The Good and The Bad of Emotional Design

Emotional design is the process of how a user responds emotionally while viewing and interacting a product based on its visually appearance. According to Donald Norman’s theory on emotional design the user is more engaged in a product that is visually appealing to look at resulting in positive emotions. A positive interaction of a product is based on Norman’s three levels of processing an emotion which are visceral (the automatic response to a feel good based on the visual appearance i.e. smiling face), behavioral (successful behavior resulting in accomplishing a specific task with the efficiency of the product), and reflective (the knowledge of how the product is meaningful in a personal and cultural way).

Norman also stresses that positive emotions allow designers to be more creative and explore possible alternatives to problems whereas negative ones allow designers to focus on specific details of a problem in an anxious state. A person in a positive emotional state will even ignore minor flaws of a product provided that the product maintains that positive experience. However, the challenge that faces a designer has on designing a product is that emotional responses will vary among the user’s individual preferences.

Stephen Anderson who has studied the emotional impact on web design believes that users are motivated to visit certain websites provided that these websites are playful in a meaningful way. Anderson describes this process as serious play where the user elicits positive emotional responses based on unexpected pleasant surprises or meaningful challenges regardless of the content of the website.  One of the examples that Anderson gives is how Mail Chimp (a network allowing businesses or individuals to market themselves using email campaigning) is able to relax users based on the site’s presentation. Mail chimp displays its quirky mascot that says random witty phrases or can provide links to funny videos despite its serious business applications.

MailChimp also fits into Norman’s theory in positive emotional design as users feel satisfied that they can accomplish sending newsletters through email through a step by step do-it-yourself process. Furthermore, users are able to customize their newsletters allowing the use of creativity to reduce stress when figuring out a problem.

Sometimes spotting flaws in bad design can attract people if the bad or ugly product is given a cultural status provided it is meaningful to the viewer. Bad design may not work well visually or function properly, but sometimes it can still elicit a positive emotional response when it is meaningful.

Nowadays in the worldwide web, online reviewers are able to discuss shoddy product design using gimmicky and witty presentation to create a positive emotional response (as long as you are not the creator of the failed product). Ideally this is beneficial for designers to listen on how they themselves can make better products.

As a self-publisher of a comic I am always finding better ways to present my comic through my website or through print. Often I watch an online video called Atop the Fourth Wall that talks about comic books that are horribly written and drawn. The reviewer Lewis Lovhaug owns these bad comics despite his grievances with them. However, he is able to create positive emotional responses from his subject matter by presenting it as informative and entertaining for anyone curious about comics. Similar to Anderson’s theory on serious play Louvhaug will often use an attractive presentation such as whimsical costumes; animation effects, comedic asides or getting into character with impressions that can be unexpected yet elicit a positive response. When I watch Lovhaug’s videos I elicit more of a reflective aspect of the Norman’s theory since I myself embrace that comic book culture. In turn, specific comics he talks about gives me funny story ideas (particularly since I write and draw parody) when facing writers block or better design layouts for my comic.

Left Above: Lewis Lovhaug host and creator of the series Atop the Fourth Wall

Right Above: A sample of bad artwork from Rob Liefeld from Lovhaug’s video.


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