Emotional Design: A TED Talk and Term Project

This blog post is designed to not only showcase my project, but to provide producers, consumers and designers more information on the idea of emotional design as well as a public digital record anyone can refer to for more information and sources on emotional design. While it is not an infrastructure tool in and of itself, this post is a synthesis of my work and conclusions that, when combined with visuals and links to more information, will hopefully enhance digital scholarship surrounding emotional design and demonstrate how different digital scholarship elements (video, papers, books, blog posts/links, etc.) can be combined to produce the final product you see here.

What follows is my term project on emotional design, produced during Spring term 2014 for a Film & Media Studies course at Dartmouth College.


When I think about my undergraduate college career coming to a close very quickly after the completion of this project, I can’t help but think about all the things that have led up to this point. From the day four years ago I moved halfway across the country for school to the day quickly approaching that I will (hopefully) become the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college, I can’t help but think of how much has changed.

Nearly everything in my life has changed during my time here — which, of course, is what seems to happen to most college students. The world gets turned upside down; everything you think you know gets thrown out the window; and there’s always at least one class each term that makes you think about things you never thought you would. When I asked someone much wiser than I why such things happened, they told me that, on some level, college was designed to do this.

There’s an interesting word: design. According to a trusty Google search (and Merriam-Webster online), design as a verb means to “create, fashion, execute or construct according to plan.” When we design, we are making intentional decisions with the idea that what we are designing will be so designed in accordance with our plan for its use; just as we might design an object to fulfill a purpose and provide users the ability to complete an action, so too can we design a work of art to express something, or design a college course to bring up the great questions in life.

I’d like to focus on an area where ideas about designing objects and expressing feelings­, which we might usually hold separate, intertwine so tightly I can’t believe I haven’t given it much thought before. This area is emotional design, and I think it provides plenty of material for us to consider more closely.

Let’s talk about design

According to Donald Norman, a cognitive scientist and usability engineer and bestselling author in the field of design, considering emotions within the realm of product design is a new idea, something even Norman, as an accomplished researcher and authority figure on user-centric design, did not consider until the dawn of the new Millennium. Writing about this change of view in his 2004 book Emotional Design: Why we Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, Norman explains himself thus:

 In writing The Design of Everyday Things, I didn’t take emotions into account. I addressed utility and usability, function and form, all in a logical, dispassionate way—even though I am infuriated by poorly designed objects. But now I’ve changed. Why? In part because of new scientific advances in our understanding of the brain and of how emotion and cognition are thoroughly intertwined. We scientists now understand how important emotion is to everyday life, how valuable. Sure, utility and usability are important, but without fun and pleasure, joy and excitement, and yes, anxiety and anger, fear and rage, our lives would be incomplete (pp. 8).

Emotional design, as Norman elucidates, acknowledges that emotions weigh heavily on the human decision-making process and, as part of that process, emotions affect both how we perceive and how we react to objects in our world, as well as how we ultimately use these objects. Emotional design is the practice of considering the emotional responses users have to designed products, and leveraging those responses as part of the design process so as to produce a particular experience for users of the product in question.

 So, What’s with these emotions?

 The idea that “good” design matters — that things we use every day can, and should, be well-designed — goes almost without saying. As Donald Norman lays out clearly in his 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things, “well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand,” while “poorly designed objects can be difficult and frustrating to use” (pp. 2). When, Norman writes, glass doors forsake good design and are absent of all adornments for a minimalist look, users are left no visible clues as to which way the door swings, whether a user should push or pull, and which side of the door the motion should be performed. Users have to use trial and error and risk getting stuck or looking ridiculous trying to complete what should be a straightforward task: opening a door so as to enter or leave a building.

 This makes intuitive sense, and many of us might be able to empathize with Norman’s example friend, trapped in an office building doorway: so why am I adding the word “emotional” in front of the word design? Isn’t good design still good without emotions getting involved?

 Emotions matter because humans are emotional creatures, and whether we actively try to or not, we respond on some emotional level to nearly everything we do on a daily basis. Using Norman’s insight as a cognitive scientist we can begin to understand just how tightly emotions are tied to our decision making processes, and how design factors in here.

