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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“The way I look at joy is: It’s an unlocking. It unlocks other things.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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 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.”
“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.”
“[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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Curtis Fox: Tonight, we'll join designer and writer, Ingrid Fetell Lee, and Debbie Millman, for an intimate discussion on Ingrid's first book, Joyful: The definitive guide to finding and creating more joy in the world around you. This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman, from designobserver.com. On this episode, Debbie talks to designer and writer, Ingrid Fetell Lee, about joy.
Ingrid Fetell Lee: It's paradoxical, it's like by forgetting about happiness, just thinking about joy, we find ourselves happier.
Curtis: This interview was recorded in February of 2019, in front of a live audience at the New York chapter of the AIGA.
Debbie Millman: Ingrid, so nice to see you again. I had the really distinct honor of interviewing Ingrid couple of months ago at the Chicago Ideas Festival, but they only gave us a wee bit of time. And so, now, I get to ask all the really tough questions. Five years ago, five years ago, on February 4th, 2014, you posed a question on your blog, The Aesthetics of Joy, which is phenomenal. And I'd like to ask you the question that you posed, you said, you asked. Do we have a universal right to joy? What sparked that question? And how would you answer that now?
Debbie: I know we're going right in.
Ingrid: Yeah, right in.
Debbie: We did the warm up in Chicago, going right in.
Ingrid: The question was sparked by a conversation with someone who really made me think about how joy is experienced by people at all sort of levels of the socio-economic spectrum. Because I think we often think of joy as this luxury in life, this extraneous thing. Yeah, framing it as the question about a universal right. I mean, I knew that it was a universal feeling, right? We all feel joy. If my hypothesis at the time and the thesis of my book, that our surroundings are an important factor in what brings us joy. If that's true, then, the inequities that we find in the way that our surroundings are constructed, could actually, jeopardize some people's ability to feel joy. And so, I started wondering for myself, do we have a universal right to join? And I think we do.
Ingrid: And I think that if we take the perspective that it's on everyone individually to create joy for themselves, and we're personally responsible for it, and we have to just figure out a way to do that no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, I think that is irresponsible. That we've actually let people down, and that, when you look at many of the buildings and the places that people in poverty are left to inhabit, and that many of these things are constructed with an attitude of, you don't get to have the nice parts, right? We're not going to put nice plants and we're not going to paint colors. We're just going to put brick and metal and make it really plain and simple, because that's all you deserve, Right? Then, I think that we're making an equation between joy and aesthetics, and saying that those things are things that we have to earn, that we have to deserve, and that they're not universal right.
Ingrid: And so, by posing that question, I think, I was hoping to spark a conversation around how we bring joy and joyful aesthetics back to some of those places.
Debbie: How do you define joy?
Ingrid: I tend to try to go with the scientific definition of joy, which is an intense momentary experience of positive emotion. And so, it's different from happiness. Because, happiness is something we measure over time, it's broader. And so, we evaluate our happiness based on a lot of different factors in our lives. How we feel about our work? Whether we feel like we have a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives? How socially connected we are? All of those things go into our happiness. But joy is much simpler. It's more immediate, it's more visceral, and we can really measure it through physical expressions, smiling and laughter and things like that. For me, it's about the small moments.
Debbie: Interesting that you take it immediately to joy versus happiness because, in that same blog post, you go on to state that you don't believe that people have a universal right to be happy. And while our Declaration of Independence grants a right to pursue happiness, you state that the pursuit hardly guarantees achievement. And I think that a lot of people forget that you really have to earn your happiness in a lot of ways. But you then go on to say that in the case of happiness, pursuing it might actually chase it away, pursuing happiness might actually chase it away. I wanted to ask you about that. Why do you feel that way? Why do you believe that?
Ingrid: I think that we associate happiness often with really big milestones in life, and a lot of those milestones are not in our control. And I think that sometimes, even the ones that are in our control, the act of pursuing, the actions we take in pursuing happiness, often sideline joy.
Debbie: In what way?
Ingrid: If we go to work, and we think, "Okay, if I get this promotion, I'm going to be happy." This is like a common thing that we do, right? We say, "I just need to get this thing, and then, I'm going to be happy." We see happiness so often as a future thing. It's often not a thing that we have now, it's like, "Oh, I'm going to be happy when I find the right partner, when I have a baby, when I have grandkids," whatever. All these things that we think are going to make us happy, often live in the ... I often think of it as like that old phrase about your ship coming in.
Ingrid: It's like, we're always looking out to the horizon for a ship to come in. Well, many times, the actions we take to achieve these goals make us put joy off, we postpone joy. If we think, "Oh, I need to get to that promotion to be happy." Then, will often, that leads to a workaholism, that leads us to say, "Okay, you know what? I'm going to skip this really wonderful party that my friend is throwing, this wonderful celebration or this afternoon at the botanical garden, or whatever it is, I'm going to skip those things, and I'm going to just work straight through."
