3 Levels of Emotional Design

EMOTIONAL DESIGN – deals mostly with how design makes you feel – not how it looks. But of course, how it feels is intrinsically tied to how it looks. As well as how it performs and whether it reflects us in a good way.


Emotion is much more a reaction than an action. People don’t plan their emotions, they just happen, and reactions, thoughts and analysis follows. Emotional design should deliver memories, not messages.

The best artists, performers and directors understand this and when we see it we know that it’s true, but often we don’t expect to reach that same level of emotional design in our daily communications solutions. It requires greater intention and added work. But it can be the difference between delivering a message and delivering a memory. Something that taps the emotional center of the mind and leaves traces of the resulting emotional effects and state of mind – essentially mapping these memories for easy retrieval.

Donald Norman wrote the popular book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. And in it he explains that attractive things really do work better. But not because of how well they are made, but because they are beautifully designed, which makes us feel like they work better.

From the Interaction Design Foundation: What is Emotional Design?

Emotional design strives to create products that elicit appropriate emotions, in order to create a positive experience for the user. To do so, designers consider the connections that can form between users and the objects they use, and the emotions that can arise from them. The emotions a product elicits can strongly influence users’ perceptions of it.

Emotions play a central role in the human ability to understand and learn about the world. Positive experiences kindle our curiosity, and negative ones protect us from repeating mistakes. Humans form emotional connections with objects on three levels: the visceralbehavioral, and reflective levels. A designer should address the human cognitive ability at each level—to elicit appropriate emotions so as to provide a positive experience. A positive experience may include positive emotions (e.g., pleasure, trust) or negative ones (e.g., fear, anxiety), depending on the context (for example, a horror-themed computer game).

Visceral emotional design appeals to our first reactions when we encounter a product. It mainly deals with aesthetics and the perceived quality from mere look and feel, and the engagement of the senses. Here, we examine what inner or “gut” reactions tell us about an item.

Behavioral emotional design refers to the usability of the product, our assessment of how well it performs the desired functions, and how easily we can learn how to use it. By this stage, we will have formed a more justified opinion of the item.

Finally, reflective emotional design is concerned with our ability to project the product’s impact on our lives after we have used it—e.g., how it makes us feel when not holding it, or what values we find ourselves attaching to the product in retrospect. Here is where designers will want to maximize the users’ desire to own that item.

These three levels of emotional design can help to better assess and design toward a more deep and meaningful connection with the consumer. The “design” that we are talking about can be almost anything, and really should be everything – from the top of the brand all the way to the bottom – every aspect can be positively effected by better emotional design.

When designing with emotional methods, the key is to continue to recognize what’s going on in the emotional center of the mind, while we’re examining the physical layout and psychological meaning of the design. Along with our gut reactions, and the strategic criteria, we get a feeling with each design decision. This goes for the audience receiving the communication – and also for the creators of the material/content that is being communicated.

Another tool worth checking out is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. An interesting visual study on emotional evolution. It shows how the basic primary emotions lead to combinations (secondary emotions) that link and contrast the basic emotions to provide a better understanding of their relationships. He also attributed color to the emotional wheel to help create an emotional color palette that designers can utilize to help focus and create different levels of emotional response and intensity of that response.

Of course this is not new and you’ve likely heard of the intentional designing of emotional and physiological responses – from likes, shares and comments, that make social media so addictive, to the game makers who have also long understood the emotional triggers of leaderboards, high-scores, levels and badges. The dark side of emotional design can be clearly seen in the socio-political rhetoric that leads many people to believe far-fetched lies and conspiracy theories.

So it is with every power we possess, emotional design can be used for good or for bad. So let’s be more aware and use this power of emotional design for good. The good of our brands, the good of our audiences and the good of our hearts.


Kent Land is a marketing and communications strategist, creative director, social entrepreneur and musician who can be found at brand67.com. Read other marketing and creative articles at Brand67 or you can email kent@brand67.com

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