FastCo Panel: How to design happiness

Spoiler alert: apparently, it has something to do with puppies….

Last March at SXSW Mark Wilson of Fast Company chaired a great panel of designers on the topic “Designing Happiness” [3].  The panelists create for organizations that “strive to create happy experiences”, and there is a lot to interest here.

(Biographical note: most of my creative work has been in system software and technical writing—useful but not usually “happy” products.)

According to the panel, the experience is important, but anticipation is almost as important, and so is the memory. And the memory will be from the high point and the finish—the sweet “kiss goodnight”—and most of all from a pleasant surprise.

Disney and others create some form of a physical transition form the ordinary world into their “happy” world. In the case of Disney, it is a dark tunnel, in many spaces it is a corridor or entry hall. This space signals and offers the environment to “reset”.

Organizationally, the designers call for managers to “empower” employees to make customers happy. (If nothing else, this would seem to make everyone think about customers as interesting human beings, capable and worthy of being treated individually.)

Much of the psychology is “lizard brain” stuff. Disney is famous for creating a “safe” environment—for many dimensions of the concept “safe”, and safe “together” with the other people there.

The “lizard brain” also likes natural elements, such as plants and water, sounds, smells, and, of course, the careful design that pushes deep unconscious buttons, which all contribute to the “animal” feelings of safety and innocent childhood in a village.

If ever you wondered what a good design for happiness is it’s a puppy.

I read this article thinking coworking, which if nothing else, makes workers happy.  Now coworking spaces are extremely variable, and most are not full on “Disney” scale experiences (though think about how Disney would design a coworking space!). Some have puppies, but most do not.

The main thing that coworking spaces share, and what seems to make the workers happy, is the face-to-face community they become part of. In addition, I would say that coworkers are invited to enact a role of “plucky coworker” in a play about “the new way of work”. Playing this story together not only helps the solo worker fight loneliness (it is “a respite from our isolation” [1]), and promotes collaboration (“we are a community”)’ it gives a larger meaning to the work and stress of working life.

In this sense, working in a coworking space isn’t about working at all, it is about “being happy and successful workers together”. This experience makes workers happy because each worker is important, and all are living out their part of a compelling story.

I note that historically,  coworking spaces were originally created to replicate the exciting and collaborative experience of freewheeling tech companies, a la Google or Apple, without the stifling bureaucracy. The technology and physical space in a coworing space is imagined to model such companies, and the communities are patterned after the best parts of start up culture.

But I would say that coworking also simulates something else: organizations that are really fun to work at (e.g., [2]) are united by commitment to a larger story that gives meaning to every worker and every task.

From this point of view, coworking is interesting because “the story” comes mostly spontaneously from “the bottom up’, from independent workers themselves, and also because in this story, “success” is about the success of the individual workers, not the organization or the investors and stockholders.

Given the satisfaction expressed by most coworkers, this story seems to work pretty well.

  1. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014.
  2. Richard Sheridan, Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love, New York, Penguin, 2013. [and see this post].
  3. Mark Wilson, How to design happiness, in FastCo:Innovation By Design. 2016.


What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming early in 2017.

(Revised 19 December 2016)

2 thoughts on “FastCo Panel: How to design happiness”

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