Ingrid: And sometimes, that's great. You're working in service of the goal and it makes you ... that does further happiness. But often, those little joys get lost along the way. And I think, when we look at the science of joy, it suggests that these little moments actually do start to work toward our happiness, so it's paradoxical. It's like by forgetting about happiness and just thinking about joy, we find ourselves happier.
Debbie: I have a theory I wanted to present to you. I've done a lot of work on what it means to be happy or to achieve happiness. And one of the things that I've discovered as humans, we are metabolism machines. We metabolize, not only our purchases, our technological devices, but we also metabolize our happiness. We are regulation machines, and so, in as much as we might feel happy with a big giant flat screen TV, or the promotion, or the raise, or the new shoes, or the new love, over time, those experiences and those feelings metabolize. And so, while we might be in a position where, in the early stages of love we can't get enough of each other. Three years later, you're complaining about how the person swallows. We've all been there, don't deny it.
Debbie: I was thinking a lot about joy, I was thinking a lot about your theories about joy and reading your book for the second time. I was thinking a lot about Marie Kondo and does something spark joy, and I realized, I have this little jar in my shower stall, it's something that I keep my shaver in. And it's a little white cap really, and on it, it says, "Optimist." Now, I've had this for years. I have not metabolized my joy yet for this object. Every time I look at it, I smile. So my theory is that, we metabolize happiness, but we don't metabolize joy, joy continually renews. And I want to know what you thought of that.
Ingrid: Not that bad, right? Not bad.
Debbie: Thank you.
Ingrid: It's such a beautiful way of putting it, and I'm glad that you asked that. Recently on Instagram and Facebook, there's been this 10 year challenge, and you're supposed to look back 10 years and see what you were doing. And I realized that 10 years ago, I was doing the thesis proposal for this work. And I looked back and I read it again. And in that thesis proposal, I wrote that, "Joy is a renewable resource for our emotions." I think, I said, "It's like sunshine for the senses, it never runs out." And I really do believe that, and I think what you're talking about, scientists often use the term hedonic adaptation.
Debbie: Or the treadmill.
Ingrid: Or the treadmill, or hedonic treadmill. And the idea is that we adapt to things, we come back to some homeostasis with our surroundings. And that's really good when it comes to the bad things in life because, obviously, you wouldn't want to, like, if you have a partner that snores, you wouldn't want to ... it's good that you adapt to that over time. There are certain things-
Debbie: Synthesizing happiness as Dan Gilbert would say.
Ingrid: Yes, it's really good that you adapt to that, but on the positive side, it can be challenging because there are many good things in life that we do adapt to. And I think that, what you point out, this one thing that you don't seem to adapt to, where you don't metabolize its joy, I think that, that hasn't really been studied properly yet, I don't think. I think that there tends to be a view that we adapt to all material things. And they actually think there are certain things that we don't adapt to, and I don't think that the science has caught up on that yet.
Debbie: And I think it's pretty remarkable to consider that joy is a renewable resource in our lives. And that, that same thing that might spark joy five years ago, might continue to spark joy in the present day. Where we all know that our purchases or love or hunger, or feeling full, all of those things, are things that are adaptable.
Ingrid: Right. And I think for me, at the core of this, I really wanted to understand this idea of emotional sustainability. How do we actually create a relationship with our objects, a relationship with our surroundings, that is more sustainable? That's healthier, but also that isn't about this cycle of disposability? That we can find things that are timeless by tapping into these, maybe, primal impulses, that we can actually find something that we know is going to resonate again and again and again.
Debbie: Let's go back a little bit to how you got to this moment in time, how you came up with this thesis, how you wrote this book. I want to start by going back just a little bit, to, March 24th, 2012. The day of your 32nd birthday, and the day you had some tingling in your feet. You put off getting it checked up on, you were worried that it might be bad news and you didn't want to face it, you were very busy with work. Talk about that particular time in your life and how it led you to the first steps in taking this adventure, into understanding the science of joy.
Ingrid: Well, wow, it's a time that I never want to go back to in my mind, because it really was a period of stagnation, and I think we all go through those periods, right? And I think, in many ways, I had been neglecting this work. I had set off on this journey in, I guess, 2008, it began, and then, 2009, was when I really dove into it. And then, I got the most amazing job offer on the same day that I presented this work as my thesis. And so, I went to work at IDEO, and that was the job offer I was never going to turn down. But, it meant that, I was working on this on the side. And for a while, I was just full steam ahead. And then, over time, I put it on hold. Like you put so many things on hold to really focus on what I was doing day to day. And I think, it was just a period when so many things weren't moving forward.
