The Power of Designing with Emotion

The Power of Designing with Emotion

 

The Beginnings

 

 

My design career kicked off working as Sir John Makepeace’s designer – creating niche, high end sculptural wooden furniture. And then I did a 180 and returned to one of my main loves: futuristic design. I worked at the vibrant and exciting hub of innovation – BT’s Research and Development division based at Adastral Park. At that time there really was a great buzz around, working alongside some of the world’s greatest technologists, futurologists, engineers, inventors and designers.

Adastral Park, home of BT's Global Research and Development.

Adastral Park, home of BT's Global Research and Development.

During my time there I worked on a variety of projects, from wearables to augmented reality – taking emerging technologies and developing these into new products and services. Some of which were possible then, the rest were more blue sky and 5 to 10 years ahead of time.

My real beginnings with emotional design were during a trip to the sea – which I always longed to be by. And whilst walking along Felixstowe beach, I picked up a pebble. During downtime, that’s often when you really get the space and time to think about those who are somewhere else in the world. Your folks, partner, best friend. How great it would be if I could let them know I was thinking of them – without actually having to use a phone, to not say it with words, but to ‘feel’ it more and ‘show’ it somehow. I wanted to squeeze that pebble and be able to let my folks know I was thinking of them.

So that’s how my own research work began. It led to me developing a range of prototype pebbles that heated or cooled from a text message or from someone squeezing another pebble that was paired to yours, and which were exhibited at The V&A in the 'Touch Me' show.

From there I developed a range of toys that would move and offer all kinds of sensory actions based on the emoticons sent via text messages. And from SMS Toys, came The Jelly Family, a family of devices that grow with the age of the user. These remained built around new technologies but very much steeped in the emotional side of design. And probably in quite a literal sense, with little organic heart beats that reflected their battery health.

The Tinker - part of the Jelly Family range of mobile devices.

The Tinker - part of the Jelly Family range of mobile devices.

From this research work, I’ve also worked in the film and games industry and for various production houses and since starting my own company there is one thing that runs through everything I do. Whether you’re making a film, designing a new brand or creating a new product line, emotion is the big cahuna that drives our decisions.

Think of your favourite film. Why do you love it so? Because it makes you laugh, cry, thrills or moves you in some way? Ultimately, whatever the overriding emotion, our favourite things weave a fantastic tale, make us feel something powerful and pass into the rarer memorable category of creative wonders.

Sometimes, I wish a creative pursuit hadn’t been so indelibly burnt into my memory, for try as I might, I still can’t remove a few of the flickering and searing images from ‘Schindler’s List’. It is an incredibly important, weighty film which is a tower of pure emotional power. But of course, whilst we must not forget the horrors it tells so vividly, I do find myself wishing that some of those images would not be recalled quite so easily 15 years on. The film was a marvel, but I was also sickened and saddened to the point of crying whole heartedly as I hadn’t for a long time. Of course it wasn’t made to be ‘enjoyed’ as many creative outputs are, it was made to educate, challenge, to tell a story which should never be forgot and for that it could never be comfortable watching. And just like 'Saving Private Ryan', I only need to see it the once for to have done it's job for a lifetime. So there you have it. The strong emotions the film stirred up, are what crystallised it in my minds eye and heart for ever more, and thankfully time helps blur those images. But as soon as I hear the most beautiful of themes, written by the great John Williams, I am immediately taken back to that all enveloping story and the emotions that run deep within it.

Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg and released 1994.

Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg and released 1994.

Just as music can immediately transport us places, our sense of smell is so strong and quick to hit, taking us back to moments in time, places, people and those feelings of nostalgia. Sometimes it takes us a while to place it, but just as my sensory devices explored this pull and almost magical ability to evoke memories we had all but lost, emotion in design can also take us places and ask us to feel things we may have misplaced as adults, until rewoken.

 

 

The child in us

 

Do we really change that much from kid to adulthood? Sure we develop our emotions, we control them more, better in some ways, but we still just want to laugh, cry when we feel down.

Many things were simpler when we were kids, without the weight and nonsense of mortgages, expectation and all the other responsibilities we often wish we could be free of. But the question of control is an interesting one. We are expected to hide our emotions when we are in public and amongst respectable company for fear we will embarrass someone. We are expected to supress our issues and stress, although some seem to surface in odd online theatres like Facebook, when really we should just get one to one help or talk in person to a close friend. As adults, we have more of a perspective and understanding of grief perhaps, but the child still resides in all of us – and humour is the perfect antidote to modern life.

