Ingrid Fetell: Designing A Joyful Life
As the author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness and the founder of the popular website The Aesthetics of Joy, Ingrid Fetell Lee is trying hard to help people find more joy in life and work through design. Seventeen million people have tuned in to hear her TED Talk, “Where Joy Hides and How to Find It,” and listening to her is an aha moment. Lend an ear and bring a little more joy into your life.
It wasn’t as if Ingrid Fetell Lee was drawn to design as a child. To be fair, she didn’t even know that design was something one could do. “When I was a kid, I said I wanted to be an inventor. I wanted to make things and would always come up with crazy ideas for inventions,” says Fetell Lee.
Her parents were doctors, and that’s where the science side of her comes in — but she did grow up in a creative family: her grandmother was a milliner and she taught Fetell Lee a lot of crafts like quilting, knitting and sewing. Every summer, Fetell Lee would spend a month with her grandparents where they would go to the craft store. “We would come home with a bunch of supplies, and they would let me play with whatever I was interested in at that moment,” she says. “She was really a big influence, but I had no idea that there were careers that drew from that.”
So, when graduated from college, she worked in marketing and, as the design director at IDEO, led teams of designers to create products and services for clients like American Express, Condé Nast and PepsiCo. Then she started to look at different fields of design. “I thought, I don’t want to be a graphic designer or fashion designer, but industrial design, product design, that’s the right space for me.”
Fetell Lee returned to graduate school to study design and ponder the question: could simple objects, material things, bring meaningful joy? This launched a 10-year journey into the exploration of joy. She noticed that certain things, such as cherry blossoms, bright colours, balloons and butterflies, created a feeling of joy. She started to make a wall of images in her studio, wondering what these things, things that cross age, gender and ethnicity, might have in common, why fireworks or swimming pools or ice cream cones with sprinkles, for instance, brought joy. “I just started arranging them and rearranging them and realized there were attributes common to many of these things,” she says. “Sometimes they had round shapes, or bright colours, or a sense of abundance and multiplicity, or sometimes symmetry and harmony — that’s what became the esthetics of joy.”
“I Think We Have A Culture That Venerates Success … But There Is A Big Awakening Now Around Mental Health”
For Fetell Lee, putting together these kinds of things changed everything. More than 10 years ago, she founded the design blog The Aesthetics of Joy to shed light on the relationship between our environment and our emotions, and to inspire others to live a more joyful life through design. It is packed with posts on how to plan for joy, reduce anxiety at home and use what you already have to create more joy. And in 2018, she compiled her research into a book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, to explain why some experiences are full of joy, how we can cultivate these experiences every day, and how to identify the most joy-inspiring people, places and objects in our lives.
“Too often, we move through the physical world as if it were a stage set, a mute backdrop for our daily activities. Yet, in reality, it is alive with opportunities for inspiration, wonder and joy,” she writes in her book. And that is the power of joy: small moments that can spark big changes. “A whimsical outfit might prompt a smile, which inspires a chance kindness toward a stranger, which helps someone who is struggling to get through her day.” Even the tiniest gestures add up over time and, before we know it, we have not just a few happier people but a truly joyful world, she adds.
Joy isn’t one-size-fits-all, either. Fetell Lee explores 10 esthetics of joy in her book, including abundance, harmony, play and celebration. “You can look at them as a palette for creating the kind of environment that really feels good to you,” she says.
Fetell Lee really wants to help people find the joy. “I’m working on a school of joy because my feeling is that we don’t learn about joy in school,” she says. And that’s what she wants to give kids — the tools to be able to create joy and spread it in the world. “I think we have a culture that venerates success … but there is a big awakening now around mental health,” she says. For adults, she is offering a brand-new “Design a Joyful Home” course, available through her website, so people can find their style and create a home they love.
What brings Fetell Lee joy? The rituals, or routines, that she and her husband have with their two-year-old son. Many families do family dinner together, she adds, but for Fetell Lee, the three of them do a bedtime routine. “All the doctors and all the parenting experts say that you should have a very calming bedtime routine, but our child likes to just run around right before bed,” she laughs. “So, we call it the Wild Rumpus, because it’s like anything goes for 30 minutes before bed — and it’s really fun!”
Interview by Estelle Zentil