Ingrid: I wasn't able to find someone to be with, right? I was sort of dating and having lots of bad dates. And I went to the doctor and the doctor was like, "Maybe it's time to start talking about freezing your eggs." And these pressures were coming at me and I was thinking, I just, and I was going to a wedding after wedding after ... baby announcements were coming in and I just felt stuck, life wasn't moving forward. And I had a work trip to Ireland that got canceled.
Debbie: But you had done a lot of research about this trip, you'd really put a lot of time and planning into extending the trip to do some things for yourself.
Debbie: For the first time in a long time, and then, it gets canceled.
Ingrid: Exactly, and then it got canceled. And I came home and I was so upset about it. I was like irrationally upset about this trip getting canceled, and I came home and all the tabs were still open on my browser. And I just looked at it and I checked my airline, my balance and I was like, "I'm just doing it." And it was really funny when I went into work after, because I was like, "I'm going to Ireland." And they're like, "Wasn't it canceled?" And I'm like, "I'm going anyway." Like, "I have to go."
Debbie: So there.
Ingrid: "I'm going." And so, yeah, and I went and it was this incredible. I mean, first of all, I allowed myself to rest for the first time in a very long time. And I just took lots of log box, and it was so green, it was so .... I mean, Ireland and it was March, was so incredibly green and it just felt like something came alive again. And that started me thinking about this power of renewal and how our surroundings can actually instill a sense of motion in us when we ourselves feel stagnant. I think, psychology puts a lot of pressure on us to initiate that from within. And actually, to feel it from without was really powerful. And it did send me back on the course of bringing this to life.
Debbie: I'd like to read a paragraph if you don't mind, about how you describe this experience, because it's really poignant and beautiful. You said this about the experience in Ireland, "Natural environments can restore our emotional resources, refilling the reserves that get depleted in everyday life. This was part of the effect I experienced in Ireland to be sure, yet the feeling was deeper and more profound. It wasn't just restoration, but wholesale renewal. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the disappointment of my unfulfilled wishes, it was like this slate had been wiped clean, and I was starting fresh, right where I was, imperfect, but complete." How and why do you think that happened?
Ingrid: I think that certain landscapes have a ... I mean, many natural landscapes, but I think certain landscapes have a power to elicit this kind of renewal. And I think that a lot of it has to do with feeling a sense of motion in the world around us. I think that the man made world is so static. And I think it's easy in a static environment, to feel like everything is the same, everything is unchanging and it will never change. And I think so much of, this idea of joy is that, joy is like a wave, our emotions are like waves. And I think, when we believe that we're supposed to have this constant happiness, that really does us disservice, because, this constant happiness, when we actually don't have it, we feel like that's going to be constant too. And yet we know, right? When we're in a moment of intense joy, sometimes where can be almost fearful, right? Because we know that it's not going to last forever, and that it does go in waves.
Ingrid: And so, I think, embracing that wave like quality, is really helpful. And when you are at a low, to be surrounded by something that is changing and moving, like that dynamic spring, like everything was coming back to life. And everything was curving and rising and feeling that you can take in that energy. And for me, that energy was what I needed to go back and say, "Okay, it's a rut, it's not good, but it won't last forever." And I did eventually go to the doctor, and found out I was okay.
Debbie: You feel you were okay.
Ingrid: I was actually just suffering from really severe anxiety that I didn't realize, because I was ... and actually, hearing that you're okay, is a great way to ease your anxiety.
Debbie: Yeah, certainly puts things in perspective, especially, if you were fearing the worst. But it's so interesting about seeing emotions as waves, it took me a very long time to realize, that when I was feeling down or was feeling depressed, that didn't mean I was going to feel that way forever. And in as much as we might not allow ourselves to feel that full joy because we're afraid of what might happen. And so, I don't want to crash, so I'm just going to cap it right here, the same thing I think can happen with feeling down or depressed, that we feel like, "That's going to last forever. So if I allow myself to feel it, I might never escape." When in fact, I think, it is cyclical, and unless it's something that does require medical attention, which of course is very serious.
Debbie: Sometimes, just allowing yourself to feel that balloon is for a while, allows it to run its course.
Ingrid: Totally, and I think that, what I learned from that experience and really in writing the renewal chapter, the last chapter of the book is really that joy, our joy is proportional to our sadness. And our ability to feel joy is proportional to our ability to feel sadness. And I mean, Brene Brown talks about how joy is the most vulnerable human emotion and you were kind of alluding to that same feeling that sometimes we don't want to let ourselves feel the joy and so we hold ourselves back, because we're afraid of what the low will be like after that. I think similarly, we hold ourselves back from sadness, so we numb, instead. And we find ways to numb so that we don't have to feel the depths of that.
Debbie: Where we get angry instead of sad.
Ingrid: Right, or we find all sorts of other ways to deal with it, when actually, feeling the sadness, it's an amplitude, it's a question of amplitude. And if you don't allow yourself this, then it's really hard to reach this.
