Joyful Design 03

Joy and Beauty

Joy and beauty are two terms which are close to each other when it comes to our perception. Looking at art that we perceive as beautiful, watching an aesthetically pleasing movie, strolling through a beautiful landscape—all those activities evoke the feeling of (en)joy(ment).

According to Denis Dutton the most powerful theory of beauty—closely linked to joy—we yet have comes surprisingly from an expert on barnacles and worms and pigeon breeding: Charles Darwin. Many would say joy/beauty is whatever moves you personally or it is in the (culturally conditioned) eye of the beholder. There are many differences among cultures, but there are also universal, cross-cultural aesthetic pleasures and values. [1]

“We need to reverse-engineer our present artistic tastes and preferences and explain how they came to be engraved in our minds by the actions of both our prehistoric, largely pleistocene environments, where we became fully human, but also by the social situations in which we evolved.” —Denis Dutton

What do we experience as joyful/beautiful?

Answering this question is complex, because the things we experience as joyful/beautiful are so different and foremost they are omnipresent—in nature, in arts, in literature, etc. However, Denis Dutton attempts to reconstruct a Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic and aesthetic tastes. Dutton has no doubt that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. He explains beauty as an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of arts and entertainment. [2]

Two primary mechanisms of evolution:

  1. natural selection
    Natural selection is random mutation and selective retention along with our basic anatomy and physiology—such as the evolution of the eye. It explains many basic revulsions—such as the minging smell of rotting meat, the fear of snakes. But it also explains pleasures—liking for sweets, fat and protein, etc.

  2. sexual selection
    Sexual selection operates very differently. The most popular example is the peacock’s tail—it did not evolve for survival, but rather results from the mating choices made by peahens.

According to this idea, we can say that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing interest of fascination in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptable decisions for survival and reproduction. As in the last blogpost mentioned an important source of aesthetic pleasure are landscapes—pastoral scenes. Regardless from culture people like this particular kind of landscapes. People do not only like it but experiences it as joyful/beautiful. Noticeable is that this particular kind of landscape happens to be similar to the Pleistocene savannas where we evolved. [3]

“The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.” —Denis Dutton

This universal experience of beauty in nature can also be recognized in an universal experience of beauty in art. According to Dutton it is widely assumed that the earliest human artworks were stupendously skillful cave paintings.

An artistic depiction of a group of rhinoceros, was completed in the Chauvet Cave 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.

But artistic and decorative skills are actually much older than that. Realistic sculptures of women and animals, shell necklaces, as well as ochre body paint, have been found from around 100,000 years ago. And even older than this are the Acheulian hand axes. Or the oldest stone tools, which go back about two and a half million years—choppers of the Olduvai Gorge, East Africa. These tools were around for thousands of years until around 1.4 million years ago when Homo erectus started shaping Acheulian hand axes. Those were made out of thin stone blades, sometimes rounded ovals and very often in symmetrical pointed leaf or teardrop forms. Those axes were found across Asia, Europe and Africa. A sheer number of those axes were created, which indicates that they can not have been made for butchering—many of them also do not indicate any evidence of wear. Trough the use of symmetry, attractive materials and their meticulous workmanship those axes are perceived as beautiful—even nowadays.

Acheulean hand-axe from Egypt. Found on a hill top plateau, 1400 feet above sea level, 9 miles NNW of the city of Naqada, Egypt. Paleolithic. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

According to Dutton these ancient artifacts could have been the earliest known works of art, practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects—tools to function as „fitness signals“— displays that are performances like the peacock’s tail, except that, unlike hair and feathers, the hand axes are consciously cleverly crafted. Those competently made hand axes could have acted as an indicator for desirable personal qualities: intelligence, conscientiousness and in addition, access to rare materials (= wealth). Those skills were used to increase status—over tens to thousands of generations. Interesting about that is that we do not really know how this idea has been conveyed, since the Homo erectus did not have language. Stretching over a million years, the hand axe tradition is the longest artistic tradition in human and proto-human history. [4]

The Beauty in Skilled Performance

Nowadays, virtuosos technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre: human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the art—we find beauty in something done well. Therefore, what we experience as joyful/beautiful is not necessarily a product of our subjective perception or influenced by culture. Furthermore our perception of beauty and joy has been handed down from the skills and emotional lives of our ancient ancestors—it is deep in our minds. Our perception and reaction to images, expression of emotion in arts, music, etc. has been with us ever since. [5]


[1] TED. Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty. URL: (last retrieved December 01, 2020)

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Joyful Design 02

The more you know about people the better experiences your are able to design. The knowledge about human behaviour and psychology is especially important if we want to evoke specific emotions through our designs. „100 things every designer needs to know about people“ by Susan M. Weinschenk is the perfect source to get a broad and basic understanding of how people think, decide and behave. The following are three important findings from Susan M. Weinschenk which can be associated with creating joy.

