{the joy of} celebrating your quirks

25 February 2015 by Ingrid


It’s not easy being green, Kermit the frog has said, and with that voiced the sentiments of many a small minority. It’s hard to live in a world that’s not designed for you. And this is especially true for lefties, who, at only 10% of the population, often find it awkward (at best) or dangerous (at worst) to live in a right-handers’ world.

Enter Arthur Foliard, who has designed a concept store for left-handed people, rather straightforwardly named Left Store. With a vibrant, candy-colored palette, Left creates a playful, welcoming space a group of people who may feel overlooked. It’s not 100% clear what you can buy at the Left Store, but it seems meant to highlight lefties’ fabled creative side, with books, music, and movies by left-handed cultural icons like Alfred Hitchcock and Sigmund Freud.

This is the second post in a week (the first is here) where I’ve highlighted design that calls attention to human differences in a positive way, rather than hides them. For a long time, left-handedness was considered a defect, and children were forced to use their right hands instead of their left in school. Historically, there has also been a language bias against lefties, with the Latin word sinister meaning both “left” and “unlucky,” and the French word gauche meaning both “left” and “awkward.” In English, this persists subtly with right being synonymous with “correct.” All of which is to say that lefties haven’t always been considered the intriguing creative types. More frequently, they’ve been seen as clumsy, weird, or even cursed.

It’s nice to see design that reclaims a deviation from the norm, and makes it something to celebrate. After all, it’s the intersections of these quirks that give rise to serendipity, and therefore joy. In a world where everyone is the same, or where we’re all trying to be the same, there are few opportunities to be surprised by one another. When we revel in our oddities, we’re free to tell much more interesting stories about ourselves, and hear these stories from others. What these designs make me think is that there’s a role for aesthetics in cultivating tolerance. If we misjudge based on what’s on the surface, let’s play around with the surface. Aesthetics give us great power here.

If you really look at it, the Left Store looks less like a retail concept, and more like a party. And that seems just about right.


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Images: courtesy of Arthur Foliard

Objects of affection: Aesthetic prosthetics

19 February 2015 by Ingrid

Aesthetic prosthetics NYT

Prosthetics are hard to design for many reasons. They’re technically complex, requiring intricate engineering to allow for comfortable and accurate movement. They’re inherently customized, requiring precise measurements (they’re almost never one-size-fits-all). And they’re expensive, using many high-tech materials that can be finicky and hard to work with. But perhaps the most important reason prosthetics are hard to design is emotional, not physical. Prosthetics are replacements. They are designed to fill a loss, or an absence, of something integral to a person’s body. And designing anything to fill a void must acknowledge the pain of that void.

For a long time, prosthetics design did this by mimicry. Creating ever more realistic body parts, with skin-like textures and subtle movements, was a way to comfort amputees and those with birth defects. They offered the promise of something resembling normal. But now we are seeing a new wave of prosthetic design that goes in an entirely different direction. Instead of trying to help people with missing limbs or extremities blend in, they’re making them stand out. The NYT describes these new prosthetics:

They are not designed to look like replacement parts. One popular model, the Cyborg Beast, looks like a limb from a Transformer. The Raptor Hand and Talon Hand 2.X do not suggest disability; they hint at comic-book superpowers. And they are not made to be hidden — indeed, they can be fabricated in a variety of eye-catching fluorescent colors, or even made to glow in the dark.

How liberating this must be, and not just physically. Instead of hiding a deficiency and hoping no one notices, a wearer of these new prosthetics declares their differences publicly and proudly. With bright colors and superhero-esque shapes, they look like high-tech pieces of athletic equipment or cool gadgets. And especially for kids, who may have been teased for their disability, it transforms stigma into something exciting and futuristic.

Prosthetics NYT

This story is all the more interesting because the shift in aesthetics was not intentional. It was a byproduct of a technological advance: the spread of 3D printing. Many children used to struggle without prosthetics because they were too small to manage the complex devices. They also grow too fast to be able to wear one for long, and the expense of constantly replacing and refitting was too much for many families. But as 3D printing technology has become cheaper and more widespread, designers have created prosthetic hands that can be printed out and assembled like a lego kit. The materials often cost less than $50, and designers share the files open source, so anyone can use them. It’s not easy to create hyper-realistic parts on a 3D printer, but it is easy to create ones in bright, fun colors, and so a new prosthetic aesthetic was born.

Joy has a strong relationship to feeling “whole.” Not being whole, but feeling it. These designs suggest that sometimes the best way to make people feel whole is not to try to fill a space with an approximation of what was lost, but to fill it with something totally different, and celebrate it. 

