Ingrid Fetell Lee thinks there’s an important place for joy in event design because of its ability “to create a sense of cohesion in groups.” (Olivia Rae James photo)
Ingrid Fetell Lee starts off her TED2018 talk — which has more than two million views — with the same story she shares in the introduction of her recently published book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. It’s this: As a student in the industrial design graduate program at Pratt Institute, she was anxiously awaiting feedback from a panel of professors reviewing her work — “a star-faced lamp, a set of round-bottomed teacups, and a trio of stools fashioned from layers of colored foam,” she writes in Joyful. After a long silence, one professor commented, “Your work gives me a feeling of joy.”
Her initial feeling of relief, Fetell Lee says, gave way to confusion. What does that mean? How can objects — the physical world itself — bring us inner joy? Isn’t that something we find by looking inside ourselves?
Such questions propelled Fetell Lee, who had enjoyed a promising career in branding before pursuing design, to find out why certain settings can have a powerful effect on our emotions. Much of this happens, she found, on a subconscious level, and she draws on fascinating insights from neuroscience and psychology for the answers in Joyful.
Because business events are settings for gathering people, Fetell Lee’s insights seem particularly relevant. However, while we place an emphasis on making conferences and conventions experiential, how much thought do organizers give to creating physical environments that make people happy? Is it within our power to spark joy among participants? And what possible effect could such an ephemeral and intangible thing have on their overall experience?
Convene asked Fetell Lee — founder of the blog “The Aesthetics of Joy,” former design director at global innovation design firm IDEO, and former founding faculty member in the Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City — for her perspective. As someone who researches and seeks joy in external things, and from her experience as both a product designer and frequent speaker at events, Fetell Lee offered tangible, simple suggestions for planners to put into practice. And while they might not be able to put their finger on why, attendees likely will be more receptive and participatory — and yes, happier — as a result.
We also reached out to Steelcase Event Experiences, the International WELL Building Institute, and WeWork for additional insights on how to make those temporary environments we build at events leave a lasting impression — see the side- bars throughout.
Organizers want to create events that make attendees feel good about their experience, but I don’t think designing for joy is an item on their to-do list. Most of us think we are responsible for our own happiness. Why is that something that planners should think about fostering in the environments they create?
As you say, I had been raised to believe that joy and happiness are things that come from within, that we’re really not supposed to think too much about our surroundings, and that those things are really trivial. I think we often are made to feel even guilty for investing too much effort or attention into material things and our surroundings.
I wanted to understand the scientific roots of that. So I just started asking people about the things that brought them joy, and I started to notice that there were certain things that came up again and again. And as I started to look at these things — things like tree houses and hot air balloons and confetti and glitter and rainbow sprinkles and rainbows — I started to notice certain physical patterns, because I was a designer.
I noticed that round things seemed to inspire a feeling of joy. And actually, the first thing that I noticed was really that childhood is very round. You have balloons and bubbles and balls and merry-go-rounds and a lot of these round things in childhood. And even kids themselves are round.
So that was one pattern. Another was a sense of multiplicity and abundance. Another was a feeling of lightness and elevation, and bright color. I noticed these patterns, and they seemed consistent across cultures. And so, for example, even though we might have very different costumes when we come together to celebrate, or decorations, all celebrations around the world feature bright color.
Starting to see these commonalities across cultures, I started to call these the “aesthetics of joy.” And that made me dig into why. Why these things? What is it about these things? And to look at the psychology and the neuroscience of how these things affect our emotions, and even on a deeper level, our well-being.
The Sugamo Shinkin Bank lobby in Tokyo was designed by Emmanuelle Moureaux. Ingrid Fetell Lee, who took this photo, writes in Joyful, “What Moureaux sees, that so few other architects do, is that rainbow color has a seemingly magnetic power that draws people in.”
Why might you think that invoking a sense of joy in attendees could change their overall experience?
It’s such a good question. So the first thing I would say is that joy is a contagious emotion. One of the things that that helps to do is, it helps to create a sense of cohesion in groups. It helps groups to gel. I think if you’re looking to create an event which feels like more than the sum of its parts — it’s not just 100 or 1,000 or 3,000 people getting together for a couple of days, but actually it feels like an experience that people are going to take back into their lives and be excited to talk about with other people and share what they learned with their colleagues — if you want that sense of cohesion and contagion, there really is no better emotion than joy. Because research shows that joy is the most contagious of our emotions. It spreads quickly within groups. It spreads because of our body language, our expressions, our tone of voice. And that can actually have really surprising effects, even from a business perspective.
So for example, research shows that when frontline staff in a retail context exhibit genuine joy, people express a higher likelihood to return. They spend more time browsing in the store, and they express higher satisfaction ratings. So just something as simple as the expression of joy has this contagious effect and makes people feel good, and then they want to come back.
I think for meeting planners who are thinking about creating an experience that isn’t just, “I create this one meeting and it’s over,” but it has deeper resonance, I think joy is really powerful.
The second thing I would say is that we often think about joy as a distraction from serious work, and as the thing we do on the weekends, not the thing that we do when we’re coming to a serious event. But, research shows that joy actually increases our productivity, it sharpens our minds, and it makes us better at making decisions. And so, if you’re gathering people for any purpose, I think having joy in the mix, it helps to increase people’s performance and sense of success.
What kind of research?
So, for example, research shows that people in a state of joy are 12 percent more productive — and we want to have a productive meeting. I think that’s another surprising benefit of bringing joy into the mix. And I think you can even get into specific lenses on joy. In Joyful, I talk a lot about getting perspective. If you are hosting a meeting where you want people to step outside of their everyday lives and get new perspective on their work, then I think you need to be bringing in elements of transcendence — where you’re bringing in elevation, for example, to help people really step outside of the everyday and shift.
New York City’s Rose Bakery brightens the dining room — and guests’ moods — with color. (Ingrid Fetell Lee photo)
Elevation in Joyful is quite literal: tree houses, flight, zip lines, Ferris wheels, skyscrapers, hot air balloons.
Yes, research shows that when we have a sense of elevation, it actually shifts our mindset away from details and toward big-picture thinking. So you can actually do things that not only create joy, but that actually help elicit specific modes of thought that are conducive to the kind of experience you’re trying to create.
And then, a couple more specific things, I think joy is deeply connected to energy. And I think you want this to be an experience where people feel energized, and these meetings can sometimes be long, they can be extended. And so bringing in elements of joyful energy that help people feel excited to be there, excited to engage, I think can also be really powerful.
I think there might be the tendency for organizers to think of elements that we associate with joy as too childish to include in a professional group’s event marketing materials or theming, or even to incorporate in the physical environment of a conference. What would you say to that?
I would say that I totally understand where that bias comes from. I feel like it’s how we’ve been raised to think about joy — that it’s this extraneous thing. And so it’s only natural that we would have that fear. What I’ve observed is a couple things: One, joy doesn’t have to be childish in its execution. A pop of color doesn’t mean it has to be primary colors, which often have a kindergarten feeling. So you can bring in vibrancy in other ways.
That’s just one example. Same thing with curves, which are often associated with a playful or childish aesthetic. So maybe if that’s a fear for your audience, stay away from those kinds of aesthetics and bring in things that are more like transcendence, more like freedom, or elements of surprise, for example. So I think it’s about tuning the kind of joy that you want to create to the audience that you have.
The other thing I would say is, in my experience as a speaker, at times I do a happy dance in my talks. And I do it not as just a gratuitous thing. I do it because I talk a lot about celebration and the science of synchrony, and what happens when we actually move together as a group.
Right, in the “Celebration” chapter, you talk about studies that show that when people sang or moved together in a coordinated way, they were more likely to cooperate with each other on tasks.
Yes, there’s some really interesting research about what happens when we move as a group. And so I do it as a precursor to talking about the evolution of some of these things in animals and then in humans. I was really hesitant to suggest it when I first started speaking. I was always a little nervous — I was like, “Well, we could do this happy dance thing maybe.” The reaction from planners is always the same. It’s always, “Yeah! Let’s do that! Tell us more!”
Because I think meetings are a chance to step outside the everyday. And people are looking to have some fun. And that does help all of the rest of the intense information sink in, when people feel awake and excited and energized. So I’ve been surprised by the openness of people to these kinds of gestures. And I think sometimes we censor ourselves, when the audience is actually really open to it — and craving it, in fact.
Going in a bit of a different direction, since you are active on the speaking circuit, I’m sure you have seen your share of stage backdrops and event themes that use very angular, sharp elements in their overall design. Such images, on an unconscious level, you say, incite fear. Yet those elements are often used to make events feel edgy or high-tech. What’s your thinking on that?
Because this particular question is so contextual, I think we could only speak at a hypothetical level. I can’t say for sure that seeing angular backdrops is going to put people on edge. I’m not sure at that level. What I can say is, there’s a difference between the marketing that you want to put out and the experience you want to create.
When you have people in the room, they’re already there. You got them there. So my hope would be that you would use the space to think more about the emotional experience that you want people to have and less about the brand impression you want to create. I think that those two can go together. If people have a really positive emotional experience at an event, that’s going to mean more than the abstract brand quality that they’re seeing. So I would use those backdrops as an opportunity to elicit a feeling, and that feeling is what you want people to take away.
Round furniture, like these tables, benches, and chairs at the Standard Hotel in Miami, give a feeling of roundness. (Ingrid Fetell Lee photo)
Many convention centers and hotels have made their spaces more inviting — with art from local artists and lots of natural light, for example. But there’s still a limit on what event organizers can do since they bring temporary events to fixed environments that are beyond their control. What are some elements that they can include to spark joy in windowless ballrooms or bland breakout rooms?
First thing I would say is, if you can introduce round tables, it creates a feeling of roundness. It generally improves flow in a room. And round tables allow everyone to see each other, and so that tends to be something that amplifies the emotional contagion in a space. Obviously, natural light is great if you can get it. If you can’t, work with the lighting to make it feel a little bit more vibrant. Sometimes the lighting in these spaces can feel very flat. So whatever you can do to make it feel more dynamic, more alive.
And then I would say use color — whether it’s just colored scrims or panels, that can be really helpful. I think tablecloths, right? I think often the things that I see in these spaces are very plain, and so bringing in color in that way is good. What would it be like to walk into a meeting where instead of having all tablecloths in one color, you have almost a gradient of tables going down the room?
Another thing is, many of these places feel totally removed from nature, so maybe bring in some plants. Just bringing in even a little bit of nature in a concentrated way could also be powerful.
I’ve also seen vertical gardens, too, which can serve as screens, and people gravitate toward them. Totally. And then, there are two other things that I think are under-leveraged — I have a few more ideas here. So one is, I think nametags are a real missed opportunity. Because research shows that having some sort of uniform or accessory that is shared among a group will promote a sense of shared identity and therefore bonding and trust.
And I just think that nametags are often so homogenous and functional. It’s not a space thing, but it’s something that actually can help shape the space if everyone’s wearing it, so thinking about those in a different way is one thought.
Color Factory in San Francisco uses color to infuse spaces with joy. (Ingrid Fetell Lee photo)
Could you just give me an example of what you mean? Like, certain people may pick a different color name badge?
Sure. Maybe it’s really bright color for a change. Or maybe it’s different colors, so when people are standing together, they almost form a composition. Or maybe it’s not a nametag at all; maybe it’s a bracelet or a necklace or maybe it’s a really cool badge. I’m not exactly sure, but it makes me think of Color Factory, that immersive experience pop-up in New York, all based around color. One of the things that they have is a wall of buttons — it’s like a hallway of buttons. You get to choose a button in your favorite color as you go through. And the buttons are just very simple, like little buttons that you can pin on yourself. You see people in the surrounding area with those buttons on their backpacks — it’s this moment of connection, and it’s really simple and really beautiful.
So just having something simple that’s vibrant that isn’t necessarily about branding, but is about creating shared experience.
Right. And people being able to personalize their experience by picking a color that is meaningful to them.
Exactly. And then the other thing I would say is surprise, having elements of surprise. Maybe it’s a surprise guest or elements of the agenda that are not revealed. Maybe it’s hide-and-reveal elements in the program, or little tucked-away spaces. Maybe you keep the main space really simple, but you have breakout spaces that have pops of color.
I think you can do things like that that are maybe more cost-effective than transforming the giant convening space, because that can be difficult. But you can transform these little breakout rooms, and then when people enter them, there’s this moment of joy as they walk in and see something that’s so contrasting and different. That’s another way to think about it.
Which reminds me of that part in your book about how you worked with an architect to make an event space that was too large for the group’s size feel more intimate. How was that done?
It was really simple, actually. We used sheets of foam core. You can make little stands that go on the bottom, to basically fold those sheets of foam core up on. And then we put up posters that had information that was relevant to the gathering — we used those as dividers that blocked off the space. And then large plants were used in clusters in between to edge off the space.
There really was half of the whole space behind that — no one even thought to peer into because of the way those were set up. We used, I think, uplights to light those, but we may have also used lights clipped onto the boards to spotlight them. Light and dark is one of the best ways to help divide space when you don’t have a physical barrier. If you can draw the light to where you want people to be, and make the rest of the space dark, people are not going to wander in there. They just don’t have interest in it.
You also write about food in Joyful. Chefs know that we eat with our eyes first. What are some of the things that an event planner can look for when working with a caterer to spark joy in people?
Yeah, I was thinking about this actually, because I was thinking about my own meeting experiences and how so often, it’s caffeine and sugar that are relied upon to keep the energy up, right?
But there are other ways to bring energy into the display of food. Certainly bright color is one, and asking for vibrancy. Another is a sense of abundance, right? How do you create rainbow arrangements or monochromatic arrangements? If you have an all-red platter and an all-green platter and an all-purple platter of vegetables, there’s something so impactful about just concentrated color.
It’s also about harmony and arrangement — the way that things are arranged on a platter. So using radial arrangements, using symmetries, to create visual appeal. So that might mean if you have a cheese plate — and cheese is not the most vibrant food unless it’s orange cheddar, I guess — but you can use, again, a radial arrangement or a really symmetrical arrangement to create something that feels really joyful.
Somewhat related are centerpieces, which you say in the book are important focal points. What are some ways to look at that from a cost-effective perspective?
I think that scale is key. Having one large thing, to me, is much more important than having lots of little things. If you want the most bang for your buck, then I would not focus on individual, expensive centerpieces for every table. I would focus on creating one really striking focal point in the room. And then what’s on the tables themselves can be small — you know, a few flowers in little cups or Mason jars or whatever. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be flowers. The focal point can be a communal food element. I talk in the book about a pig roast as an example of a thing that draws people in — or a really big cake, or a pinata, or a vertical garden like we just talked about. Something that is out of scale from the ordinary, because that has a magnetic quality and it brings people toward it. You want pieces that really bring people together — having something oversized really tells people that this is a celebration, that they’re not in their everyday [mode]. It really puts people in the moment.
It’s clear that you’ve observed events from a design perspective. Is there anything else that you would say that has struck you as being ripe for reinvention, or any examples you’ve seen of something done particularly well?
One thing that can work really well is when people are creating something together — so a giant wall of ideas, or a giant puzzle where everyone’s writing something on a piece and you’re assembling it. It’s a quick way for people to participate, and in a light-touch way.
And any time I’ve been to a place with a photo booth or some sort of installation where you can take a photo — it takes it automatically or there’s a backdrop where you could pose — that has always been really successful. When that’s done well, it really increases the enthusiasm in a space. When people take photos, they kind of ham up their enthusiasm. They throw their arms open and then everyone else sees that, and so it again amplifies. this contagion aspect. I’d recommend things like that — anything that has a public display of joy.
Michelle Russell is Convene’s editor in chief.