Breakthrough: Scientists Find Emotions Influence Design


 With widespread concern over usability, functionality and sustainability, design is ever meticulously scrutinized, analyzed and rationalized by persons in and out of the field. Yet in the avid pursuit of professional viability, one key concern has been virtually pushed under the carpet: the emotional factor, the indefinable, inscrutable, and irrational human trait that motivates how designers design and drives how people respond to design. This should come as no surprise to those of us who know that we are routinely manipulated (or do the manipulating) for good or ill through art or advertising; emotion provides easy access to our hearts and minds.

There is hardly a single designed object—from automobile to ziggurat—that does not have an emotional root. While emotion is considered a shaky foundation on which to build a profession, there is really no such thing as purely objective design. Form may be influenced by such quantifiable sciences as ergonomics or economics (and even demographics), but in the final analysis design choices are made to satisfy conscious and subconscious desires. As Donald A. Norman writes in Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things (Basic Books), an important new book that codifies emotionalism by the leading American usability expert, scientific advances in our understanding of the brain prove “how emotion and cognition are thoroughly intertwined.” In fact, it is impossible to make or appreciate graphic, product, industrial and even architectural design without acknowledging the pleasure and excitement or anxiety and rage found in experiences stimulated or exacerbated by design. Certainly Homeland Security color codes were designed with emotions in mind.

So what’s the fuss? Don’t we already know this on some level, at least emotionally? Yes, maybe and no: while we viscerally respond to design on one level, on another level designers are compelled to intellectualize their work when speaking to clients and significant others. We all know it is silly to tell our patrons that something works simply because it feels good. Paul Rand once said, “only after I complete a job do I make up excuses for why it works,” implying that intuition was tapped to conceive the idea, skill was used to render it, but reason was required to sell it. Count Basie said about all music, “if it sounds good, it is good,” and while not entirely applicable to design, which can look good yet be dysfunctional, the basic principle has merit (or I’d like to think so).

Aesthetics cannot be separated from usability. Stripping a product to its fundamental structure might be functionally appropriate, but rarely will it satisfy either the designer’s or the users’ emotional desires.

Reducing all graphic design to a single typeface or neutral color may be fine for supermarket register receipts, but it removes the joy of experiencing the sensory delights (indeed surprise) of design (unless, of course, that one typeface is imbued with emotional strength and power—after all, there are no absolutes). Even the most high-minded design must give some form of pleasure, if only for an instant. And speaking of “forms” who doesn’t get highly emotional (read as frustrated, sad, or mad) when an IRS or insurance form is so unfriendly as to make life more difficult than it need be. Even these forms, as rationally conceived as they appear, are increasingly designed with a nod toward the emotional side of usability.

Of course, for those who argue that pure functionality is more important than any other goal, it is necessary to acknowledge that emotionalism is indeed a design luxury for the privileged haves. The have-nots require sustenance and demand that design serve their basic needs. Indeed, nothing is more virtuous than designing objects that will help people survive. For instance, Stefan Sagmeister’s brown bag campaign for the homeless was as stripped down and rudimentary as possible, yet even the brown bag had emotional resonance.

In his new book, Mr. Norman apologizes for not addressing emotion in his previous book, The Design of Everyday Things, which sharply critiques objective design tropes that severely hinder usability. Introducing the emotional factor provides a more complete overview of how and why certain objects function, and also what gives them allure. So in giving emotion more gravitas, he is suggesting that the design professions should achieve a sensible balance. Norman celebrates the Minicooper as a great example of equilibrium between everyday function and design lust, and he’s right. But we really don’t have to go much further than Apple for a textbook example. Most graphic designers are loyal users and are well aware that, aside from the product’s reliability, its strategically frequent redesigns of iMacs, eMacs and titanium Powerbooks (dare I forget iPods), as well as periodically altered interfaces, inject untold pleasure into our drab existences.

And while on the subject of drabness, to underscore the emotional power of emotional design, before the Berlin Wall came thundering down, East Berlin was bereft of the color and exuberance found just a few blocks over in the West. One only had to walk the Unter Den Linden near the Brandenburg Gate (even on a sunny day) to appreciate the need for design uplift. Modernism attempted to eliminate bourgeois (or at least sentimental) emotionalism from art and design and replace it with cleanliness and clarity, and, while it is a historically significant ideal, the East Berlin modernist aesthetic legacy was a spiritual disaster. Sure, emotional design is a tool of the manipulators of fashion and trend, but those who benefit are not all design lemmings blindly following the tastemongers. Despite barrages of advertising and promotion, free will (or at least the ability to choose from alternatives) is born of a desire for individualism—bourgeois or otherwise.

Emotional design may be nothing to get too emotional about, but it is something to fully understand as a key to how design operates. Anyone who says they are purely objective when it comes to producing or consuming designed objects is not in touch with their feelings and is missing something vital. Or as Bertrand Russell wrote: “We know too much and feel too little. At least we feel too little of those creative emotions from which a good life springs.”

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.