Source: NYT

Images: 1, Kevin Liles; 2, Leah Nash, NYT

Let’s dance

16 February 2015 by Ingrid

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A few weeks ago I read an op-ed in the NYT by ecologist George Monbiot describing our contradictory attitudes towards freedom. While we covet some freedoms (freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from excess government regulation), we can be awfully complacent about others. One passage keeps echoing in my head.

Even the freedoms we do possess we tend not to exercise. We spend hours every day watching other people doing what we might otherwise be doing: dancing, singing, playing sports, even cooking. We venture outdoors to seek marginally different varieties of stuff we already possess. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers/Little we see in Nature that is ours,” wrote William Wordsworth, and it is truer today than it was then.

As I read this, my mind started to fill in Monbiot’s list of things we watch rather than do with examples, and it started to sound awfully like primetime TV: singing (The Voice), dancing (with the Stars), cooking (Top Chef, Iron Chef, Master Chef). We even watch others play. The most popular clips from the Tonight Show are those that feature celebrities playing party games like Catchphrase, Password, and charades. Instead of having friends over, we watch Jimmy Fallon have friends over. Apparently, we don’t even play our own video games anymore. I learned recently about a site called Twitch, where people watch recordings of other people playing video games. In 2014, more than 16 billion minutes were spent watching each month.

Of course, some passive entertainment is a necessary part of a balanced life. We can’t be on all the time, and we all succumb to the soft embrace of the sofa sometimes after a long day or week. But what Monbiot’s words made me realize is that we work so hard, that work has become the locus of our doing. When we actually have leisure time, we are often too exhausted to use it in active way. And so we have become the wallflowers of our own lives.

And this is bad news for joy. Yes, there is pleasure in witnessing virtuosity, or in being captivated as a story unfolds. But our greatest joys tend to come when we’re absorbed in an experience: touching, moving, smelling, feeling it all around us. When we consign ourselves to a life of screen-based leisure, we lose a wealth of sensations. We give ourselves over to a pre-defined narrative, losing any opportunities for serendipity. We give away our precious attention, and miss opportunities to connect with the people who matter most.

All of this hit home for me recently when, inspired by the terror of having to take the floor for our first dance together at our wedding, Albert and I decided to take some dance lessons. I had been thinking of it as another item on the to-do list, a thing we had to do to make sure we didn’t embarrass ourselves in front of friends and family. But when we left the first class, we couldn’t stop talking about how much fun we’d had. In that first lesson, all we learned was how to count time, do some basic East Coast swing steps and a “lady’s spin,” but it was enough to spark joy. We got to move together. We felt the music much more deeply than if we’d just been listening to it. When we were in sync, it was thrilling. When we were out of sync, we laughed. When I spun around and he caught me, it felt like magic.

Now, we practice our moves in the kitchen while cooking dinner, stepping on each others’ feet while waiting for water to boil. It’s a small thing, but I’m grateful that we had a nudge to do it, because we’re so busy there’s no way we would’ve thought to go dancing otherwise, and now we’re talking about making it a regular thing.

What I take away from Monbiot’s piece is that the design of the world is increasingly insulating us from the kinds of amusements that stir our bodies and minds, and nudging us toward ones that subdue them. As designers, it’s worth reflecting on the unintended consequences of our work—a new app design might be very entertaining and sticky, but does it help people do things, or is it just a forum for more watching?

Not to mention we can all use a reminder that simply getting involved in something brings the greatest potential for joy. Dancing is now emblematic of this idea for me, and I love the print above as a reminder. If you really want to keep the idea top of mind, you can get even the print as a phone case, and it will be with you wherever you go.

Image: Ce Soir On Va Danser, by Galaxyeyes on Society 6


Collaboration: Redesign for Joy with Studio 360

13 February 2015 by Ingrid

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Hi friends,

I’m excited to share the beginning of a new collaboration with Studio 360, the radio show produced by PRI and hosted by Kurt Andersen. As part of their long running series of redesigns, I’ll be working with some of my IDEO colleagues to reimagine one of life’s more unpleasant experiences, and make it more joyful.

What do we mean by unpleasant experiences, you ask? Good question. We’re thinking about places you kind of dread going, like the DMV, or things you have to do but wish they weren’t so joyless, like doing your taxes, or cleaning the house. The kinds of things that don’t regularly feature on this blog, in other words. 

And the best part is, you get to decide what we design! All you have to do is tweet or instagram a place or experience that you think needs more joy to me, @ingridfetell@studio360show or @ideo with the hashtag #bringjoy. We’ll pick one, and then use the ideas from Aesthetics of Joy (and some designer’s ingenuity!) to transform it into something that makes you smile.

