Why So Serious?

January 26, 2024



“Why do serious things have to look so serious?” was the question Italian designer Gaetano Pesce posed to Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of the book Joyful. A damn fine question I should say.

Ingrid Fetell Lee is a designer and the book Joyful is about designing more joy into the everyday items we encounter. I spend a lot of my meek brain energy thinking about human habitats and how they are designed, how we interact with them, and what types of spaces make us happier and healthier. So of course I am fascinated to read what the author has learned about what sort of design qualities evoke a sense of joy in people.

But the question posed by Gaetano Pesce about serious things looking serious struck me in an entirely different way. Instead of thinking more about design, it got me thinking about the people behind urban design and community revitalization efforts. Are serious efforts more effective when led by very serious people? Are meetings better when they are held in board rooms? Is having fun antithetical to community revitalization? If people experience joy, should the process be considered a failure?

These questions seem a little outlandish at first glance, but are they? Because I have found the majority of organizations working their asses off to improve their community have embraced the notion that being serious and being effective must go hand in hand. That somehow following Robert’s Rules of Order will be the real solution to your problems.

Quick favor to ask of you all. Can you knock that shit off?

Sure, I know a couple of people who seem drawn to boredom and I assume someone somewhere likes listening to reports, I just haven’t met them yet. Is there any proof that making your meetings seem more serious is improving their effectiveness? I doubt it, but there is ample proof that everyone avoids your board meetings because they are about as fun as watching Lawrence of Arabia.

I am not for one moment suggesting that revitalizing your community is not important, quite the opposite. I don’t think there is anything more important you can do than make a community a healthy and happy place to live. Our surroundings have a tremendous impact on our mental, social, physical, and fiscal health. There is nothing more serious than human habitats, which is exactly why we have to stop acting like a bunch of anti-social misanthropes. It’s because this work is so important that we need to lighten the hell up!

Revitalization is a serious matter, but that doesn’t mean we have to always act so serious. If we remove joy from the equation, why should anyone show up? Why would anyone help if the effort to improve our towns isn’t going to be social? Don’t be surprised when no one comes out. If you aren’t programming a little fun into your meetings don’t expect anyone to enjoy them, oh, and get ready for people to tell you they are suffering from “burnout.”

Serious efforts don’t have to be taken so seriously. I suggest relying on human nature when you consider how you plan to pursue your serious efforts. If you want people to get involved in the cause, which I assume you do, then relax, lighten up, take it easy man. Ask yourself- ‘What’s fun?’ You probably have a decent idea.

If you want people to get involved, make it worth their while. Give them what they want because, let’s be honest- sitting at home scrolling or watching Netflix is ultimately pretty boring but it’s better than listening to monthly reports or hearing people complain about parking. But if you give them a little fun, a little joy, a little social time, maybe a little bit of meaning, then Instagram and Hulu just can’t compare.

Stop being so serious if you want your effort to be effective. Change things up. You want more people in the community to get involved and you need them to get involved. Give them a more appealing alternative to what they’re already doing. Don’t just assume people don’t want to give their time to their community, because you are wrong, getting involved makes people feel good and provides them with a sense of reward. Don’t assume people don’t have free time, because I can just guess at their screen time numbers. Don’t keep making excuses for why people don’t want to get engaged, or how they are different today, none of that is true. If you aren’t providing people a compelling reason to take part, it’s not their fault.

A message to community development champions- not everyone is like you! Stop expecting everyone in your town to be community development nerds and instead give them an excuse to have a little fun, an excuse to come out and make some new friends, or ask them to enjoy the simple pleasure of breaking a sweat and making a difference in their town. Please stop making it so hard for people to take part in your community improvement efforts. Give the people what they want-provide them with a little fun, make it easy to make some friends, and give them a chance to make an impact. Trust in human nature and you can’t go wrong.




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