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What is Emotional Design?

Emotional design is the practice of creating a human connection between a piece of work and the work’s intended audience. Rooted in the beliefs of the artists, designers, and architects from the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th to early 20th century, the emotional design approach emphasises the importance of preserving the human touch in the designer’s work, welding this into the project through craftsmanship and psychology, in order to make the user feel like they are interacting with a person, not a machine. This is in stark contrast to the mass-produced, one-size-fits-all, quick-and-dirty approach which some web designers and developers choose to adopt. 

As the web has evolved, users have grown accustomed to using the web in a more casual manner, interacting with it in the way that they might with a friend. Internauts feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, opinions, feelings, hardships, and motivation to a global audience through tweets, photos, videos, and a hundred other ways, all whilst taking in the things other users have to say on every topic imaginable. This evolution has sparked the personification of brands, businesses and interactive experiences which are in use today, and has proven an incredibly engaging way to connect to an audience on a deeper level.

The psychological reasoning behind designing for emotion is rooted in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Mapping the same hierarchy of human needs into the realm of interface design shows us that for the most ultimately satisfying experience, a digital product must not only be “functional, reliable and useable”, but finally must also be pleasurable. A product without a sense of pleasure is mundane, while at the same time a product which is pleasurable yet lacking in any of the tiers below it is broken. It must satisfy all layers of the hierarchy in order to be a practical choice for the user as well as a joy to use again and again.

“What if an interface could help you complete a critical task and put a smile on your face? Well, that would be powerful indeed!”

How can we utilise Emotional Design?

Rewarding users with positive emotion is a sure-fire way to win their praise and return business, even in spite of shortcomings. It engages them on a deeper level whilst triggering a dopamine response in their brain, solidifying the experience in their memory. This increases the likelihood that they will come back to the product or recommend it to others. In order to achieve this, the designer must show the personality behind the product’s brand, allowing the user to relate to it as if it were another human being through feelings of empathy.  While each person is unique and has unique emotional traits and dispositions, we all have an underlying universal psychology which can be used to an advantage when designing for our users. 

1. The “Baby-Face Bias”

The evolution of human psychology has caused us to see babies through rose-tinted glasses despite the hard work needed to look after them, in order that our species can continue to thrive. By using the “cute” proportions of a baby’s face in mascots and characters in our designs — big eyes, little button nose, large forehead — we are able to create a sense of endearment in an audience. 

2. The Need for Connection

We humans have a tendency to see ourselves reflected in the world around us, whether that be in nature, in human faces, or in abstract elements such as proportion. Our subconscious mind is able to patterns of beauty which are present in our own body, such as the golden ratio, and is influenced by such patterns.

3. The Use of Contrast

The brain is constantly scanning its surroundings to decipher patterns in it, ready to alert us when a pattern is broken so that we can detect when something is or isn’t good for us. One such example of this is noticing when milk smells sour after leaving it out of the fridge, and so our brain alerts us that it is not good for us to consume. 

There are two ways of perceiving contast: visually (appearance) and cognitively (through experiences or memories). Using visual contrast in a design can effectively influence a user’s behaviour by placing emphasis on a desired element, such as a login form or call to action, and letting users know what action is expected of them. Contrast should be used sparingly in order not to overwhelm the user. 

Furthermore, when a brand contrasts effectively with other brands, it is more easily identifiable and more memorable. 

4. Reducing Cognitive Load

According to Hick’s Law, the time needed to make a decision increases proportionally to the number of alternatives. As a result, as the number of high contrast elements on a page increases, so does the time it takes for the user to perform a task, learn how to carry out a task, or remember how to do that task again. Making an interface as simple as possible makes it easier for humans to identify patterns and contrasting elements, resulting in more predictable user behaviour and better retention of information.

Have you ever been to a party where everyone is yelling to speak to the person next to them? As the volume increases, everyone must speak louder to be heard, but that makes it even harder to have a conversation. Design works in the same way. If everything yells for your viewer’s attention, nothing is heard.

5. The Power of Aesthetics

A beautiful interface induces a positive emotional response in the brain, which improves a user’s ability to process and carry out tasks, and find solutions to the problems they encounter. This is known as the aethetic-usability effect. Attractive things work better.

Leveraging Personality

Let’s think of our designs not as a facade for interaction, but as people with whom our audience can have an inspired conversation. Products are people, too.

Case study: Voltswagen Beetle. Its “face” conveys a perpetually hopeful and fun attitude which multiple generations can easily connect with, reflecting emotion and facilitating a specific kind of relationship.

User personas are an effective way of keeping an archetypal user’s attitudes, needs and motivations in mind and allow teams to remain focused on their target audience’s requirements. It can also be useful to phone up real clients on trickier points of the interface design process and ask for their opinions. 

In a similar way, creating a design persona allows us to personify a website or brand, flesh out its personality, and help make decisions on how to consistently channel this personality through the product. Its personality can shine through in copy, interactions, and visual appearance for example. The brand’s personality must be unique and authentic, and absolutely not as a gimmick: this will deter users and lose their trust.

Elements of Design Personas

  • Overview — what makes the brand unique?
  • Personality image — picture of a person or the brand mascot which embodies the brand’s traits. Describe the person / mascot’s attributes.
  • Brand traits — 5 to 7 traits that best describe the brand, and 1+ traits to avoid. 
  • Personality map — X axis = unfriendliness / friendliness; Y axis = dominance / submissiveness (p39)
  • Voice — how would the brand speak and what would it say? Colloquial or academical tone of voice? Contractions (don’t vs do not)? Cases used for titles, buttons? How would it change in various situations (e.g. introducing itself, giving technical details, asking for personal information, success / error messages)
  • Copy examples
  • Moodboard / visual lexicon (typography, colours)
  • Engagement methods — Surprise / delight / anticipation / elevating perceived status / priming

If a proportion of users don’t understand the brand’s personality, it may be a good thing; the likelihood is that they aren’t the right customer, and having them turned away will prevent problems with them further down the line.


An extremely engaging read, Aarron Walter injects “Designing for Emotion” with a sense of excitement over the possibilities available when utilising principles or human psychology and emotion in branding and interface design. It gives in-depth explanations of what has been successful already, practical ways of applying these principles in future projects, and suggestions of the metrics which can be analysed to gauge the effectiveness of such methods.


Designing for Emotion by Aarron Walters