Debbie: Yeah, I interviewed Beth Comstock a couple of months ago, and she said, "If you don't allow yourself to fail, you will never allow yourself to succeed." She said it a little better than that. But I think that it's still really profoundly true. I want to go back even a little bit further, because you initially studied English and Creative Writing at Princeton. And I think that your thesis was a novel called Life Blooms.
Ingrid: How did you find that? That is amazing.
Debbie: Your mom is sitting here.
Ingrid: Scary, scary. Now I'm nervous.
Debbie: Well, I did want to know if there was ever going to be a way for us to read it, your thesis, your novel, Life Blooms?
Ingrid: It's so funny that you asked that. I have thought that it would be really good, so, it's a really bad novel. I mean, it's like a really naive novel, because I wanted to write about like 30 somethings, and I was 21, and I really just didn't know what that was like, I really just wish that I had written about people my own age, because it would have been much truer, right? But I had this idea, and I really ... and you know, it's funny because, what that book is about, it's about the question, the central question of the book is, can you make art anywhere, or do certain surroundings influence your art. And it's about a woman who finds herself in a really uninspiring setting, and she has lost her way. And she-
Debbie: You're her whole life.
Ingrid: She decides to go to Paris, to chase after a photographer who she thinks is going to inspire her. And she finds all this inspiration from the place and then she ends up moving home. But, so I've just told you the plot of the novel, so now you don't have to read it. But I often think that it would be really fun to read it and do a story about something in the future, and someone digging out their old novel and bringing pieces of it. So maybe one day, I do think ... so I studied fiction, I think maybe one day I'll come back to fiction. But I do think it would be fun to pull pieces of it back into the world, but I think as a whole, I don't think I want to torture anyone with that.
Debbie: Now, after your undergraduate education, I believe your first job was as a research manager at a firm called Penn Schoen and Berland associates, and you first started working in branding. I mean, we could see, I could see the leap from creative writing to branding, but how did you make that leap? Why branding and positioning and market research.
Ingrid: Creative writing, I wrote that novel and I thought, "Oh my god, I don't want to be a novelist." I turned that in and I was like, "This is not what I want to do." I thought, you know what? I've been really ... I mean, growing up, my favorite subjects were Creative Writing and Biology. I've always been like [crosstalk 00:23:05], I've always had this love of sort of spanning disciplines. And so, I thought, "Well, I've been really focused on Creative Writing, I need to go do something with numbers." I went and I got this job in market research. And what I was doing, was I was testing the covers of all of the Conde Nast magazines. So Vogue and Lucky and Glamour, and I was testing them online every month, versions of them, to see which ones were the strongest.
Debbie: What did you learn? Tell everything.
Ingrid: Well, on Glamour, sex sells. You've got to have the sex cover line as the like the biggest cover line. Of course, Glamour, sadly now passed. Vogue, a Vogue cover that would do well back in the day, was always one that had a little bit of polar, it was a little bit polarizing. Something that, some magazines you just always want to be likable, right? But Vogue always did best when there were a few people that didn't like it. And so, yeah, really interesting. Or like, the other thing that I think is really interesting is, editors would sometimes look and have like the title in a pink type face, or in an orange type face. And they would think, "But I like the pink better." And everyone would say they like the pink better. But when you put it in a sample news stand and see what people wanted to buy, orange would do better.
Debbie: Why do you think that is?
Ingrid: More vibrant, more intense color. It's just interesting ... I mean, I didn't know that then, but now, I think it's the intensity of the color. I think it's interesting sometimes what we think is going to do well, doesn't. And what people say they like, doesn't necessarily translate to what people are going to buy.
Ingrid: Yeah, liking and purchase are totally different things. I started doing this and I realized that, what I was doing each month was helping these magazines tell a story about, like build the brand, right? Because each magazine cover is a chapter in the story. And so, each month what we were doing was trying to solidify and strengthen what that story was. But it was still at the end of the day, just numbers.
Debbie: Why are there always numbers on covers, "683 ways to make him crazy in bed. 182 new ways to wear your same shoes."
Ingrid: People need to know that there's real meat there, it's like the origin of the listicle, it was still on the cover lines back then, but I think we just needed to know that there was going to be meat in there, right? People want the numbers. But at the end of the day, I wasn't designing covers, and I really wanted that. I wanted to move closer to the creative side of things. And so, and I was really interested in branding, and at the same time, I decided I wanted to move to Australia, because that sounded exciting. And so, I moved to Australia and ended up working for a company that was sort of affiliated in the same, it was all by WPP. So it was another WPP company, and I went and I turned up on their doorstep, and I basically said, "I really want to work for you." And they said, "Well, we're not sure we have anything for you but let's just bring in the head of branding. He'll just meet you."