That is why humour has long played a starring role in many a brand campaign, film, book and now even website and user interface design. Not only is it light relief and distraction from our daily grind and wonderings about our place in the world, but it seeks to break the ice, raise a smile and through its informality, connect us all together. Laughing may not be a team pursuit as such, but it is true that things seem to become a good 20% funnier when enjoyed with others. There is definitely a contagious spirit to it at least!

Humour can also be used to make less lovely things more palatable and digestible because of it, and certainly this is a tactic used by the makers of ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ – about awareness of the dangers of Metro Trains in Australia. Not only did this song and creative branding piece become hugely shareable, but so did its underlying message (with around 150 million views of youtube.com to date) which has become memorable due to the use of humour and fun characters.

Another example would be the treatment of New Zealand’s airline safety video to celebrate the release of the Hobbit films. Again, a bit of light fun, but will a serious message that needs to be memorable.

 

A couple of strong memories I have as a child are ying and yang.

The first is rather lovely. It is of playing in my Grandma and Grandad’s garden in Salisbury, cartwheeling, finding teeny, tiny snail shells under the rockery plants and then going in to the small conservatory and being hit with the most gorgeous smell of tomatoes which Grandad used to grow. I would rub the leaves on my fingers and smell them – ahh the smell of real vegetables, like those in his allotment and quite unlike anything we get in packets from Tesco’s these days. What's funny was that at the time, I really didn’t enjoy tomatoes to eat, I used to hide them under my fork, although I adored Grandad's pickled onions, the like of which I’ve not enjoyed since, and much like him, miss a great deal.

I am happy to say that these days, I not only enjoy tomatoes, but the very reason I grow them, is to smell those leaves and be taken right back to my Grandad's arms, his garden, their house, the big bonging Grandfather clock and the three little flying ducks in a row on their wall. I can still picture it, see it and ‘feel’ it. And I love it! All from a tomato leaf as a potent nostalgic catalyst.

My Grandad's tomato plants - with the best smell ever!

My Grandad's tomato plants - with the best smell ever!

In the creative world, I like to plug in to these memories and feelings to find what I can learn and how I might imbue my designs with much more than the purely functional or stylisation. I think about other creative pursuits who have also tapped directly into their younger selves to pull out a story that can move one and all. And I am reminded of ‘Ratatouille’ – the lovely little Pixar animation about a food loving rat. At first it seems like an odd concept – surely this couldn’t truly affect one in any real sense. But if you’ve seen the film, then you’d know that’s not at all correct. *Spoiler alert if you’ve not yet seen it*

It is the food critic character Ego, who is taken straight back to his childhood with one taste of the little rat Reme’s dish. The smell, the taste, the nostalgia – of homely simplicity, with good earthy ingredients that are given the space to sing, which create feelings of safety, cosiness, warmth and love. Memories of when life was simple and all you had to do was play all day, exhaust yourself and be back home for mum’s delicious dinner.

The moment Anton Ego's taste senses hit and evoke memories of his youth.

The moment Anton Ego's taste senses hit and evoke memories of his youth.

Not only does this provide an important shift for the stories arc, but it rings a bell within all of us. It makes sense, we recognise it and we have empathy with one of the film’s seemingly meaner characters. We feel for him, we begin to understand him, and we invest even more in the outcome of this tale. So once again, emotions steer our rollercoaster journey through one seemingly unimportant tale of one little rat’s gastronomical adventure in Paris.

 

Now, didn't I mention a yang to my ying? This was a less happy memory, and one I was clearly not ready to have, yet I wasn’t to know until it was too late..

This was my fault of course, a foolish child! Cracks in doors are all very well for peeking, but it was peeking that then haunted the images in my brain for many years subsequently. It was something called ‘The Blob’ I believe. I should have been in bed, but I can still see snap shots of a person begging to be released from the other side of a locked space door whilst the blob advanced towards them. Such sick horror, and 30 years or so on, those images remain in my mind’s eye.

Next it was an episode of Doctor Who. I’m sure to my parents it was very tame indeed. Yet for me it was horrifically scary! It’s funny to think that 20 years later I’d be standing in the Tardis, on the set of Doctor Who, only to see all the scariness for what it was - card, metal, plastic knobs and a bit of makeup. But therein lies the power of imagination and emotion when we are young. We may recognise these things for what they are more easily now, see past the computer generated imagery (CGI) for the fakery it is, but we still all just want to get lost in another world, a fantasy for moments in time, even if sometimes we really should look away.

