A simple trick to help you get inspired

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Recently, I’ve been working on designing our outdoor space at the house. One of the reasons we chose to live out here is that from April through October we get to live a big part of our lives outdoors. For us, summer is all about spending the day in a swimsuit, coming back from the beach and jumping into the pool, going to the farm to pick veggies, and then cooking it up on the grill in the evening. Our summer life is a joyful life, one that keeps us going through the darkest winter days. And with Covid still lingering, having an outdoor space to socialize is extremely helpful right now.

But for months now, I’ve been stuck on designing this area of our home. Our outdoor space isn’t huge, but we’re lucky to have a pool and a covered deck that gives some refuge from the intense summer sun. We bought a few new pieces last year, but it was August before most of them actually arrived. We used the time to do some landscaping and prototype layouts with our old furniture. One day at lunch we moved the dining table out to the patio, and then halfway through the meal, we got up and moved it back to the gravel area snugged in next to the house. This time was useful for helping us figure out how we wanted to use the space, but it felt like a hodgepodge. There was never a chair or table where you needed one, and it didn’t make it feel natural or easy to be outside.

This year, our goal was to make the space really inviting, so we couldn’t resist being outside. Determined to get a jump on supply chain issues, I decided to start early. I began searching for outdoor furniture and saving things to Pinterest. I made a moodboard of things that caught my eye and it was… meh. I didn’t hate what I’d picked, but I couldn’t really tell if I liked it either. I tried to close my eyes and visualize my ideas, but I couldn’t get a clear picture of what I wanted for the space. I was just about to give up and order a few things to fill the gaps when I stopped myself. The last thing I needed was to spend hard-earned money on things I didn’t really love.

Here are my “meh” moodboards for the patio and deck areas. There’s a lot of nice stuff on here (some of which I actually ended up buying), but they don’t really give me any feeling. It’s kind of like looking at a catalogue.

At this point, I decided to take a bit of my own medicine.

I printed out the worksheets from Module 1 of the Design a Home You Love course and started following the process I created years ago. It didn’t take long for me to realize the problem: INSPIRATION. I didn’t have any. In fact, these were the most uninspired inspiration boards I’d ever created.

After so many years of designing my own spaces, I’d gotten a little overconfident, and assumed I could skip a few steps along the way. I also felt pressured to order things before the lead times got too long, and was worried that I couldn’t afford the time to get inspired, so I took a shortcut and dove into product options early. This left me trying to make decisions about tables and fabrics without having a clear idea of what feeling I wanted those things to create.

When I came to the part of the worksheet that asked, How do I want this space to feel? — everything changed. The words that came to mind were: lush, paradise, relaxed, rooted, beach vacation, sun-soaked, playful. One of the things I love about living in a seasonal community is that I literally live where people go on vacation. I want my outdoor space to make me feel like I’m on permanent vacation, even if I’m only there for a 30-minute writing break.

With this idea now clear, I turned to the next question. Thinking about these feelings, where and when have you felt those? I thought of my travels around Europe and the colorful beach umbrellas on the Cote d’Azur. I thought of the pool at the riad we stayed at in Morocco. I thought of Hawaii and Palm Springs. This reminded me of Slim Aarons photographs, of my grandparents’ backyard, of gardens I’d visited and snapped photos of, thinking “One day….”

With this new inspiration, I made new moodboards. I stopped thinking about products for the moment and started thinking about the feeling I wanted to create in our backyard. And just like that, things got a lot clearer. I found my images sorted themselves into four directions.

  • Colorblock. This uses pairings of strong colors and is the most playful of all the directions.
  • Sunshine. Like a tall glass of lemonade on a hot summer day, these bright pops of yellow are pure sunshine. This one reminds me of my Nana, who used this color a lot in her home.
  • Cabana stripes. Joyful stripes, which are full of beachy memories for me, possibly using different color options for different zones in the yard.
  • Lush greens. This direction focuses on the greenery and verdure, and lets everything else be a kind of calming complement to them.

Here are my new moodboards.

Can you feel the difference? These boards feel alive to me. I look at them and feel transported to places I want to go. I feel inspired to go create a space that we’re going to love.