Ingrid: And I was like, "Thank you." And he came in and he figured out what to do with me.
Ingrid: Yeah, he thought, okay, well, he knew I was creative because of the writing. And he knew that I had some, like marketing research experience that he could use. And so, he thought, "This is weird," but, and he became a really incredible mentor for me. And he helped me transition fields, from market research into branding. And he gave me a syllabus of books to read, and I would read them and then come talk to him about them. And he would say, "I think, we want to do innovation work." And I was like, "Okay, what's that? Give me a book." And then, I'd read about it-
Debbie: Well, David Kelly.
Ingrid: Yeah, and then, he would give me books about IDEO, and I would read them. And then, we would try to do workshops and things like that. Yeah, that's how I made that transition. And in fact, when I first started doing brand positioning, I used to write character anecdotes. I used to write them because it was a tool that I knew how to use. I would write about them as if they were a person. And they would write these long narratives to help me understand who this brand is, and what sorts of attributes it should have.
Debbie: Like method acting.
Ingrid: Yeah, kind of. It was like ... but I think what I realized is that, it's all about motivation, the whole thing, right? Creative writing is all about motivation. You're trying to understand who these characters are and what they're doing and you're making it up, but it has to be real. It has to come from real emotions and real drives. And branding is the same, you have to understand what motivates people and what moves them and what drives them, and then, why this brand would do that. And so, it was all connected actually.
Debbie: After this experience, you worked for some of the most prestigious firms in the world. You worked for a time at Redscout, you worked for a time at Landor.
Ingrid: That was Landor in Australia.
Debbie: Oh, so it's when you went to Australia?
Debbie: Oh, nice. And who was your mentor there?
Ingrid: His name is Damian Borchok, and he's still in Australia.
Debbie: He's actually wonderful, really wonderful. I knew him from Omnicom.
Ingrid: Oh, you do?
Ingrid: He's a gem.
Debbie: 2010, big year for you. What led to that, was you were deciding in 2007, to go back to school. What made you decide you needed to go back to school? Here you are, working at Landor, arguably one of the biggest and best branding agencies in the world, Redscout, another. And then, you decide you want to go back to school, to get a master’s degree in Industrial Design. Why?
Ingrid: Okay, I'm at Landor, and I'm sitting next to all these designers. And it was the first time that I really got to work in a disciplinary way, and I had some designers who I got really close to, and we would work really collaboratively together. But I was always kind of looking over at their screens and going, "God, that looks fun." And it is fun. And I just would look over, I mean, they were mostly graphic designers. So it's not the specialty I chose but I thought, "I want to be able ...." it lit a fire in me. I was like, "I want to be able to make things like they do. I want to be able to take an idea that's in my head and not just write about it, but actually, make it. Make it physical, make it tangible." And so, I knew at that point that I wanted to go back to design school. And at that point, I didn't know what kind, I sort of had ideas, but I wasn't sure.
Ingrid: And then, I went on this trip. I went from Singapore to London overland, for four months after I left Sydney. I was leaving Sydney, I was coming back to the U.S., and I thought, "Okay, this is a great opportunity to travel." And so, I just traveled through all sorts of places, and in the meantime, I was reading about design. I bought all these design books to take with me, and I was reading about, and I realized that I wanted something that would let me create things that people could hold, or things that people could sit on, or things that were ordinary everyday things. And I think by watching all these ordinary everyday things in the lives of people, all around the world. That was kind of like, "Oh, I think, I'm attracted to universals." And to me, that was like, it was a universal thing, that making everyday things was really exciting to me.
Debbie: You finish your degree, 2010, you get the big fat job, the job at IDEO. At the very same time, you're also working with Allan Chochinov, to help, you were part of the founding faculty for the SVA master's program in Products of Design. How did all this happen? You graduate, you get one of the biggest best jobs on the planet, and then, you also start working to develop your own master's program.
Ingrid: Yeah, well, Allan was a professor of mine, so I was very, very lucky to have his guidance and mentorship. Yeah, we stayed in touch and he said he was starting this new program and he wanted me to figure out how to teach design research in it. And so, yeah, it was a subject that I really love, this idea of design research. Because again, it's all about motivation and emotion, and the way that we interact with tangible things in the world around us. It was really fun to get to teach that, and I actually have some former students here tonight, which is really exciting, yeah.
Debbie: Let's talk a little bit about IDEO, before we start talking more deeply about your book. How did your work at IDEO help create a pathway towards the book? You're still an IDEO fellow, so it's been nine years now that you've been a part of the IDEO family, talk a little bit-
Ingrid: I'm actually not anymore.
Debbie: Oh, okay.
Ingrid: I transitioned out of that role, but I did for a long time, stayed involved-
Debbie: Probably eight years, nine years.
