Culture Creator: Ingrid Fetell, Director of Design at IDEO NY

This is the first in a series of posts about people who directly shape the culture of their organizations.

Ingrid Fetell at the IDEO New York Offices

Ingrid Fetell at the IDEO New York Offices

Ingrid Fetell is the Director of Design at IDEO. I interviewed her in IDEO’s New York offices.

What led you to where you are now?

I did my undergraduate at Princeton and majored in Creative Writing. Then I took five years to work, and went back and did a master’s in Industrial Design at Pratt.

I wrote a novel for my undergraduate thesis, and I realized that I didn’t want to be a novelist. It was my great epiphany. I did market research and then brand consulting, and I discovered IDEO and got excited about the possibilities of design. I knew I wanted to shift into that field. I went from creative writing to market research because I felt like I needed to round out my skill set, but then in market research I felt like what I was doing wasn’t creative enough. So it was a slow march back to the creative world, and I felt like I came home with industrial design.

So I was adamant that going back to grad school wasn’t about a job. It was about my life. Even if I didn’t end up doing anything related to what I did in grad school, I wanted a set of experiences. I wanted a set of tools for a broader way of expressing the ideas in my head... to use form, to sketch, to use a range of different media. Fundamentally it’s about being able to get ideas out of my head in different ways. I wish I had more... I wish I had a better facility with graphic design. But you can’t doing everything well, and sometimes you have to partner with someone who has those skills.


What is your current job position and organization? How do you shape the culture of your organization?

I’m design director at IDEO. I work in several areas. First, I work with teams to think about the work and how to make it better. My background is design research so I think a lot about the insights and opportunities, but I also look at the work through an emotional and aesthetic lens. I help teams think about how can we amplify the emotional component.

Second, I look at our internal structure and how we can better support craft and quality of design. How can we nurture that? I work to create and sustain platforms to improve our craft. One example is something called Craftworks, where we meet every other Wednesday, and all the different disciplines meet individually (design researchers, writers, interaction designers, graphic designers, business designers). It is a time to nerd out about the things you do that make you great. At IDEO, we are often in teams where we are not working with people who are like us. Craftworks is an opportunity to reconnect with the people who are in the same discipline and share ideas. We have a theme for the studio for the whole week, and this week it was details. Details mean different things in different disciplines, so in design research, we talked about how we can spotlight different details of each person we interview, and in writing they talked about micro-copy and how to increase the quality of the small detailed writing. People who work on our environments team talk about the spatial details. It’s a provocation to get people talking. I’m always thinking about how we can get outside inspiration into the work we’re doing.


Talk about a specific initiative you’re working on related to work culture?

I’ve also been working on an initiative around critique to think about what kinds of critique we are using at different moments. A lot of times we think of critique as a blanket thing, but actually there are different things a teams need in different moments. We have a set of cards that shows that range. A team may ask for a provoke critique or an inspire critique. Sometimes the team knows what type of critique it needs. Sometimes a team may ask for a certain type, and the external set of eyes will say, “It sounds like you are asking for this type, but I think you need this other type of critique.”

There might be moments when a team needs a “provoke critique” where we ask, “Is this boring? Is this as exciting a solution as we can come up with? Have we really minded the edges?” At other moments, you might need a clarify critique, we don’t know what our message is, let’s drill in. “We’ll say, let’s edit, let’s pare away.” This is an internal initiative to help with how we really are pushing the edges of our work.


What is your daily routine as design director like?

It’s hour by hour. I try to spend at least half of my time with teams who are working on projects. Since I work with more than one team, I’ve had to be mindful of not losing touch with the content. For each project, I try to ask, “What can I go in and help the team do? What can I be making with them? How can I get tangible?” This helps me do more than just comment on the projects. I might work with a team for an hour and help frame different language for the project, or I might help with sketching. Everyone here sits with his or her team. There is very little time that anyone at IDEO spends at their desk... maybe an hour to do emails with the outside world. Primarily it’s collaborative.


A photo from Ingrid's Aesthetics of Joy blog

A photo from Ingrid's Aesthetics of Joy blog

How do your thoughts on workplace culture draw from your experience in the product design process?

IDEO places a strong value on tangibility. It’s one of the biggest values we bring to our clients. We surface ideas and make them visible to clients. Until you have a sketch or a prototype, you don’t really have anything. Once the idea is tangible and out, then we can all have a conversation about a thing, versus having a conversation about an abstract concept.

So much about design process I learned in grad school. IDEO has moved from working in the nitty-gritty tangible realm of designing medical devices (and we still do that work), but now we also work in the space of services, experiences, systems, and organizational design. Some of these spaces are very abstract. But our design process is still formed by the fact that the principles that work for tangible design also work when you are designing intangible things.


Aesthetics of Joy

Last question, just for fun: What inspired you to start your blog, Aesthetics of Joy?

I started the Aesthetics of Joy blog as part of my grad school thesis. I had some work that I had put up on a wall for an end of year review, and a bunch of professors were looking at the work. One said to me, “your work has this sense of joy,” and I thought, that’s lovely, but not what I was trying to do. My first year in grad school I was very serious. My main priority was to do things that were functional (over aesthetically pleasing) and to solve big world problems. So for someone to say that my work was joyful was almost the opposite of what I wanted to hear. But I was really intrigued by it since it was an aesthetic I didn’t try to create. The other professors were nodding, but no one could explain it. I thought, maybe there is some value in it, and I decided try to figure it out. The beginning of the blog was trying to understand a phenomenon that I didn’t understand.

As a happy and optimistic person, I was interested that design could create that feeling. But at first I was ambivalent about focusing on joy, because originally I came to grad school to work on serious projects. I wanted to change the world with design, to work on projects like creating reflective backpacks to keep kids from getting run over on road sides. It was only later that I realized that the power of positivity can have physical ramifications, that positivity could be very powerful in its own right, that aesthetics are not just superficial, but they can have power.

My thesis project was designing ten objects. I originally just wanted to write a book, and my grad program at Pratt said that I had to make something (and I’m glad they pushed). I created a series of ten objects that were the same except they varied by type of joy. I defined ten different aesthetics of joy, and each one is a different tone. One is energy, and is based on color, light and exuberant movement. One is transcendence, which is all about lightness and elevation, so lots of floating and flying gestures. Another is celebration, which is all about things that burst open, and this sense of great excess and abundance.

I designed a piece of furniture based on each of the ten aesthetics to prove the theory that these are different aesthetics. Joy can look and feel different depending on context, but there is a common DNA.