Emotional Design, What is it?

Title image. Collage by STUDIOFYNN
Second image, Pluchiks wheel, suggests primary bipolar emotions: joy versus sadness; anger versus fear etc. Like colors, primary emotions can be expressed at different intensities and can mix to form different emotions.

Recently there has been a great deal of focus on the role of design in evoking emotion and creating a strong connection to the consumer. But what is emotional design?

The visual form of a product conveys an abundance of nuanced information to the consumer, regardless of the intent. Consumers make sense of things through visual stimulus and visual information not only provides highly nuanced information, but it conveys meaning and evokes emotion. In reality, all design is emotional whether it is intended to be or not. The trick is shaping the emotion to the benefit of your product.

Highly skilled researchers, designers and creatives can leverage often-unconscious emotions in the development of products and brands

Everything that we see evokes some kind of emotional response. There is an entire pallet of emotions - 64 according to the psychologist Plutchik. Love, fear, acceptance, sadness, friendship, happiness, satisfaction - these are all valuable emotions, each may be evoked by a designer, either intentionally or not, in the design of a product.

The question is – how can design be shaped to influence the emotions of the customer in the right way? When we make decisions, we tap into our emotions, mostly through unconscious thought. According to neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, all of our human experiences are associated with emotions and together they are stored in our memory banks. When we need to make a decision or respond to a stimulus, we unconsciously tap into our memories and once again experience those stored emotions. We see a swimming pool on a hot summer day, and as a result we experience joy. We may or may not in that instant recall those past memories associated with similar swimming pools that were associated with joy, but if our past experiences with pools are associated with joy, that becomes our emotional response. Because this process happens largely within our unconscious self, we experience this as our “gut feel,” or first impressions. Often that “gut feel” is later substantiated by cognitive rational thought.

Even when we see something for the first time, our mind goes to work to determine our “gut feeling” about the new object. To do this, the mind tries to associate the object with similar things we have experienced in the past. We then recall those emotions associated with those familiar things and tag the new object with them.

Think back to when you saw the redesigned Volkswagen Beetle. Many people experienced emotions they associated with the old Beetle, even though the new product was substantially different. As a result, initial sales were very strong among those who had owned Beetles in the past. The mind’s ability to form visual associations is useful to designers when trying to graft a relationship between well-known products with new products such as a next generation product, or products that are related to each other in the product architecture. This is often used in an attempt to borrow credibility or meaning from some other product. When the mind cannot make an association, it may be difficult for the consumer to form an emotional response.

When consumers make decisions, emotions may come in to play in two ways: “Immediate Emotion,” which is the sum of the emotions experienced at the point of sale, and “Anticipated Emotion,” the emotions the buyer anticipates they will experience after purchase.

The role of design research is to help the designer understand the emotions sought by the consumer as well as the visual vocabulary that evokes the appropriate emotional response.

“Immediate Emotion” is the sum of emotion the buyer experiences in the moment of purchase. These include emotions associated with the product, packaging and brand, but also include a variety of other emotions experienced in the moment -- negative emotions associated with poor usability of a past product, for instance, or reliability issues, or customer service. In addition, other tangential emotions experienced in the moment my weigh in including the retail experience, or even the general emotional state of the customer on that day.

“Anticipated Emotions” are experienced as the consumer imagines situations after the purchase the product, or after deciding not to purchase. In many cases consumers unconsciously (or consciously) reconcile the product with their image, or imagine how others might view them when this product becomes a part of who they are. They also experience emotions as they imagine their experience using the product. When a product or brand fulfills a highly relevant image need for a consumer, a very strong attachment bond develops. These strong attachment bonds are very valuable because they have been proven to result in increased loyalty, willingness to pay a higher price, and the consumer investing their own time and resources to promote the brand.

“Anticipated Emotions” played a big role in a project I collaborated on with a major motorcycle manufacturer. In survey data, we noticed a decrease in the intent of young riders to buy their products, and we conducted additional research to understand why. These young rejecters were experiencing negative emotions as they imagined their experience owning and using the product. The product and brand image no longer fit with their culture and identity, which had become more urban. They envisioned riding around town, and not on the long, open road. They were drawn to the custom motorcycle builders who were recreating “bobbers” and other minimalist styles from the 1950’s. We refocused product design and brand communications on this more urban, custom motorcycle culture, and as a result, sales in this age group have increased substantially.

For products to perform at a high level in the market, the product and the overall experience associated with that product must resolve these unconscious considerations. Therefore every aspect of the offer must be in tune with the image the consumer is seeking to convey, and evoking the emotions the consumer wants to feel. Understanding how consumers perceive products and brands in their unconscious mind is not easy.

Highly skilled researchers, designers and creatives can leverage often-unconscious emotions in the development of products and brands. To do so, they must use interviewing methods from psychology and anthropology that delve into the unconscious thought of consumers elicit emotional response.

The role of design research is to help the designer understand the emotions sought by the consumer as well as the visual vocabulary that evokes the appropriate emotional response. It is important the designer understand that the emotional response and resonance of the target customer may be different than their own. Thus, the designer must embrace and design from an emotionally empathetic perspective, understanding and seeking what evokes the intended emotions for the target consumer within that category their culture.