Doctor Who Sea Devils

Doctor Who Sea Devils

 

Designing with emotion for clients

 

If I’m making films, writing songs or designing something for my business, I can dig deep but essentially please myself, design for the emotions I want to see, feel and experience. Designing for clients is obviously something very different.

 

These are my top tips for designing with emotion for clients and their audiences:

 

1.   Listen

 

Talk to your client and listen to absolutely everything they have to say, inside and out about their business. They are the experts after all. I’ve been in many meetings over the years, where potential people have come in and all they’ve done is talk about themselves and not asked one question about the client.

Learning to Listen.

Learning to Listen.

Listening can be more valuable than talking sometimes, and the more you understand from a client’s story, the more you can pull out to express through a brand, film or product.

Don’t forget however, that you are also in an invaluable position of being able to look from the outside in. More often than not, I find this enables me to see clearly, without any bias, as to where a client’s business strengths are, but also to locate where any issues might be. This is a great super power that as designers we possess – the power of clear vision, of close to home and beyond..

 

 

2.   Audience

 

Who are you talking to? Even your client, is not the same as you clien'ts audience, so in a sense, you’re working for your client’s clients. If you’ve done the first part correctly however, you’ll have a good in depth knowledge of this already.

But, not all clients are clear themselves on who their target market is, who they’re truly talking to, or want to focus on. So again, looking from the outside in, puts you in a great position to be able to decipher a number of things, including the potential that a new brand, or other creative output might have. Particular demongraphics can respond very differently to similar emotions, (think teens V the elderly) so knowing who you want to reach should steer your choices.

 

 

3.   Emotion and need

 

When someone lands on your website, what is the first thing you want them to feel?

When a person sees your brand on a billboard, what overriding emotion do you want to leave them with? This is one of the finest questions you can ask your client, their clients and yourself - as the client. If you can answer this question, this will be a great starter to set you off in the right direction, no matter what the creative project.

If you’re telling a story through a brand, or more fully through a film or website, there is further opportunity to apply a range of emotions in order to emphasise key points. As it’s often the extremes of emotions that we recall the best, employing shock or wonder for example will ensure your tale packs a memorable punch, but using humour can set that informal, relaxed feeling that so often helps to open a dialogue between a business and customer, or even between yourself and a client. No matter how posh or important you may think a client is, chances are they still want to feel good, to connect with others, and occasionally may even pass wind. Yes, they are humans too.

This urge to connect with others is not only human, but key to emotional design. Engaging audiences in a real sense so that they are invested in what they are using, watching, listening to or even eating is generally what happens when it’s working (or going horribly, horribly wrong of course). If we think about any product, there is usually an emotional need being met. And this is what connects us, strikes a chord in us and makes it all matter.

The reason new parent’s buy a baby monitor is not because it allows you to hear noises in another room when you’re not in it. That’s simply a function. It’s so you feel more confident, with an assured feeling that your baby is safe and healthy at all times.

So the emotional needs that run through creative outputs are as key to consider as the emotions you inject to design them, sell them and weave into your stories. These days we seem to be inventing the emotional needs themselves too. We can now build synthetic ‘humans’ who are built to apparently do some of the things we don’t want to do, freeing us and our precious time up. I guess the emotional need would be to allow us to spend more time with our families and doing more of the things we love, more time to create! But we are at an early stage still. Even from my time at BT’s R&D Labs, things have developed so far, so fast, but it still makes me uneasy. I think of the emergence of the Echo Dot, personified as Alexa from Amazon. One of the first voice-controlled life controlling device to market...

The Amazon Echo Dot, or Alexa as she is becoming better known.

The Amazon Echo Dot, or Alexa as she is becoming better known.

But what emotional need does asking Alexa fulfil when we ask it to tell us the time? It allows us to continue with what we’re doing, but is there really no time in our lives to stop and simply look at a clock? It's only the next step from looking for the time on our phones, but rather than relieve anxiety, it only seems to add to mine. I find this juxtaposition amusing considering where I started, developing these emerging technologies into new products and services, and now it's happening, I have a desire to go back to the simple life!