Ingrid: Yeah, I did for a long time stay in IDEO.
Debbie: Tomato tomato.
Debbie: Talk about how that work influenced your thinking about your book?
Ingrid: Yeah, I think people know about the idea of Human Centered Design, and IDEO sort of coinage of it and instrumental role in bringing this philosophy out into the world. But I think for me, I didn't really understand it until I was in inside, and I think getting to practice it in such a deep way. I mean, I think one of the things that is wonderful about IDEO, is you spend a lot of time in people's homes, and in their lives, and in their fridges, and in their medicine cabinets, really trying to ... and with their permission, trying to understand how design works in their lives. It was for me, an opportunity to get to see people's emotional engagement with all sorts of things, and really get to do it in a really outside my bubble. Because I think it's hard to get outside that bubble. And so, at IDEO, I mean, I was working on things like, designing tools to help people not lose their homes when they get a mortgage, right? How can they choose mortgages that are not going to leave them underwater later?
Ingrid: How, I know, it's complicated, but I think, we actually did design a set of tools that was about helping you understand what you can really afford, because most people go and they ask a lender to tell them what they can afford. Instead of actually, figuring out what they can afford before. And most lenders, credit is taken significantly but lenders still offer and tell you can afford more than you can actually afford. So being able to understand, educate people on the dynamics of mortgages and things like that. For example, being able to sit in Bakersfield California with someone who has lost their home and understand what that actually looks like. I mean, it's been really interesting with the shutdown this week because, I actually did so much work in that space that, for me, I was watching this unfold and thinking about so many people I met, who I knew, in that situation, would be ruined for life, ruined for life based on actions that had nothing to do with them.
Ingrid: Because of how difficult it is to understand the financial system and how abstract it's become, and so, there're couple things that came out of that for me. One is, just obviously, deep empathy, and really understanding people and wanting to understand people and their motivations and where things come from, and so that's one piece of it. But also I think this bias toward bringing things back to the physical, has really stayed with me. I think one of the reasons in talking about money, that money is so challenging, is that it's totally an abstraction now. I think that we move money around as numbers on screens, and we actually have no sensorial connection to it anymore. One of the things I saw at IDEO was just how many of these things have been removed from the physical world and how challenging it is for us to understand them, because we're sensorial creatures. Yeah, so it left me with that desire to actually try to nudge us back toward the tangible world even more.
Debbie: I think you do that quite successfully and joyfully. Ingrid's book is called, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. And it's described as being devoted to a simple powerful idea, that our greatest source of joy is the world around us. That there's a clear link between our surroundings, design, and our mental health. When did you first come to realize that connection between surroundings, design, and mental health?
Ingrid: I think it was after I started researching this topic, and I started to see papers that started to clarify things that I had always felt, but I never really knew to be true. For example, this really interesting set of studies, neuroscientific studies on what happens when scientists put people into an FMRI machine, and they showed them pictures of round things and angular ones. And that, when we look at Angular objects, part of the brain called the amygdala lights up. And that part of the brain is associated with fear and anxiety, and yet, when we look at round things, it stays silent. And so, I thought, that's interesting, right? That's happening all the time, and yet, we were not aware of it.
Debbie: And we live in everything angular.
Ingrid: Everything angular, but it makes so much sense when you start to think about the fact that childhood is totally round, right? And that you have hula hoops and balloons and bubbles and balls and merry go rounds and so many things in kids around, they're like rounder versions of adults. And so, that roundness and that the joy we find in roundness, it makes total sense. And then I think, there's other areas like, all the research on the light was really interesting to me because I think, now we have such a focus on the idea that blue light is bad for us at night. And I think we're becoming aware that we're not supposed to look at our devices, it will aggravate our insomnia. And that, now, researchers are starting to classify graveyard shifts as a carcinogen. Because of the level to which circadian rhythm disruption actually affects our whole system. But I think what isn't talked about, is the relationship between, the positive relationship between light and our well being during the day, and how much that is missing from most of our indoor environments.
Ingrid: That most of our indoor environments are really underlit, for what actually can help get them ... when we wake up, we have melatonin, residual melatonin in our systems, and that degrades when we're exposed to light, and that we actually, we don't have enough light to do that. And so, when you look at, for example, Alzheimer's patients, that studies show that when they change the light bulbs in those facilities and put in broad spectrum bulbs, that there's less cognitive decline and less depression among people with Alzheimer's because, their circadian rhythms are better balanced and better regulated. Or that, people with sunnier desks, I found this so interesting in study. People with sunnier desks are more active during the day, and whether they're at work or not, and they sleep better at night. Because, again, their circadian rhythms are in better balance.
Ingrid: These things are so subtle, and yet, this picture was starting to emerge for me that we are really shaped by our surroundings. Our well being is really shaped by our surroundings, and no one's telling us about this.