 The human body perceives the world both consciously and unconsciously, and our judgments and decisions are processed unconsciously by our nervous system before we become conscious of them. Often, according to Norman, decisions are “made” for us by our bodies unconsciously; importantly, emotions are our conscious processing and response to the decisions we face.

 Norman provides us a simple example: while we can walk on a sturdy plank of wood while it is laying on the ground without much thought, walking on that same sturdy plank if it were now 50 feet above the ground would cause most of us to pause in fear. Our brain sees the plank suspended far above the ground and immediately processes it as a potential danger, which we consciously experience as the emotion of fear. Consider this as a simplified example of the multitude of similar decisions our mind is faced with every day and it becomes easy to see how emotions play a bigger role in our lives than we may have thought previously.

To better understand this with relevance to design, consider Norman’s ideas together with the research of psychologist Alice Isen. In a 2001 paper, Isen identified multiple studies demonstrating that making people feel “good” enhances decision making skills AND creative thought processes.

As Norman describes, daily actions like opening a door or using a computer require people to make many decisions both consciously and unconsciously, such as where to push or pull a door or how to navigate a computer program. According to Isen’s research, if we feel good in these situations, we can make these decisions better and more creatively.

To synthesize, let’s link together a few ideas:

  • According to Norman, how we respond to decisions we face is intertwined with our emotions, and we respond with emotions to things we encounter on a daily basis
  • Isen’s research in 2001 found multiple studies demonstrating that making people feel “good” enhances decision making skills and creative thought processes
  • Opening a door, using a computer or mobile device, driving a car: these actions require us to make a multitude of “decisions” both consciously and unconsciously, such as where to push or pull the door, how to activate and navigate a computer program, etc.
  • If we feel good in these situations, we can make decisions better and more creatively

I’ll let Norman, writing in Emotional Design, sum it up for us: “attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively” (pp. 19). This makes it easier for people to “find solutions to the problems they encounter” (pp. 19) — things like where to push or pull a door, or how to activate and navigate a computer program.

 Good design is emotional design. Well designed products make us feel good, and when we feel good we are better able to figure things out: how to turn on a phone and check our email; which sequence of buttons to press to start a car, turn on the radio and start driving … the list goes on and on.

 Good design makes us happy. Happy people are smarter about using things. Happy people will figure out the right way to use an object to produce a desired result, and isn’t achieving that desired result the point of designing something in the first place?

 It’s a simple connection with far-reaching, nuanced results.

 All right, so why does emotional design matter?

 Two things stand out to me in particular when I think about the idea of emotional design: emotional design as an explanation and emotional design as an end-goal.

 Let me tackle emotional design as an explanation first. With this I mean simply that understanding emotional design helps us explain our reactions to, and experiences with, the objects in our everyday lives. Realizing that well designed, attractive products, as Norman suggests, are easier to use because they provoke positive emotional responses — honestly, that explains quite a lot for me, and I hope for you as well.

 A few personal examples:

  • Why my iPhone, with the full force of Apple’s obsessive design work behind it, is consistently easier and more enjoyable to use than the Android phone it replaced;
  • Why I prefer driving my “cute” and “sporty” little hatchback over the boat-like sedan I had before, even though it’s a simpler and cheaper car
  • Why I had no trouble opening my MacBook and using OS X for the first time, but for the life of me I can’t figure out how to work Windows 8 (and I’ve about given up trying)

 Good design is emotional design. My iPhone, with its clean lines and streamlined interface, is easier for me to use, even though I consider myself very technologically literate. I can turn on my iPhone and do what I need to do, whether it’s simply checking my messages or fiddling with the phone’s software settings, and I’m rarely frustrated. The iPhone’s design does keep me happy, and as Norman and Isen demonstrate, my positive feelings surrounding this design are part of the reason that it’s easy for me (and countless others) to use. It’s no accident that any new smartphone is immediately compared to the iPhone: Apple’s design really is that good.