Of course Alexa fulfills a tremendous need for those who are less abled, yet my emotional reaction is to slow the pace down, make the expectation and invasion of technology less, but what product would solve that? A desert island perhaps, or my more practical version - an office by the sea! Technological development is ongoing and a must, whether we like it or not, but they do come with issues, including acceptance and trust. If even a futures designer like me is uneasy with the evolution and intrusion of some design, then such emotional quandries should be valued and considered in any solutions designed.

Another reason for my general emotional unease around design and technology today, is for all it's wonderous uses and potential, and despite a great deal of it being centred around connecting (e.g. Facebook), it makes me feel more stressed, anxious and lonely. Nothing beats meeting a person and talking to them in person, no matter how awesome our design and overuse of emoticons. If you ever come across Ruby Wax's 'A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled', I highly recommend it. For not only does she touch on the myriad of emotions that stem from our technological 'advances', but discusses the negative impact these can make and ways to address them;

'All this interconnectedness and we still feel lonely; and the less we feel the need to emotionally connect with each other, the more we'll lose our ability to.' Ruby Wax

Robert Plutchik’s Theory of Emotion, saw the Professor develop 8 basic emotion categories in 1980 to cover our entire spectrum. It’s interesting that he distilled it down to so few, when we have thousands of words to describe our emotions, and many more feelings that we haven’t named or can’t name, but here we are with just 8.

These are Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness, Surprise, Anticipation, Trust and Joy. I can think of many successful branding campaigns or films that have used one or more of these to full effect. We've probably all seen the Corsodyl advert which suggests if you have any blood when you brush your teeth, then you won't have your teeth for much longer unless you use it. Their advertising is based on fear, but as it's so negative, I find I dont have postive feelings about the product even though I know I should trust it to prevent bad things. Instead I just feel worried and scared. Not something I want any brand to make me feel. The more traditional fear adverts might be the risks around smoking, or to wear a seatbelt. Some of those adverts were extremely powerful and upsetting, but those ads were never shared a fraction of the times 'Dumb Ways To Die' has been (which contains a similar safety message). So it's clear what more people want to watch and spread, and through this, a negative becomes a positive, more palatable message, which filters much further.

So I would suggest that on the whole, the more positive emotions sell better. Yet I can’t find a comfortable home for my uncomfortable feelings - where do they sit in the spectrum? Plutchik's categories cover the main emotions we interact with day to day, but it is often by plugging in to the more subtle shades of emotion and exploring those, that other stories, feelings and desires come alive. There is a song about self-doubt, which evokes all manner of feelings in me and yet fits nowhere above. And for that, I love it all the more, for it is uniquely crafted and seemingly created to speak only to me. In that, there is a very special and direct connection. When brands manage this – it is extremely rare, and therefore more powerful. So don’t underestimate or limit yourselves, or your audience, to the major colour wheel. Obviously colours are associated strongly with particular emotions, but we should consider the entire spectrum, as our feelings too, are very rarely black or white, but 50 shades of the now rather popular grey.

Colour use in design.

Colour use in design.

 

4.   Storytelling

 

Whatever you are trying to sell more of, get people to believe in or desire (often its ourselves or our business), nothing draws audiences in like a great story. It doesn’t need to be long, it doesn’t need to be complex or clever, but it's often advisable to weave in a ‘why’, however subtle or obscure - why you should want it, need or deserve it (You’re Worth It – L’Oreal's strap line gives you an aspirational why). A story can support a great why, makes you care why, makes you understand what a product, service or brand can do for you. It takes you along on a journey and asks you to invest in the collective and connective adventure.

The story you tell begins when a client first sees your logo, website, packaging, product, film, social network content and any mainstream advertising. Think of the rise of Airbnb. Their story is in fact many, told by their customers. The adventures and discoveries travellers make whilst staying at the Airbnb properties. In this case, these stories help drive their website and provide compelling reasons as to why viewers might also want to use their service.

Airbnb's storytelling through brand.

Airbnb's storytelling through brand.

If you're telling a fantastical or seemingly unrelated story to draw comparisons or create meaning, then the sky can be the limit in expressing a wide orchestra of emotions and masked messages. When crafting stories closer to home however, there is a need to make your stories genuine and authentic, otherwise today's audiences will quickly see through you, turn off or even sue you. Trust is a major emotional player in building any brand or business, the success of many hinge on it e.g. banks or virus software providers. Whatever you are designing or creating, people only invest if they trust that it is at least going to do what it says on the tin. And that's the very base line.

