Stop Designing Aesthetics, Start Designing Emotions

Despite the somewhat provocative title, you shouldn’t really stop designing aesthetics.

Gradients and colors and contrast are all good, but there’s a more important side to web design that many people overlook most of the time: Designing emotions.

Discussing emotion in design is a bit of a hot topic at the moment, it seems to be popping up in more and more blog posts and speaker sessions. In fact I saw at least three different web designers say that it was the subject of the talk which they had recently submitted for next year’s SXSWi.

So what’s all the fuss about? Today we’ll take a look at what that means, how you can do it and why you should. This is taking design to the next level, beyond the norm.


Emotion Design


Emotions are important in design because emotions are important in absolutely everything.

Everyone is trying to make their brand, their website, their name the most memorable thing possible but how are they going to accomplish that? Think of the most memorable times in your life, right now, go ahead.

I’ll wager a good amount of money that the three to four things that you just thought of all involved a lot of emotion. The death of a loved one, the birth of a child, your wedding, the day you bought your first car. We remember the things which instill powerful emotions within us.

In his book, The Alchemies of The Mind, Jon Elster emphatically states that “Emotions matter because if we did not have them nothing else would matter. Creatures without emotion would have no reason for living, nor, for that matter, for committing suicide. Emotions are the stuff of life…. Emotions are the most important bond or glue that links us to others…. Objectively, emotions matter because many forms of human behaviour  would be unintelligible if we did not see them through the prism of emotion.”


Using Emotion in Web Design


As a web designer, it’s very easy to get caught up in just the design of the graphics. Of course the next step beyond that which everyone gets stuck on is usability.

So many people talk about usability like it’s the be-all and end-all of web design. As one speaker at the Future of Web Design in London succinctly put it this year: “Designing a website to be usable is like baking a cake to be edible. It’s simply not enough. A usable website should be the minimum requirement, it should go without saying that a website should be absolutely usable. It’s time to look beyond that.”

At the most basic level of considering your users’ emotions, you can consider letting them choose how they want your site to work. What content do they want to see on the home page? What order do they want to see it in? What’s their favorite color? Allowing users to customize your site to their preferences (without having to sign up for anything) creates and emotional attachment to the site with which the user is interacting. They’ve just invested time, however little of it, to make this site perfect for them. They’re going to remember that. Check out the BBC website if you want to see this in action.

What about making users happy without them having to do any customizations though? What about creating something that is so naturally pleasurable to use that people can’t put it down? Well, allow me to introduce you to my good friend: The iPhone.

The iPhone isn’t actually the story here, it’s the touch based device, regardless of who it’s manufactured by. As human beings we live in a real world, touching real things, moving them with our hands. In fact, if you think about it, computers are incredibly unnatural to use: We move one thing on our desk that moves another thing on a screen, and we spend hours pushing complex button combinations with our fingers whilst looking in a completely different (vertical) direction.

People are enthralled with touch based devices because they make computers work in a way that we’re naturally programmed to understand. We see something, we touch it, and it responds in some way. I recently watched a three year old girl navigating her way around an iPhone with absolutely no problems at all. The best part? No one had ever taught her to use it.

Touch based devices create emotions within us: joy, intrigue, and surprise. We understand them perfectly and yet they still thrill us because they’re so clever.


Creating Emotions


So how can we create emotions for users of our websites outside of the UI? Well, to an extent you need to put your marketing cap on here. You need to think about people, not design.

You need to think about perception, not composition. If you can ask yourself a few vital questions about how your users are feeling, then you can go a long way to pleasing them.

Consider FreeAgent for a moment, a fantastic piece of accounting software in the UK, they know that typically people who visit their website are angry, frustrated, and fed up with trying to do their accounts (and failing). Their website is targeted almost solely at cheering you up and telling you not to worry, there’s an easier way to do things. They win.




But what about creating emotions at more of a root-level? Apple (yes Apple, no article about design would be complete without some mention of them, so we might as well get it over with) create astonishing levels of desire and jealousy amongst their customers.

Despite producing over-priced, under-performing, over-rated products they still retain unprecedented success, constantly. Apple are the biggest fashion label of the tech world. That’s not an insult by the way, sex sells, and everyone else needs to catch up. Apple makes desirable products.

“Thin, beautiful, portable, durable, accessible, powerful, unlimited, magical, revolution.

Sound familiar? All of those words and sentiments were used in Apple’s 30 second advertisement for the iPad, and not a single one of them has anything to do with what the product does.




Another common case study of companies creating emotions in customers, and this is going to be a controversial one, is with charities.

Charities instill sadness and sympathy from deep within you, in order to make sales. Think of every advertisement you’ve ever seen for a charity… most of them go like this: “Sally is a [starving child / stray dog / person with a terminal illness], she’s all alone. Her parents died just after she was born and she’s been living on the streets like this ever since.”