Debbie: But yet, there's so many pursuits of happiness now, that are about looking inward, instead of looking outward. And things like shape, and light, and color, really do impact us, as much as, if not more so than looking deep inside.
Ingrid: Yeah, I mean, I think that looking inside is really important too. I would never say it's either or, but I do think that, because psychology has ignored this for so long, we are left without a dialogue between the two. So if we go to a therapist, we're usually told to do the introspective work, and that's great. But we've lost our understanding of what happens when you're on a street corner and someone honks really loudly and you get rattled, right? And then you go into your next interaction and you don't really think about that but, all of these sensations around you are impacting you in what you take into the next thing. And so for me, I'm hoping to cultivate more dialogue around that.
Debbie: Tell me about chromophobia. What is chromophobia? I think I might suffer from it. I think a lot of people might don't laugh, I think a lot of people in this room suffer from [crosstalk 00:40:18].
Ingrid: A lot of New Yorkers I think, suffer from chromophobia. I suffered from chromophobia, so I'm a recovering Chromophobe. I know, but I am a recovering chromophobe.
Debbie: So tell us what it is.
Ingrid: It's a fear of color, fear of color. And it sounds like something you wouldn't be afraid of.
Debbie: I think I suffered from it.
Ingrid: Is it phobia? Or is it just you just-
Debbie: Oh no, it's phobia. Yeah, now it's phobia. I actually feel fluorescent, if I were gay. How do we overcome our chromophobia?
Ingrid: Okay, I think maybe, it helps to just talk about a little bit about the roots of chromophobia and why we have it, because I think that's what helps us overcome it. One of the things that I noticed in my research is that, consistently, color is one of the most obvious aesthetics of joy, it's the most salient. And if you look at celebrations around the world, right? You'll always see vibrant color, it doesn't matter where you go. And the costumes will be different, and the decorations will be different, but there'll always be color. But, I think what's happened over time, is that color has been acquainted with joy, which has been equated with childishness, with a sense of primitiveness often. In colonial times, it was associated with primitive peoples and so, in Western cultures, people wanted to distance themselves from. You have Goethe writing in his theory of colors that, savage nations-
Debbie: I can read it for you.
Ingrid: Oh, can you? Okay good.
Debbie: It's a great quote, I was gonna ask you about it. 200 years ago, Goethe wrote this in his theory of colors. "Savage nations, uneducated people and children, have a great predilection for vivid colors. But that people of refinement, avoid vivid colors in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them all together from their presence."
Ingrid: And this is what we live with, we have this baggage, this cultural baggage of this attitude. And I think there's a lot of, at minimum ethnocentrism in that statement. But really, some veiled racism and some veiled sexism, not even veiled. And we hold ourselves back from color often because it is associated with all these things, or we fear will be associated with those things, and then it becomes hard to find our way back to it. And I think that there's another piece of it too, which is that, the historian, John Stilgoe, talks about how people used to be educated on how to look at things, how to look, how to see the color in the world around us. And I think, for all the designers in the audience, and most of you are, you probably had a moment when you were in design school where you suddenly, you took color classes and you just felt, "Oh my god, I can see things I never saw before. And maybe for me, that was especially intense because I came to design late, I was already like, I had no real training and design before I went back to school at Pratt, and so, those first color classes were like wool lifted off my eyes.
Debbie: Albers shades squares!
Ingrid: Yes, it really felt profound to be able to see in this way, was like a deep seeing into ordinary life. And so, I think, many of us do not have the education around it, and then, we also don't feel like we have permission to use it. And so, together, those things can be daunting to dive into color. And it's so much safer both socially and aesthetically sometimes to sort of stay with neutrals.
Debbie: If you had one piece of advice, if you wanted to take one small step into a rainbow of color, what would you suggest for those of us that suffer from chromophobia?
Ingrid: I always say start small, start with, there are a few things. So start with, if it's in your home, start with consumables. I think consumables are the best way to start, because you know that they're going to be used up, so candles. I always buy candles instead of buying white candlesticks, I buy them in bright colors. Because, if I don't like it, it's just going to burn up and then I don't have to worry about it. That's one thing. Also, shopping your home, you probably have color like all over your house that you don't realize you have, because it's not aggregated, so that's why I color code my bookshelves, because books are a form of color that most people have in their homes, and so that's another thing you can do. And then, like if it's what you're wearing, pick something small. Shoes, scarf, something that's just an accent. But I know that when people do that, they often start to get so many comments and compliments, that it helps build the confidence. So I think-
Debbie: I would think it was the opposite, like I don't want to cause more attention.
Ingrid: Attention, right. Well, we don't want attention, then that can generally increases the amount of attention you find yourself getting, but, yeah.