“3 facts about design and emotions” 

If people can’t feel, then they can’t decide

If you want people to make a decision and take an action, you need to show them information, images, or a video that triggers an emotion – they will be more likely to decide if they have an emotional experience. So, when designing you need to consider the emotions you’re going to generate as people interact with your product. If the experience of your product is sad – such as a sad story – people will be in a sad mood that might affect the next action they take. You especially have to be aware  of the facial expression that may change when people use your product. Researches proved that our facial expressions are directly linked to our emotions. If we smile, we feel happy—if we are not able to smile, we can not experience happiness—if our face is paralyzed we are not able to experience emotions, since we are not able to show facial expressions. For example, if people have to squish their eyes to be able to read the small font, you used on your product, that will may prevent them from feeling happy, which in turn affects an action you may want them to take. [1]

People are programmed to enjoy surprises

If you want to grab attention, design something that is novel to people. Designing something new – something unexpected – can also be pleasurable to people. Our brain scans our environment for anything that could be dangerous and therefore for anything that is novel. A research by Gregory Berns reveals that the human brain not only looks for the unexpected but craves the unexpected. [2] Researchers also measured the most activity in the nucleus accumbers, the part of the brain that is active when people experience pleasurable experiences, when something unexpected happens. [3]

Pastoral scenes make people happy

Pastoral Landscape by Alvan Fisher, 1854

Pastoral scenes are a part of our evolution, which is also the reason why we are so drawn to those scenes. Typical landscape scenes include, according to Denis Dutton, hills, water, trees, birds, animals and a path moving through the scene – an ideal landscape for humans, containing protection, water and food. Dutton notes that our species has evolved to feel a need for certain types of beauty in our lives and that this pull towards things such as theses landscapes has helped us to survive as a species. He also notes that all cultures value artwork that includes these scenes – regardless where people come from. [4]


[1] Weinschenk, Susan M.: 100 things every designer needs to know about people. 2nd edition. 2020 Peachpit, p. 171 f.

[2] Berns Gregory, S. / McClure, S. / Pagnogni, S. / Montague, P.: The Journal of Neuroscience 21(8). Predictability modulates human brain response to reward.

[3] Weinschenk, Susan M.: 100 things every designer needs to know about people. 2nd edition. 2020 Peachpit, p. 173 f.

[4] TED. Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty. URL: (last retrieved November 14, 2020)

Joyful Design 01

  • Where does joy come from?
  • How do things make us feel joy?
  • How can we create joyful design experiences?
  • How can  joyful design change human behavior and well being?

What is joy?

Joy is much more than feeling happy – it is the intense feeling of great happiness and feeling good in the moment. [1] Joy is that emotion which makes us laugh and/or jump in the air. 

The “wheel of emotions” developed by Robert Plutchik, suggests eight primary emotions grouped on a positive or negative basis – one of them is joy.

Wheel of Emotions by Robert Plutchik

joy versus sadness; anger versus fear, trust versus disgust, surprise versus anticipation

Considering his theory, basic emotions can be paired/modified to create complex emotions. The complex emotions could arise from cultural conditions or associations combined with the basic emotions – similar to the way primary colors can be combined, primary emotions could blend to form the full spectrum of human emotional experience. [2]

Joy and Design
Influence on human behavior and well-being

Ingrid Fetell Lee dedicates her work to the studies of joy in our life – Where does joy come from? What brings joy? She wrote the book “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness” [3] and gave a TED talk on the subject, titled “Where joy hides and how to find it.” [4] Through her studies she found out that there is a relationship between the physical world and the feeling of joy and that there are universal matters that spark joy in almost everyone – such as rainbows, fireworks and bubbles. Those elements remind us of shared humanity in a common experience of our physical world.

Ingrid Fetell Lee particularly analyzed the “aesthetics of joy” and came to the conclusion that those are especially round things, pops of bright color, symmetrical shapes/arrangements, multiplicity, a sense of abundance and a feeling of lightness.

Case Study Project Backboard

Project Backboard was founded in 2014 by Dan Peterson. Dan’s mission: using public basketball courts as a canvas for creative expression to strengthen communities and inspire multi-generational play. To Dan, basketball is much more than only sport – it represents joy and community. In the last years Project Backboard renovated over two dozen basketball courts from Memphis to Puerto Rico. [5]

“I am trying to explore how color can reengineer the space to make it feel more inviting.” – Dan Peterson

ARTIST: Carlos Rolón – Toa Baja, Puerto Rico

“I see art as a real utility that changes the way people engage with space. I feel they feel safer. When walking into our space, I believe people feel a physical vibration of the color. You feel the color in your body.” – Dan Peterson

ARTIST: Jim Drain – Fargnoli Park, Providence, RI

Project Backboard is only one of many examples how our environment and society can benefit by sparking joy through art and design.


[1] Oxford Dictionaries. Joy. Url:
(last retrieved November 08, 2020)
[2] Lupton, Ellen: Design is Storytelling. (p. 61) New York: Cooper Hewitt 2017
[3] Fetell, Lee: Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. Little, Brown Spark 2018
[4] TED. Fetell Lee, Ingrid: Where joy hides and where to find it. URL: (last retrieved November 08, 2020)
[5] Project Backboard. URL:
(last retrieved November 08, 2020)