 It’s also no accident that the iPhone is that good, which leads me to my second idea: emotional design as an end-goal. This takes the idea of emotional responses to design one step further with the realization that designers also understand that good design is emotional design, and they can leverage the research of Norman, Isen, and others to elicit a desired response when users encounter the products of their design work.

 This is a powerful notion with many implications. It became evident to me through my research that designers are actively promoting emotional design in a variety of fields, and that both designers and users stand to benefit from this. Scouring design and technology publications on the web turned up a well-reasoned piece on The Next Web, written by web designer and author Paul Jarvis. In it, Jarvis explains the basics of emotional design and offers concrete reasons why the practice is effective: good designs create an emotional connection between companies and consumers, and things like well-designed websites and thoughtful newsletters turn “visitors into brand evangelists” It’s not hard to find piece after piece of evidence in support of that. Apple fanboys; die-hard Droid users; players of 2048 and Angry Birds — attraction by good emotional design can be seen as one thing linking all these groups together.

 The effects of emotional design may not end with brand loyalty, however, and this is where we can really dig into the “nitty gritty” of leveraging human emotions through design.

 Let’s turn to Batya Friedman and Helen Nissenbaum’s original research on bias in computer systems for a short discussion about potential shortcomings of emotional design. I find Friedman and Nissenbaum’s idea of emergent bias, that computer systems have the potential to create new biases just as they reinforce existing ones, applicable here. Might products that are explicitly designed with emotional responses in mind create new biases?

 For example, a social network designer might want to target a certain audience — let’s say American teenagers — and to do so the designer builds in elements he or she thinks will provoke positive emotional responses from that audience. If these design elements are successful in doing so and end up in the final release, what does that mean for everyone outside the target audience? If the design elements that resonate emotionally with 17 year-old girls make using the service more difficult for middle-aged men, is that a form of bias toward the former and against the latter? If everyone uses this particular network (like the widely-used airline reservations system example in the reading) and there are few viable alternatives, what does this mean for users?

 To take this notion further, consider James Tiptree, Jr.’s dystopian short story “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” as an extreme example of emotional design and engineering. The design of P. Burke’s “human puppet” Delphi is in every way playing on emotions, drawing in viewers across the world with exaggerated “cute” features and mannerisms while simultaneously advertising each and every product Delphi is seen using. The attraction to P. Burke’s living, breathing avatar is such that the son of the CEO of the company that developed Delphi is willing to destroy his father’s corporation to “rescue” his beloved, only to shrink back in horror when he discovers he loved a lie.

 Extreme? Certainly, but Tiptree’s fascinating work definitely raises questions about the possibilities of design, especially design that implicates human emotions, and how deeply influential such notions are in society. Consider the fanaticism surrounding product launches and Facebook redesigns today, and the amount of design work that goes into such products, and the fact that designers are well aware of how and why to utilize emotional design, and maybe it’s not too hard to see how what we experience at the hands of our devices might be decided before we even pick up our buzzing smartphones.


 Good design is emotional design. Humans respond emotionally to a variety of situations in everyday life, and these responses shape how we utilize the objects, devices and platforms we make part of our daily routines. Users may or may not be aware of these responses, but designers certainly are, and emotional design is used now (and will continue to be used in the future) to connect with consumers of various products and services. Good design is emotional design, and both producers and consumers of designed products should be aware of the possibilities and implications of leveraging emotions in the design process.



Friedman, Batya, and Helen Nissenbaum. “Bias in Computer Systems.” ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS) 14.3 (1996): 330-47.

Isen, Alice. “An Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making in Complex Situations: Theoretical Issues with Practical Implications.” Journal of Consumer Psychology 11.2 (2001): 75-85.

Jarvis, Paul. “The Importance of Emotion in Design.” The Next Web, 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 May 2014. <http://thenextweb.com/dd/2014/02/25/importance-emotion-design/>.

Norman, Donald A. Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic, 2004.

Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic, 2013.

Tiptree, James. The Girl Who Was Plugged in. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1989.


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