Ingrid Fetell Lee
Ingrid Fetell Lee is a trained industrial designer and former design director at IDEO at work on a book called Joyful, expected out in Fall 2018. She is particularly interested in the ways aesthetics influence our emotions.
I trained as an industrial designer at Pratt and spent the last 6 years at IDEO where I was a design director. It’s been about two years since I left on a sabbatical to start working on a book called Joyful. The book builds on research I started at Pratt, looking at how aesthetics influence our emotion. I look at things like texture, color, pattern, form and the ways that those things affect our emotional well-being and by extension, our physical health, our creativity, our productivity, and our relationships.
One of the things I try to explain is that there is this sense of our surroundings that happens unconsciously. 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. Our surroundings influence our well-being through our senses. We have intuition about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good, but we’ve kind of been told to ignore that. And a lot of design movements have tried to override our natural impulses toward joy, toward color, toward light, toward vibrancy.
A big piece of this is evolution. One of the things I look at is the gap between the environment that we live in now as it has been constructed over many hundreds of years, under different design philosophies, and the environment we evolved for over many, many, many millennia while living as hunter gatherers in nature. I try to understand how our brains and our senses have been calibrated to that environment and what happens when we bring them into this environment, and why intuition sometimes misfires. 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.
Another way to think about 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. We gravitate toward places where there is sunlight, unless we’re in the desert or the height of summer in which case we gravitate toward shade. These are universal patterns in which you can see that we have a kind of shared intuition.
On the aesthetics of joy
I look at things that tend to be considered joyful: bright color, round shapes (hula hoops, merry go rounds, flowers). You can look at a scene or object and dissect it: why does that make me feel the way that it does? What innate joy circuit is it tapping somewhere in our brain? Generally speaking, aesthetics of joy tend to operate whether or not you are aware of them. People can say all day long that they love really jagged, angular furniture in their home, and that may be true. But just because they appreciate it and think it’s beautiful does not override the fact that those little pings are happening inside their brain and setting them on edge. My recommendation is that by adding some of these deeper, more universal aesthetics of joy in your life, you can replenish what is often missing in the built environment.
Our best selves
Emotional tenor affects a lot of the things we do. If these aesthetics really bring more joy, we become more affectionate, more open, more collaborative, creative, willing. So, how can we use our environments to help us get the best out of ourselves? Or the best out of people who are coming to work each day, or going to school each day, or happen to be in the hospital, or moving through a crowded city? How can we actually shape the environment and insert things that are going to bring out our best selves, because our best selves are essentially context dependent?