But hang on, if you have the best designers, surely they will magic up the best solution around a product or service to pedal a powerful vision, so how can we tell what is actually REAL? Perhaps from testing the products, perhaps if they say less – with less being more. Often over egging a pudding is simply a sign they don’t have enough belief in what they’ve made and are not prepared to let the ingredients speak for themselves - like Reme's Ratatouille! It’s always a risk at first, but eventually, the reputation of trust will build and if there’s more behind a brand than PR clever words and great marketing pictures, you’ll experience that.

 

 

5.   Experience design

 

Experience design as a ‘thing’ is more of a new kid on the block, although it has in fact been around for a good time now. It's gaining more traction now since so much of our interaction has become focused through devices, tablets and of course a multitude of websites.

Experience design is simply about the quality of experience that a user gets when interacting with services or products, but it can make or break the success of any creation. It brings together a balance of strategy, futurology and technology, and design and is sometimes bundled as UX design. However, for me at least UX design tends to focus on fewer areas whereas experience design has to consider the entire ‘experience’ (obvious isn’t it?) from start to finish and therefore must include all touchpoints throughout your interaction with a particular brand.

One huge problem area today is the question of choice. I used to think having a wider choice of anything and everything was great, but the amount of hours I must lose from my week deciding which coffee to have, which website is best for this or that, or scrolling through the mounds of content on Netflix or Amazon, is making me impatient, stressed and fed up with it all. So if you're a interface designer of websites or television streaming in particularclarity - simplicity and ease of use are of utmost importance and emotion plays into this, even at a subconscious level.

Apple is so often quoted when it comes to experience design, but then they too easily illustrate the point for us. They look at a customer’s unique experience from selling a lifestyle to the tiny minutia of how you access and interact with their apps and iconography.

Apple experience design.

Apple experience design.

Although we often think of Experience Design in terms of devices, apps and online, even film franchises or pop stars have become brands themselves these days, therefore achieving consistency and joy through experience design is a must for these creative industries too. Does that seem somehow depressing and less creative? Well yes frankly. We like to think that something wonderful is simply good enough to speak for itself, but to ignore your audience’s total happiness and positive involvement across the board is how brands and even big business can fall down. No one wants to make it hard for people to do things, buy stuff or enjoy themselves, so now we have so many more touchpoints to perfect, as designers we have no choice but to raise our game all round. And when it’s done well, we can at least add another cool arrow to our creative quivers.

 

 

Summary

 

Hopefully this blog has shown that great design is about much more than intelligent problem solving and beautiful styling. There are so many more subtle emotions and feelings that are inspired by and come in to play here.

It doesn’t matter what you are designing or creating. The chances are what you have made will provoke your audience into feeling something, whether good or bad. No one aims for indifference, and true passion and commitment to design is more often than not, felt.

At Steamboat, we live a simpler life. We are based by the sea and it is a gentle daily reminder, that life exists beyond our screens - that true emotion and experience design, is to live and encounter life outside our office.

Steamboat HQ in Old Felixstowe, Suffolk.

Steamboat HQ in Old Felixstowe, Suffolk.

Contrary to some approaches, we don't believe this distracts or takes away from our ability or commitment to our clients and work. We believe it adds to, inspires and gives our work, and ourselves, more breathing space, authenticity and care with what we create.

For us, work is about great relationships, and those are built on a complex range of emotions. Putting people first, making work fun and balancing work with the real wonders outside our front door is what makes working for, and with Steamboat, a joy.

I set out to create a consultancy and business that was a reflection of my personality and principals, and that would be a breath of fresh air – in all senses. But it has grown into a bigger ethos which has the power to improve lives through great design with an awareness of emotion.  

We put the heart into our art, which is ultimately your art to show and share.

If you are inspired at all by these ramblings, please get in touch...

Or if you’re interested in having a chat around how our creative agency might help you with some positive design, please say hello@steamboatcreative.co.uk

Steamboat are a traditional and digital design marketing agency. Our studio offers a variety of creative services, from strategic brand communications (through identity, print, copy, illustration, website design, film and animation) to R&D and concept art for the games and film industries. But we believe there's nothing a great designer can not turn their hand to and solve with style.

Locally we love working with clients across Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and London. Further afield we have clients across Europe, New York and somewhere outside Saturn.