Designing for Emotion

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
– Maya Angelou.

For many people, brand design is an exercise in choosing a color palette, pictures, shapes, and layouts. Bright colors and aspirational images of people in perfect settings holding beautifully designed products can get people’s attention. They make us want something better, newer, shinier, more beautiful, or more powerful than what we have now. And it works. Until the next bright, shiny thing comes out that diverts people’s attention.

Brand Design is a Science

For design to work — to capture people’s hearts in addition to their minds — a lot more needs to go into it. There is thought, research, and strategy behind every design decision. Hours upon hours of research and experimentation to turn words and concepts into a brand. And the most important ingredient that makes design work is being very specific about the emotions you want to conjure in people.

Get Emotional: Dove Real Beauty

There’s no better example than the “Dove Real Beauty Sketches: You’re More Beautiful Than You Think” campaign. Instead of making people aspire to obtain the next level of beauty, it aims to inspire the beauty of self-acceptance. And by designing for emotion, Dove created one of the most memorable campaigns of this century.

Dove has always been the bastion of positive emotions and they know their largely female audience’s self-esteem has been negatively affected by the world’s view of beauty. In the film, a forensic artist draws each woman as they describe their features. The women each meet someone and strike up a conversation. Unbeknownst to them, that person then describes them to the artist. The side by side sketches are revealed and the emotional impact is massive by showing how self-critical behaviors are so ingrained, and so limiting.

To address this topic, Dove had to know their audience. As someone with Body Dysmorphia, I definitely fall into that target group and could relate to the stories. This could have been filmed in so many different ways but there were key design decisions that took emotion from a ripple to a wave. The styling of the set in blues and soft natural light were made to create a calm environment, it pulled you in and made you feel safe. The choice of music, both sad and beautiful, played alongside the words they used to describe their features and create a specific mood. The choice of how the subjects were captured — the shifting eyes, nervous twitches — in describing themselves created a contrast to the moments of realization when they discovered that others saw more beauty that they could see in themselves. The design choices in how the sketches were gracefully displayed highlighted the individual and made the audience feel this person deserved their attention. And most importantly, the bittersweet experience of seeing both the problems women face with self-acceptance and the opportunity they had to see themselves in a new light brought to your eyes. The likelihood of you forgetting the message, the film, and the brand is zero, because the experience wasn’t designed to make you buy soap — it was designed to make you feel.

Emotion is a human characteristic that separates us from machines. In digital design, it creates an experience for the user that implies another person like them is on the other end of the connection. Color, sound, photostyles, logos, and fonts all contribute to deepening the emotional impact of a brand. The decisions we designers make in combining and balancing these pieces can be profound when we’re focused on the feelings we want to evoke. Brands can become living breathing entities that create community, promote values, or inspire movements by their very presence (when you’re wearing a Patagonia fleece made from recycled bottles, you’re wearing a reminder to recycle). When we think of brands as containers for feelings, our design choices help us artfully bring them into every part of an experience. Design is how we invite people to embody authentic emotions — ones that create lasting memories and deepen relationships.

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