I chatted with Kurt about joy, design, and why this topic is so important to me on this week’s show. You can listen to the segment here

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that the whole reason I do keep writing this blog and keep researching this topic is to make joy tangible, to find ways to bring more of it into the objects and structures that surround us. I believe that the world was not “designed for joy,” and there are so many places that could benefit from a spark of warmth, light, and beauty. So for me this is a truly exciting opportunity to get to practice what I’ve been preaching over the past few years, and to do it with my brilliant IDEO colleagues, who care so deeply about putting truly human-centered design work out into the world. I’m so grateful to both IDEO and Studio 360 for making this happen!

So, please submit your ideas, and share with others. And stay tuned for more updates over the next month as we work to #bringjoy to one of life’s most trying experiences!


Object of affection: A giant hot air balloon swing

11 February 2015 by Ingrid

01  Balloon Swing  Lockhart Krause Architect

Do you remember the feeling of swinging as a child, pumping your feet to go so high you thought you’d either flip over the top, or even better, launch into flight? But of course growing up we never had a swing quite like this: the Cloud Hopper, attached to a hot air balloon, yet safely tethered to the ground in a public park. 

Before we all get too excited, I should caveat that this installation, by Australian architect Jessie Lockhart-Krause, is at this stage just a proposal. Lockhart-Krause has entered it into a sculpture competition called Folly 2015. The winner will have their installation built in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, and it will open to the public in May. 

But what a proposal! Bringing together two joyful objects (the playground swing and the balloon) in one design, the Cloud Hopper creates an oasis in the park, where it is possible to feel like you’re floating in the sky, even while still tied to earth. Though visually striking, the actual experience is quite subtle. The balloon lowers to let the rider on, then the air is heated to raise the swing slightly, so that the seat lifts up off the earth, and the rider has the sensation of taking off. 

Cloud Hopper may seem over the top, but in fact that’s exactly what a folly is meant to be. Follies originated in eighteenth century English gardens, where they were built for entertainment (there was no reality TV in those days). Many were “built ruins,” structures that were built already in shambles to resemble Roman temples or Gothic abbeys. But some were quirkier, including my favorite, a building in the shape of giant pineapple in Scotland. 

Follies seem foolish because they are costly structures that serve no purpose other than joy. And yet, why not build for joy? It seems far more beneficial than many other uses of building in cities: to show power, or display status, or to highlight things and increase our desire to buy them. We justify so many other structures because of their “usefulness,” but many hide an emotional agenda we don’t think about. Follies like Cloud Hopper are not useful by our traditional measures. They do not provide shelter nor do they increase our GDP. But they have other uses. They create smiles, and they spark conversations between strangers, and they inspire dreams. Which seems like a good kind of foolishness to me. 

03  Balloon Swing  Lockhart Krause Architect

02  Balloon Swing  Lockhart Krause Architect

05  Balloon Swing  Lockhart Krause Architect

Images courtesy of the architect, Jessie Lockhart-Krause
Via Inhabitat


Object of affection: Tipsy writer

2 February 2015 by Ingrid

Bower TipsyWriter 1

The tipsy writer is a weighted pen holder that wobbles without tipping over. Just the sort of silly object that makes sitting at a desk feel less like a chore, and more like sitting down to play. 

There’s a whole category of objects like this, starting with Weebles, the egg-shaped toy people who famously wobble but don’t fall down. Round-bottomed and weighted, they amaze us with their dogged commitment to their equilibrium. I even designed something similar once. These ceramic cups, below, will similarly bobble around without falling, and even more steadily when they are filled with liquid. 


Objects like this are joyful in their defiance of gravity; they seem governed by their own laws of physics that are different from ours. But I could also imagine it might be meditative, as much as joyful, to watch the tipsy writer right itself. Like a metronome but with its own inertia, feeling out its way to perfect balance.

Via Swissmiss

A joyful death?

28 January 2015 by Ingrid

The Euthanasia Coaster on display at the HUMAN+

We don’t usually think of death as joyful, but that’s the idea behind the Euthanasia Coaster, an extreme provocation that was part of the PhD thesis of Julijonas Urbonas, a designer at the Royal College of Art in London. The concept coaster offers a way for terminally ill people to end their lives through a death-inducing set of drops and loops, which are supposed to invoke a euphoria-like sensation with “surreal dreamlets” before the final loss of consciousness. 