This might seem really simple. Duh! Of course you want to get inspired before diving into design. But my takeaway from this experience is how tempting it is to get sucked into viewing products as the solution to a design problem. I teach a process for making sure that design is inspired by what brings you joy, and even though I’ve seen this process work again and again for me and hundreds of my students, I still skipped the most important part when I felt pressured to make it happen.

The irony is that I ended up losing time. All those weeks swirling in ambivalence about furniture set me back, and it wasn’t until I went back a step that I finally started to move forward. Once I did, a few important things happened:

My process started moving again. Seeing this inspiration helped me realize that my design ideas were all driven mostly by textiles. This meant that I could keep the furniture really simple, and put my focus instead on choosing colors and patterns. I hit “checkout” on a few pieces feeling confident I’d made the right choices.

I stopped feeling overwhelmed. Before, I found myself wading through endless product options on websites. But now I could rule a lot of things out because it was easy to see what didn’t work. For example, now that I knew how I wanted the space to feel, I realized that more froufy bohemian seating I was drawn to didn’t fit with my overall vision. This is an important realization because it narrowed my choice set, making it easy to move forward.

I felt excited. Perhaps most important, the outdoor space design went from being a chore I had to complete to a project I was excited to work on. I ordered swatches, browsed local nurseries for pots, and started sketching out cushion schemes with paints. I felt like I was playing, and this also made it easier to involve Albert in the process, because he could feel my enthusiasm and get excited as well.

Unfortunately, designing our homes can often turn into an exercise in consumption. We see a need, start searching, and before we know it we’re deep in a product rabbit hole, aimlessly searching for a coffee table or cushion that will solve all our design dilemmas. The design industry just reinforces this. After all, it’s in manufacturers’ interest to make us believe that the solution to our home pain points is a “Buy now” button.

But designing a home isn’t an act of consumption. It’s an act of creation. When we tune into how we want to feel in our homes, the stuff becomes less important. We can see the experiences we’re going to have, the life we’re going to live in that space. Emotions are critical to that inspiration process because they give us the visceral understanding of what we’re trying to create. Rather than just looking for what we like, it helps to focus on how we want to feel.

Craving fresh inspiration for your home? I’m hosting a free online workshop, The 5 Secrets to Designing a Joyful Home. In this hour-long live session, we’ll do a series of exercises to help you see your home with fresh eyes and get inspired to make changes that will bring you more calm and joy at home. I only do this once a year, so don’t miss out! Sign up for free here.

April 16th, 2022


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    Discussion (8 Comments)

  1. Marisa on April 17, 2022

    This is lovely! Thanks for sharing. Just meditating on the idea of a space that has brought joy and sheltered positive memories is simultaneously comforting and motivating. Can’t wait to take your class. 

  2. Cheryl Pluim on April 17, 2022

    What an excellent post! Thank you for your inspiration! It’s just what I needed.

  3. Alexandra on April 17, 2022

    What would I do without your wise bits of advice, Ingrid? I get this stuck feeling a lot lately, especially because I recently moved into a new place and don’t know how to make it my own yet.  I liken your advice from this post to the idea of starting with the big picture, broadly, then going into specifics later. It also reminds me of my stress-free approach to doing my makeup. I used to spend what felt like an hour in front of the mirror. But one day I realized, no one is scrutinizing my face except for me; why not do a quick once-over and brush on mascara on a lash here or there to get the overall look of long lashes, dab a little cream blush to give the look of healthy glow, and head out the door? I don’t know if my analogy makes sense but I hope it does, haha. 

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on April 19, 2022

      I love this analogy, Alexandra! Letting go of the pressure creates so much space for joy!

  4. Jessica on April 18, 2022

    I love this! Would love to see a pic of the finished space whenever it’s ready!

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on April 19, 2022

      Oh yes! I forgot to mention that I’ll be posting the results here!

  5. Kat on April 19, 2022

    Thank you for reminding me about this very important step! I don’t love the current setup in my apartment, and have bought way too many pieces without considering how they will end up feeling a few weeks in.

  6. Cindi on April 19, 2022

    Your story is interesting; we can all forget what we know sometimes. But what really struck me about your initial mood boards was a total lack of color! And your book Joyful is the one that validated my need for color, and that I share with others to suck them into my joyful color-filled journey. So I’m curious how that wasn’t the first thing in your mind… something else going on in your life maybe? Anyway I’m glad you got back on track 🙂


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