The cause may be just, but don’t mistake the marketing tactics as legitimate sentiments appealing to your moral integrity. The people who create those advertisements know exactly what they’re doing. They’re making you sad, they’re making you sympathetic, and they’re making you want to reach out and help – with your wallet.




Possibly the most interesting way to look at deliberately instilling emotions in users is from the perspective of anger.

Now, this has been suggested before, but to my knowledge never confirmed. What do we consider to be great customer service? Usually it’s when a company gets something really wrong, they own up to it, give you a full refund and treat you really well.

It’s unexpected and we absolutely love it. It may be cynical, but is it really unreasonable to think that companies may now be screwing up your order on purpose? If I was running an ecommerce store I would deliberately screw up about 5% of all my orders – then give the customer a full refund and send them the product anyway.

You can’t buy publicity like the way they’re going to talk about that to all their friends.


Closing Comments

Just because something functions correctly, doesn’t mean it’s any good. We need to stop thinking about usability for two seconds and push ourselves to go a little further than that. How are my users feeling? Why are they even on this site? What is going on in their life that made them come here?

What emotional reaction are they going to have to this site?

You’d better hope the answer to that last question isn’t “nothing in particular” because if it is, then you failed.

Study emotion, understand it, understand how it fits into what you’re doing and then use it to your benefit. Whether you use your understanding for noble purposes or not is entirely up to you, but take the next step and start designing emotions and experiences, not just aesthetics.


What do you think? Have you come across any really good examples of companies instilling emotions in users? Better yet, have you used any techniques like these yourself and had success? Let us know in the comments below!

  • Mark S

    While I agree with what you are saying, surely the issue here is the way that usability is portrayed.

    Instead of usability being considered as “a site needs to be usable” it should be “people should want to, and be able to, use the site”.

    If they don’t want to, or unable to use the site. It has failed in it’s task.

    Part of wanting to use something is being aesthetically pleased by it. So I think the issue is not separating the two concepts but making sure usability addresses this.

    (N.B I’d prefer a usable site, than one that distils the right emotions in me, or looks pretty)


    • JohnONolan

      I think you’re right Mark, there’s an aspect of that. Though it does make you question the very definition of “aethetically pleasing” – for example, is there such thing as an ugly Ferrari? Do we assign an aesthetic value to something based on aesthetics? or other factors?

      Definitely two sides to that coin – an interesting subject nevertheless!

  • matthew carleton

    I see your point here, I really like how the BBC approached the concept of allowing users to decide the esthetic of their site. I am not entirely sure how emotion fits into every design though, unless you have a particular subject matter that necessitates emotional motivation than you could be wasting your time.

    That’s the beauty of design though, its about the choice of both the designer and the user. I think this type of thing could open the door to a whole new approach to interacting with content on the web.


    • JohnONolan

      Of course it does always depend on the goal of the website, you are completely right!

  • Amrinder

    Good article but what about header and footer designs here, on this site. Navigation is lost in the sidebar way down.

  • MatsSvensson

    “Just because something functions correctly, doesn’t mean it’s any good”

    I bet youtube has embroidered signs of this hanging in all their offices.

  • breadwild

    “Despite producing over-priced, under-performing, over-rated products they still retain unprecedented success, constantly.”

    What ridiculous and subjective statement. I stopped reading your piece at that point. I just can’t dignify statements like that, right or wrong.

    • JohnONolan

      Hi breadwild, I currently own an 11″ iBook, a 13″ Macbook Pro, a 24″ iMac, a Mac Mini, three iPods, an iPhone 2G, an iPhone 3G, an iPhone 3GS, and an iPhone 4. I think I’m qualified to comment on all of them being over-priced, under-performing, over-rated products.

      Does it mean I like them any less? Nope. But it still remains true, and not in the least bit subjective. Compare the price of any Mac to any PC and you’ll see how they are overpriced, comparefeatures and spec of any Mac to any PC and you’ll see how they are underperforming, read any Engadget or Gizmodo article the day after an Apple press conference for the long list of did-not-receive’s and you’ll see how they’re overhyped.

      I don’t say these thins to be controversial for the sake of it, I say them to make a point :)

      Hope that clarifies things!

  • David Siegfried

    Not to get all transcendental on you. But doesn’t good “aesthetic design” procure an emotional reaction most of the time?

  • Eko

    This article provides new insight for me about the design.
    Thanks for the great article…

  • Jodi Kaplan

    So true! People don’t “think” first they “feel” first. Then, they use the thinking to justify the feeling.

    It’s true for the design, and also true for the words that go along with the design. Decide what emotion you want to trigger (anger, greed, joy, etc) and design (write) accordingly.