The most interesting aspect of the concept (and let’s be clear this is just a concept, and has not been built anywhere but in the scale model you see above) is the idea that the coaster’s track is the “storyline” of the ride, and therefore of the death it creates. There is the long steep ascent, a moment’s pause at the top to reflect or wave goodbye, and then the near-vertical drop before the intense g-forces in the loop deprive the brain of oxygen and euthanize the rider. Urbonas envisions this as a new kind of death ritual, and even imagines caring spectators coming along to watch (and mourn) as their loved one takes their wild ride to the next world. 

By turns horrifying and thought-provoking, the coaster asks us to question what constitutes a good death, specifically in a situation where someone is experiencing such pain or chronic illness that the ability to choose death is a humane option. The traditional depiction is one that is peaceful, a quiet passing in bed with sufficient pain medications to kind of slowly drift away. The corresponding emotional experience would be something like contentment: calm, as comfortable as possible, and still. The Euthanasia Coaster, on the other hand, is intensely charged, like ecstasy. It involves extremes: speed, elevation, stimulation. And for those who find thrill-seeking makes them feel alive, perhaps this kind of death might allow them to go out at a moment where they feel their humanity acutely. 

I find it’s more frequent these days for people to interrogate the idea of “a happy life” and try to pin down what that means for them. Does it mean more moments of joy? Does it mean a few thrilling peak experiences of transcendence and elation? Does it mean a quiet unruffled state free of anxiety, but also free of excitement? Does it mean diving headlong into struggles, finding meaning and joy but also perhaps discomfort? Different lives, and perhaps different times of life, call for divergent emotional experiences. I’m not sure if there’s anyone who wants to die this way, but just as we find it useful to examine the range of emotions available to us in life, it’s also interesting to question the range possible in death. 

Via Oxy
H/T Alex Gallafent

Vibrant Vlisco

20 January 2015 by Ingrid

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This is about the part of winter where I’m just over it, and yet I realize that we’re still hardly even halfway through. Piled under all my layers (the down coat, the thick sweater, the scarf so big it’s like another sweater), I’m craving a totally different kind of aesthetic, a vibrant shock of color and pattern. Enter Vlisco.

I knew about wax prints from doing some work on a project for kids in Ghana a few years back, but I’d never heard of Vlisco until last night. I came across the Dutch textile manufacturer in a book called Color Hunting, which I’d bought over the holidays to find some new inspiration around what you may know is an evergreen topic for this blog. I was transfixed by the intensity of the colors and the boldness of the patterns. It’s like these images just radiate solar energy. I could sunbathe here all day!

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It’s no accident that the colors of these fabrics are so bright: they are designed this way because of the intensity of the African sun. As they describe in Color Hunting:

To begin with, the ever-present African sun fades virtually all colors; it shines 12 hours a day on every surface, including clothing. Because our original color chart—based on Indonesian batik colors—was unsuitable, we had to develop new colors that could withstand the West African sun. The new colors required a high concentration of dyestuff; as a result, Vlisco colors are highly saturated. The bright, full, warm colors became popular for their appearance and for their quality. Consumers say that even when a Vlisco fabric is totally worn out, the color is still intact—alive.

The reference to Indonesia is interesting, and it speaks to the fact that the wax prints we think of as African actually originated in Southeast Asia. Vlisco (then called P. Fentener van Vlissingen & Co.) figured out a way to mass produce the native Indonesian batik process, which traditionally used wax to mask the patterns before dyeing. But the Indonesian market didn’t like the too-perfect quality of the imitation textiles, and banned them, forcing Vlisco to find a new market for their goods. The Dutch already had been selling European luxury items in West Africa, so the trade lines were already established. The “Dutch wax” style of textiles became wildly successful, and adapted to the styles of the region, so it’s natural that we think of these fabrics as African now.

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Images: courtesy of Vlisco

Wonders never cease

9 January 2015 by Ingrid


Wonders never cease.

The expression itself often comes wrapped in wonder. You hear it after a Hmm… or a Whoa! Because even though it’s a practically universal truth that wonders never cease, we seem always to be astonished when we encounter one. As if wonder were scarce. As if the world’s capacity to dazzle and awe were anything other than endless.

But of course that’s the nature of wonder, to puncture our current reality, which we always think is as big as reality can be, and show us a glimpse of what lies outside our bubble. Science is doing this all the time, mostly behind the scenes. White-coated scientists eke out miracles tucked away in labs, waiting for a ray of sunshine to cast their work into its moment in the light. But I don’t think most scientists believe that creating wonder is part of their job. They find so much joy in their own searches and they dig so deep into the particulars, they often don’t notice the gulf between their own curiosity and the rest of us. Yet science needs wonder, because wonder lights the fuse that burns towards discovery.