Debbie: You've written extensively on the impact design has had on both hospitals and schools, especially, where there has been severe trauma, in a place like Sandy Hook, but you talk a bit about a Danish hospital that heals with color. Can you talk a little bit about how different environments can help people improve their state of well being, a state of mental health, feel safer via the use of color or aesthetics?
Ingrid: Sure. I think this is a very emergent space, the study of this, but there's some really interesting early studies that have propelled things forward. One was a study at a mental institution, it was a psychiatrist working at a mental health facility, and he found that patients with bipolar disorder were discharged sooner when they had east facing rooms rather than west facing rooms. And he eventually figured out that it was because of the morning light that they were getting being in an east facing room that influence them so profoundly. And then, Roger Ulrich, who has studied the influence of nature and aesthetics on health for really long time. He did a study years ago that showed that people recovering from gallbladder surgery, left the hospital sooner when they had a green view at their window as opposed to a brick wall.
Ingrid: There're studies that are starting to show that, nature, light, and sometimes color, can have a positive influence on us when we're trying to heal, and when we're trying to learn. Similarly, I think in schools, the view out a window is often considered a distraction, and for a long time teachers didn't want students to have that because they were worried that students would be daydreaming and just gazing out the window. When in fact, research shows that, students with ADHD, when they have a window to look out of, and they look out over a green view, their concentration is actually better.
Debbie: And how come? Why is that?
Ingrid: With nature in particular, there's a theory called attention restoration theory. And the idea is that, it's passively stimulating. It's not aggressively stimulating, it's not like TV, it's not capturing our attention, but when we look at natural scenes that they help to restore our attentional capacity. And so, this is the capacity that we have to make decisions, to focus, to concentrate on focused work, deep work, and that gets depleted over time. For some reason, natural texture scenes help to restore that, and researchers still don't know exactly why there are certain theories. One interesting stream of research has to do with fractals, and that there're fractals, many natural scenes have fractal qualities, and that, when people look at these types of fractals that elicits certain brainwave patterns that are [crosstalk 00:48:33] return. Yes, that are associated with wakeful relaxation.
Ingrid: Again, it's still being pieced together but the research shows that certainly, natural scenes like those things have very clear research behind them. Oder is another thing that seems to have very clear research behind it, that when we have exposure to orderly scenes, we are not only calmer but actually our behavior changes. Studies at the University of Chicago showed that, people are less likely to cheat on a test when they viewed orderly scenes, visually orderly scenes rather than disorderly scenes. So these things, I think, again, they unconsciously influence our attitudes and our behavior. And that, it's amazing to think that we are not always who we think we are, right? That our context can actually change how we show up. And so, to me, the idea that we would want to create environments that help people heal, that help people learn, that help people in poverty, help move themselves out of poverty, by showing at minimum, that our surroundings are alive, and that they're not inert and dead.
Debbie: One other thing that I found incredibly helpful about your book was the worksheets. Talk a little bit of what made you decide to include the sort of interactive part of the book that people can choose to use very individually?
Ingrid: I feel like, since we were talking about IDEO. This is one of the lasting impacts of IDEO, is that, you're always thinking about how do you make this more active? Right? And how do you help people? IDEO is so well known for how generous they are with tools, right? And that they release so many of the tools that IDEO use on a daily basis, get released to the public for free. And to me, I really wanted people to be able to take this forward in their own lives and if you're designers, to be able to apply it to project. And so, I wanted to create something that actually helps you do that.
Debbie: I have one more question for you, and it really goes back to the beginning of our conversation when we were talking about renewal. And another quote that I'd like to read of your writing, you write this about the topic of joy and renewal, "We find this joy of renewal in many different moments and contexts. 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 described the pleasure of rediscovering the world through the naive eyes of a child, gaining a renewed flush of wonder, at well worn, at well worn joys."
Debbie: And the whole notion of well-worn joy has stayed with me throughout your book. And so, I wanted to ask you, what is one thing any member of the audience can go and do tonight or tomorrow, to try and rediscover the world through the naive eyes of a child, and try to find some of those well-worn joys all over again?
Ingrid: Oh, wow. It's such a points toward such a powerful entry point into this for people. And I think I would just say, if you can go back and remember something you love doing as a child, because that's something I've done a lot as part of this process, is just to keep going back and saying, "What brought me joy when I was little? And why? And do I do that anymore? Or have I stopped doing it for some reason?" I think asking that question can be a portal to rediscovering joy.
Debbie: Ingrid, thank you so much. Thank you for joining us here today. Thank you. Thank you for helping us understand how to create a more joyful experience and world. I want to thank the New York chapter of the AIGA with a special big fat shout out to Stacey Panousopoulos, who does everything for everyone, and is just an extraordinary force of nature. Ingrid's brilliant book is titled joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. Thank you so much for coming and joining us tonight. And Ingrid.
Ingrid: Thank you, thank you so much.