  • John Cowen

    An interesting article, and I’d never really thought about design in quite this way before. At least not consciously.

    I’ve worked on corporate sites where the owners have specifically pushed to have anything that you’d consider ’emotional’ taken out of the design, because it would be considered unprofessional. However, I think what people want out of a professional organisation is changing. And obvious human engagement is a very appealing selling point when selecting one business from another.

    If a transactional website engages you on an emotional level, I think you can then envisage dealing with them on a person to person basis if you have any problems. If you don’t feel that engagement online at the point of purchase, chances are you won’t get it in any subsequent customer service interaction.

    • JohnONolan

      Excellent points John, thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • Brandon Cox

    Wow… you are so right!! I’ve been guilty many times of getting caught up in making something “cool” without realizing that the real voice of a design is in the emotion it evokes. Awesome stuff. This post makes me wanna cry…

    • JohnONolan

      Well I guess an emotional response to this post is good, but are you sure I can’t make you happy instead? :)

  • Bradley Hebdon

    Nice post, but I don’t think emotional design has a place on every website out there. Sometimes the content itself is the catalyst for emotional response, not the design itself. E.g. does CNN need to have an emotionally charged design? CNN interviews with BP executives and photos of a destroyed habitat is content that will evoke a whole spectrum of emotions without very little (if any) design intervention. Long story short, don’t underplay content as a source of emotion.

    And as far as BBC’s site goes – I feel zero emotional reaction to the ability to personalize.

    • JohnONolan

      Hey Bradley, I agree that sometimes (often?) the emotion is in the content in which case the job of the design is merely to present that content in the best/easiest way possible. Great comment!

  • Chris Khoo

    I came to this realisation a few weeks ago, and am in the process of making my designs more emotional.

    I guess another great example in point would be Twitter :-).

    I can’t remember where I read this, but some scientists hooked up neurofeedback devices to a participants and monitored them while using Twitter. For many of them, they detected levels of happiness similar to drug taking.


  • Arjun Raj

    Nice website. I am a budding web designer & developer so, will watch this site with interest from now on. Keep up the good work.

  • Victoria Blount

    This is a very interesting post, as a designer i consider the target audience and content for the site, and choose images which relate to the business. But i have never considered the power of designing emotions for the target audience to relate to, this may help the bounce rate and conversions of calls that the businesses receive.

  • Jarkko

    Emotions are such a natural thing that we probably use them in our designs even when we don’t realise it, or even sometimes when we try not to. That kind of design comes from our own emotions and experiences. But when you are able to deliberately ‘control’ the website visitor’s emotions, that’s when you start selling.

    Thanks for the great article.

    • JohnONolan

      Jarkko, back at you, thanks for your great comment! Some really great points there :)

  • Steam Multimedia – Web Design

    This is very true, if someone get emotionally attached to something or a product then they are more likly to buy it. Emotions is a strong motivator in getting a prospective client to become a client.

    • JohnONolan

      How much of a motivator would you say it is using spammy keywords in your comment instead of your real name? What kind of emotion do you think that instills in your peers? Food for thought ;)

  • Catalina Butnaru

    I loved this post. Design is so much about experience. Design is about making sense, capturing the meaning of that image through all our senses and filtering it through all our sense, at all levels.

    Nice one.


  • Michael Lupescu

    I totally agree with you. I think engaging users emotionally, creates a strong and long lasting connection. I also think that any good ad first strikes us emotionally, we may not even know what we’re feeling, but it got our attention and causes us to dig deeper. So much of our actions are caused by how we feel. Right or wrong, it’s a great way to sell things. Tap into peoples emotions and you make them buy stuff and even trust you.

    Great post, thanks!

  • Lisa Thomason

    Great post, its always the initial reaction/emotion, the first response to a design or website which helps make the decision whether to carry on investigating, Thanks. LT

  • Maksim Shaihalov

    Good idea! THX!

  • duncan wilson

    Great article and is very much in line with our thinking in terms of brand creation, re-branding and the dynamics of why people are attracted to what is being conveyed – particularly in an information dominated environment.
    With e-commerce there is always a payoff between the desire of the client & the overall functionality – which now is clearly built with optimisation & marketing built in mind – so does the emotions or feelings convey suffer? Well, not if the design has moments of a bigger emotional function consistent throughout…
    The biggest detractors (and someone here mentioned headers & footers as classic ‘blockades’ to emotion) – are the potential banana skins that just one poor aesthetic decision can cause – a bit like leaving a carrier bag on a beautiful elm table in a clean flat – the ‘ruin’ becomes inherent in the design. In regards to apple – i fully agree but would claim that the psychology is in our brain biology…. check this great talk out on for proof…