Presenting at SxSW Eco 2015 was IDEO Design Director Ingrid Fetell Lee on “Why Aesthetics Matter to Sustainability.” As architects and designers, we must not underestimate the power of objects and our environment to transform lives, a concept that has inspired our own work in Place Changing, a collaborative research project with the Rivard Report. What follows is a brief commentary on Fetell Lee’s thought-provoking presentation. The research is all her own.

Beauty. It’s a word that has gotten a bad rap in recent years. For anyone who’s studied fine art or design, the word holds particular potency—its use supposedly showing a lack of critical thinking or articulation on the design at hand.  A fall back. A fail safe. However, new research shows otherwise, indicating that beauty is a fundamental experience of the human condition and a key to our goals of creating a more sustainable world.

Fetell Lee’s research journey began with a simple question on the nature of our relationship with the Christmas tree—how does an object transition from a symbolic cultural treasure imbued with history and meaning to one that is discarded in heaps shortly after Christmas. And so she began studying the longevity of relationship between people and things and what that means for sustainability.

Most of our current sustainability discussions lie around material quality or technical performance. However, as Fetell Lee contends the discussion must extend to “emotional sustainability,” a concept of fundamental importance.

There are 300,000 items in the average American home. This is roughly double that of 50 years ago. Yet if you look at happiness trends, they remain the same.

As Fetell Lee illustrates, if we think of our relationships with objects as relationships of any other sort, it’s like having a relationship to relatives we don’t want to live with anymore. Currently, self-storage facilities in our country outnumber Starbucks by five times. We essentially put our stored objects in another home and are willing to pay the price for that.


So what tools do we as people and designers have at hand for establishing a new relationship between objects and our environment? Fetell looks to developments in the relatively new field of positive psychology for possible answers.

Historically, the studies of psychology and psychiatry have aimed reform on mental illness. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia. Traditional Western practices have focused on cures for these diseases, examining how to move patients from pathological states of mind to neutral states. But over the last twenty years researchers have begun to ask, “Why just neutral? What’s beyond neutral, and how do we sustain that?”

Positive psychology examines this transition from neutral state to true wellness—from surviving to thriving. Researchers in the field have begun studying “alternate” states of being—experiences associated with the concepts of flow, of gratitude, of compassion. They have begun exploring how these things affect our well-being and our relationship to ourselves. So how do these findings translate to our relationship with external objects?


janney01The color of a space, among other things, affects our perception of its physical temperature.


Fetell Lee provides an example.

Soylent is a food substance designed to replace traditional meals. It was engineered to meet the complete daily nutritional requirements for humans without the time, expense, or effort of sourcing and cooking food. It has all the essential nutrients to sustain human life. If you eat nothing but this, it will keep you healthy—physically.

Now imagine that you eat nothing but Soylent for the rest of your life. Do you feel that you are surviving, or are you thriving?

For most people, something is missing. So what’s the difference?

Flavor, color, texture, beauty, pleasure, joy. When we’re considering food, it seems apparent that these things matter deeply. They are an intrinsic part of our experience of and the nourishment we gain from food.

But when it comes to design, it is easy to consider these things superfluous, even wasteful. If you look at these qualities from a purely material and functional perspective, many of the things designers call “aesthetics” seem unnecessary, and many objects and environments in our lives are designed from this mindset.

However, these attributes are not actually superfluous at all but a part of our well-being and a part of moving from surviving to thriving—a deep evolutionary connection to our existence as a species. Some of our most profound pleasures are linked to the activities that help our species grow and survive: we have the need for nourishment, and we’ve turned that into cuisine. We have the need to procreate, and we’ve created the art of courtship. We have a need of protection from the elements, and we’ve created fashion.

So how do we build emotional sustainability?

Fetell Lee argues that emotional sustainability must consider three primary factors: promoting behavior change, creating timeless appeal, and cultivating well-being. Beauty and aesthetics are integral to all.

Promoting Behavior Change

The fundamental premise is that it is far easier to change things than it is to change people. From a sustainability perspective, we can promote positive behavior change, making it easier for people to behave in more sustainable ways by shaping the world around us.

Creating Timeless Appeal

There are two kinds of obsolescence: functional and emotional. We are all familiar with functional obsolescence, particularly in our tech-driven society—when objects lose their value because their function has been superseded. But emotional obsolescence is when an object loses its value while still having functional utility, like a color that has gone out of style. We must, therefore, design in a way that creates durable delight, designing for pleasures that never get old.

Cultivating Well-being

Historically, there have been many divides regarding how we think of ourselves in the world. Mind and body is one divide. Body and environment is another. Slowly these divides have been shown to be false dichotomies.

We used to say, “It’s all in your head,” which implied if it was in the head it wasn’t in the body. Now we know the mind has far more influence over the body than we ever thought possible. We used to think we as individuals could be healthy while devastating the environment around us. Now we’re gaining an awareness of how interconnected we actually are—our bodies and our minds, our bodies and the environment, even our mind and the environment.

Fundamentally at the root of this is pleasure, our instinctual responses to those things which create a better world for us both as individuals and as a species.

As Fetell Lee states, “Pleasure is far more effective than logic at guiding us towards what we need and motivating us to pursue it. If we’re going to crack the emotional side of sustainability, then we need to learn how to use pleasure and joy in design to enhance the relationship between people and things and not think about them as a distraction, but essential, to that relationship.”

Ingrid Fetell Lee provided a few compelling examples of how aesthetics transform our relationship to objects, our environment, and in turn ourselves. Related Articles:


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