So it’s refreshing to see these “travel posters” by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a deliberate attempt for a science pioneer to cultivate the kind of fascination that brings us all along. Branded as being from the “Exoplanet Travel Bureau,” they visualize life on new planets being discovered by Kepler, NASA’s planet-hunting telescope that seeks out other Earth-like planets in our galaxy.


There are many things to love about these, not least their charming retro design and lighthearted tone. But what I love most is that they use facts not as a way to speak to our intellect, but to our emotions. They take measures of gravity, visible light spectrum, and solar relationships, and they recontextualize them in human terms: an experience of super-gravity, a rainforest of red foliage, a land of two shadows. By co-opting that singularly contemporary language of enticement—advertising—NASA makes these places seem inviting, rather than eerie, giving us new appreciation for the staggering variety of worlds beyond our own.

At root, wonder is simply a dance between the strange and the familiar. Here, NASA creates wonder by making the strange familiar: using a known visual and verbal language (posters, destination renderings, taglines) to underscore the oddities many light years away. But it can also work the other way, by making the familiar strange, as in one of my favorite anthropological essays, Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” which I won’t ruin for you if you haven’t read it by describing it here. Either way, collapsing the space between the foreign and the quotidian often yields some kind of aha!

I don’t know whose idea it was at NASA to create these posters, but we need more of this kind of clever. We may never get to see our two shadows on Kepler-16b, or see Kepler-186f’s jungles blush red like Vermont in October, but just knowing they exist makes us able to see our own green, regular gravity, single-sun planet with new eyes. It’s nice to be reminded that wonders never cease in the universe. But just as delightful is to realize our own world is a wonder too.


Download the posters in high-res here.
h/t Ben Swire

Aloha 2015!

7 January 2015 by Ingrid

Aesthetics of joy hawaii rainbow

This new year opened for me in Hawaii, a place I’ve only recently discovered but have come to love over the past year or so. It is the Rainbow State, so of course it makes sense that it is kind of a spiritual home for this blog. And in fact, it’s unusual to spend a week in Hawaii and not see a rainbow. This one appeared as I reached the top of a walk near the Makapu’u Lighthouse on Oahu, a light drizzle falling over a crowd holding up their selfie-sticks to get rainbow selfies for their Instagram feeds.

While I was in Hawaii this time, I learned about something locals call aloha spirit. It came up in conversation with our waitress over dinner one night, about the differences between Hawaii and her native Austin, Texas. “The aloha spirit they talk about is real,” she said. Her hometown she described as “cool”—people there aspired to being cool, to keeping more of a distance. But in Hawaii, the culture is to be warm, caring, generous—“and if you don’t share that, you’re not in the flow of things,” she said.

This reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago, about how cool is the enemy of joy. It’s not cool to be so open and trusting, but it is joyful. And the joy you feel in Hawaii is not just the sunshine or the big skies or the rainbows. It’s the people. Everywhere you go, you end up in conversation. Don’t plan to rush out of the coffee shop or the yoga studio or the supermarket without sharing where you’re from and what you’re up to while you’re here. And if something happens to you, like your car battery dies in the middle of a parking lot, a stranger will come out of nowhere and empty the substantial contents of his trunk onto the floor looking for jumper cables (thanks, Hector!). He will probably offer to take you hiking too.

I’d heard that the word aloha means more than just hello, so I searched for a full definition.

alo: 1. sharing 2. in the present; oha: joyous affection, joy; ha: life energy, life, breath

Using Hawaiian language grammatical rules, we will translate this literally as “The joyful sharing of life energy in the present” or simply “Joyfully sharing life”.

I’ve been dancing around the idea that there is some kind of connection between the aloha spirit I heard about and felt, and the feeling of joy—and there it is, embedded in the definition. Aloha is a joyful way of being, a greeting that is also a philosophy about how to increase joy in the world around us. By being open, by sharing, and by focusing on the positive, we cultivate a more joyful dialogue with others.

It stuck with me when the woman I met described being “in the flow of things,” because it begs the question as to whether one can practice aloha spirit on one’s own. Maybe aloha spirit is an impossible notion in a city like New York, where the flow of things is hectic, rushed, and anonymous. Perhaps that kind of herky-jerky “flow” makes aloha’s other-directed sweetness unsustainable, in the same way that Hawaii’s climate and pace of life foster it. But I do think we can start to make our own flow based on our interactions with the world, and that whether you call it aloha spirit, or generosity, or “go ahead, why don’t you take that seat on the subway,” it can start to ripple outwards.

So, aloha 2015! And here’s to each of us finding our own way of bringing joy to this new year!