soon enough, she found herself in the all-encompassing viridescence of the Irish countryside.

As she writes, “No surface was uncovered by grass or lichen, no branch left unbowed by a corolla of leaves. Ferns sprang out of tufts of olive-hued moss on tree trunks filmed with algae. Grasses raced skyward, indecorously. Duckweed forgot its place, tracing a lacy path up drains onto driveways, a cheery, swampy carpet.

“I felt like a different person. … It wasn’t just restoration, but wholesale renewal.”

Lee has long been fixated on joy—studying it, reveling in it, uncovering rocks and logs in a perpetual quest to discover the unexpected places where it might be found. Nature is a powerful factor. So is color. The design of one’s environment. The shapes that surround us.

Last fall, she released a book on the sum toll of her findings, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. In conjunction with this special live episode of Design Matters, here we present a collection of her reflections and philosophies on the subject, which she believes truly makes the world go round.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


“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.”

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“I asked the professors, ‘How do things make us feel joy? How do tangible things make us feel intangible joy?’ They hemmed and hawed and gestured a lot with their hands. ‘They just do,’ they said. I packed up my things for the summer, but I couldn't stop thinking about this question ... and this launched a journey—one that I didn't know at the time would take me 10 years—to understand the relationship between the physical world and the mysterious, quixotic emotion we call ‘joy.’ And what I discovered is that not only are they linked, but that the physical world can be a powerful resource to us in creating happier, healthier lives.”

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“Happiness is a broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives, and it’s often measured over time. … Joy is much simpler and more immediate.”

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“The way I look at joy is: It’s an unlocking. It unlocks other things.”

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“Turning our attention to the joys of the moment absorbs us in the present, focusing us on the parts of our lives that are good, not the ones we’d like to change. We notice more moments of joy—in fact, research shows that people in a state of joy are actually more attuned to positive stimuli on the periphery of their visual field—and begin to include others in our joy. When we focus on joy, happiness finds us.”

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“We’ve been told—educated or convinced—that our relationship to our surroundings is an inside-out one. That we are supposed to express ourselves, make our mark on our surroundings. There is absolutely no discussion whatsoever of the reverse relationship, which from my perspective, is the much more important one.”

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“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.”

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“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.

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“There is something in our brains that finds a sense of ease and playfulness around curves. Researchers speculate that this comes from the fact that we evolved in a world where sharp things in nature were often dangerous. Antlers, teeth, thorns, jagged rocks—all of those things require caution. Our brains evolved to be cautious around angular shapes, whereas round shapes bring out a natural playfulness in us, an ease. The example I always give is if you have an angular coffee table, everyone’s going to move more slowly. It’s going to be more formal. But if you have a round one, it lets you be more spontaneous and playful because you’re not worried about bumping into it. That’s something that your brain is going through all the time. If you have a house full of angular shapes, even if they’re not in your direct path, your brain is sort of processing that as an angular and possibly an unsafe environment.”

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“We’ve been taught to think about clutter as something that has a cognitive load, that to have clutter around is distracting. But it’s actually about the shape of the clutter when you reduce it down: It’s angular and asymmetric. It’s sort of disordered visually, and that makes our brain have to work a lot harder. In an orderly environment, our awareness can go on into the background, but when we have a lot of disorder, it can be anxiety-provoking.”

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“[Marie] Kondo’s philosophy isn’t really minimalism. It’s sanity. After all, we still have plenty of stuff. And now that we can see the things we have, our place actually feels more abundant, not less. That’s because abundance isn’t about just accumulating things. It’s about surrounding yourself with a rich palette of textures that enliven your senses. If true minimalism is like clear-cutting a field, Kondo’s method is like weeding a garden. It’s a process of removing the background noise to create a canvas on which to build a joyful home. Yet it’s also worth remembering that just weeding alone doesn’t create a beautiful garden. You have to plant flowers, too.”

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“Intuition is about what we move toward and what we move away from. At that fundamental level, we’ve scrambled a lot of signals. Our intuition was formed for a different environment. Now we are in another one, out of sync with what we are wired to receive. The natural environment has constant dynamism and change, but the built environment doesn’t have that.”

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“Think about the way people act in the sterile cabin of an airplane, breaking into fights over three degrees of seat recline and jostling elbows for control of an armrest. Now contrast this with how people behave in the convivial atmosphere of a music festival. Surrounded by vibrant decorations and music, people share food and drink, make space on the crowded lawn for newcomers, and dance with strangers.”

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“It is like a Jungian collective unconscious that’s carried through our DNA. We have intuitive things derived from our own learning and personality, but there is also this universal intuition that leads to very common behaviors: We generally avoid dark corners, we generally avoid pinched spaces. People naturally avoid certain spaces or gravitate toward others. … These are universal patterns in which you can see that we have a kind of shared intuition.”

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“Joy is one of the six universal emotions, along with surprise, anger, fear, sadness and disgust. Joy evolved as part of our internal reward and motivation system. For countless generations, our ancestors relied on this emotion as an indication of what to move toward; it was their emotional guide to the things that could sustain life and help them flourish.”

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“Nature reduces stress, and there’s some preliminary research that is starting to suggest that there’s an association between the color green and creativity.”

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“Having houseplants … creates a new habit by necessity: watering once or twice a week. I find I really enjoy this task—checking on them all, dusting their leaves and removing spent flowers, and seeing what new growth has appeared. Even if I have a million other things to do, the plants need me, and that brings me back into connection with the natural world.

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“Spring restores our consciousness of time and, even more so, of possibility. The thawing of the hard earth, the flowing of sap, the bursting open of millions of buds: As the slow land quickens, we feel the energy of new beginnings around us, and our attention turns to the future. We are reminded of what a thrill it is to know that joy is speeding toward us, and to stand awaiting it with open arms.”

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“Ending an addiction or finding a new faith can provide a sense of renewal, of being reborn into a new life. Near-death experiences can bring renewal, as can the feeling of being given a second chance after a terrible mistake. A common moment of renewal comes from the birth of children or grandchildren, and people often describe the pleasure of rediscovering the world through the naïve eyes of a child, gaining a renewed flush of wonder at well-worn joys. There are also many smaller moments that give us this feeling of newness and potential. A really great haircut can sometimes do it, as can a fresh load of laundry or a hot shower with a loofah. Cleaning can be a path to renewal. One of my favorite days of the year is when a troop of men swinging Tarzan-style from ropes arrives to wash the windows in my apartment building, and I look out to see a crisp world I had forgotten was there.”

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“We all start out joyful, but as we get older, being colorful or exuberant opens us up to judgment. Adults who exhibit genuine joy are often dismissed as childish or too feminine or unserious or self-indulgent, and so we hold ourselves back from joy.”

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“The sharply divided, politically polarized world we live in sometimes has the effect of making our differences feel so vast as to be insurmountable. And yet underneath it all, there's a part of each of us that finds joy in the same things. And though we’re often told that these are just passing pleasures, in fact, they’re really important, because they remind us of the shared humanity we find in our common experience of the physical world.”

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“I do have a phrase that I come back to again and again: ‘Remember what you love.’ When I get overwhelmed by everything I need to do, or feel anxious about what I’m trying to say or how people might receive it, this phrase helps remind me that everything I do at root stems from the love I feel for this beautiful, diverse world, for the people in it and the extraordinary joy that can be found in even its ordinary corners. I do what I do because I want to share that love with others.”


 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman