Weekly Chew: IDEO multidisciplinary designer Ingrid Fetell on design’s ability to make tangible our thoughts, hopes and emotions

Ingrid Fetell is a human factors specialist at design and innovation consulting firm IDEO. In a nutshell, her job is to bring human-centred thinking to design challenges in a wide range of industries. She’s big on design and delight—in other words, how design can create positive emotion. We caught up with her on her recent visit to Enzed as part of the NZTE Better By Design CEO summit, where she spoke to the audience about factoring culture into the design process. She tells us why she’s drawn to design as a change agent and shares her favourite Kiwi designs.

Who the heck are you?

I consider myself a multidisciplinary designer.  At IDEO I’m a human factor specialist, which is a phrase for design research. But at IDEO, everyone wears more than one hat. I also lead projects and write. 

In my personal work, I write a lot about design and positive emotion. I practice design and think about design from multiple angles. 

What inspires you?

There are two things that inspired me to get into design and both have to do with sustainability. One is Canadian designer Bruce Mau’s and the other is my peers at IDEO. 

Bruce Mau's book Massive Change Project inspired me when I read it because it was about the impact that design can have. Mau shows what happens when systems fail. He shows the way design has transformed our culture. I was so drawn to the idea of design as a change agent. And that’s what originally got me to go to design school. 

Secondly, my peers at IDEO inspire me endlessly. Value and ethics are important to me, as is the impact of my work and life. I think it’s important to try to make trade-offs and live in a better way. But I think the most important impact I can have is through my work. When I’m working on a project I always ask the question: “How can I best have an impact in terms of creating the kind of society I want to live in through the design that I’m fortunate enough to do?” 

How can design create positive emotion and why is it so important?

In my own design work, I was finding that people noticed a certain quality to the pieces I designed. I had cups that had a wobbling bottom for example. People said there was a sense of delight that was emanating from me into my work. I was trying to understand what that was about. What were the aesthetic elements that communicated that to people? I wasn’t consciously  trying to put it in there, but that’s what came out. 

I think that design has this remarkable ability to make tangible our thoughts, our hopes and our emotions. Emotion is interesting because it’s unconscious. If you can create design that simulates positive emotion, it allows you to facilitate better interactions between people in an unconscious way. 

I don’t want to overstate the impact of emotion because there are a lot of other factors to take into account. I like the idea that you can see positive emotion through design. We can’t change people, but we can change things. Happiness is the sum total of many moments of joy over a lifetime. But if I engage in experiences that bring joy, it transforms my relationship to the world around me and that will bring happiness. 

What are your top three essential design ingredients?

1. The first one would be empathy for the person that’s going to use it. 

2. Story is really important—a feeling that this product has something to communicate. It takes someone on an emotional and imaginative journey—it speaks to us in some way. 

3. Aesthetics that support the interaction you’re trying to create. Aesthetics are extremely important in the process. 

Where does design go wrong?

I think design goes drastically wrong when it doesn’t consider humans in the process—the people that are going to use it. 

Thoughts on Kiwi design?

Air New Zealand is a great example of a company that’s really launching into design. They’re thinking about design from end to end. They’re really thinking about the experience and the customer journey. 

There does seem to be a real design consciousness down here. You notice it in places like wineries. There’s a sensitivity. I don’t know where it emanates from, but I wonder if it comes from having beauty in the land and if that plays back into a design aesthetic. 

I think what New Zealand has worked out really well is how to use culture and tone to the benefit of the design experience. Humour is really important. 

Your favourite project?

I loved working with Icebreaker and Eileen Fisher (American clothing company). Icebreaker stands out for me because it’s a purpose-driven business. Jeremey Moon runs a business that has biodegradable products that come from natural resources. To be able to help a company like that scale and reach more people is really exciting. 

Animo kid's chair, 2008

You can't take it with you, 2009

Wallflower tiles, 2008

At the NZTE Better By Design CEO summit 

As part of her talk at the NZTE summit, Fetell outlined key elements used by IDEO in its design process, as follows: 

  1. We begin with empathy
  2. We use culture to inform our process
  3. We stay flexible in our process, epecially when we’re working cross culturally. We go in with an idea but have to be flexible.
  4. We study cultural analogues. Designing with culture in mind is not optional—most of the people who buy products will be from another culture—globalised society. It’s about the input you have in global society.
  5. We identify assumptions. It’s important to get assumptions of other cultures out into the open.
  6. We use design to translate culture
  7. We visualise the journey
  8. We use design to share stories e.g. Icebreakers barcode system
  9. We look for ways to go with the grain
  10. We make the abstract concrete
  11. We get tangible quickly
  12. We create forums for collaboration 

More on Ingrid 

Check out Fetell’s blog and book-in-progress Aesthetics of Joy, offering insights from neuroscience and psychology to suggest ways that design can enhance our emotional health and well-being.