Emotion in Design
Designers frequently get described as the people who make things pretty. It isn’t exactly flattering and it definitely doesn’t capture the full picture of what a designer does. It’s difficult not to bristle at the over-simplified description of our role. When our job is described this way we tend to translate it to “someone else does the thinking and the designer adds fluff,” implying that design doesn’t require any expertise. Designers know this is not the case, so we jump into spiels about complex problem solving, or give ourselves vague titles like Human Experience Guardian and Unique Experience Hacker (find more crazy job titles).
We do this because we’re fighting for a seat at the table. We want to know the requirements before we start designing. We want to go through a pitch or critique without hearing “make the logo bigger.” We want to fight for the user and to be heard when we do. We want to be considered experts in our field — as we are.
In the process of removing the word “pretty” from our job descriptions, we are discounting its value instead of using it to enhance the value of design as a whole. We need to be able to sit at the table while we make it pretty.
The Value of Pretty
We work with people with roles that are relatively quantifiable — developers, project managers, data scientists, analysts. If they aren’t literally measuring things for their job, their job is at least easier to measure. Design, and particularly aesthetic, is much harder to quantify, so when describing our role or process to others we often focus on the more obviously complex and measurable aspects. It is difficult to state the value of beauty in a few words so it gets brushed aside, with project managers allowing little-to-no time for its execution. In doing this we rush a process that has the potential for great impact, and therefore value, to our users.
When we design experiences and advocate for users we become experts in empathy. We endeavour to understand the emotion of others and “pretty” is the way we express — and users interpret — that emotion. The value comes from the emotions that an aesthetic evokes. Usability and aesthetic go hand-in-hand to help users feel what we want them to feel — for a bank we want them to feel secure; for a social network we want them to feel included, cared for, and happy. Usability staves off feelings of frustration and can provide value to users (“this thing helps me do something”) which gets us part of the way there, but pretty is what creates the positive emotions that keep users coming back. When we use empathy/beauty in design we are telling users that we care about them.
“The designer makes things pretty” is a true statement; adding beauty is a large part of what we do. It is not the whole, but it is important to acknowledge that it is something we do and it has value. I think that when we start to look at the impact that beauty has on us it is easier to believe that it is valuable.
When you think about the things that you find beautiful, there is one key thing that I think impacts how beautiful we think it is: our connection to it. Have you ever received a compliment from your mom? Do you take it seriously or do you brush it aside because it came from your mom? It’s not that the compliment is untrue, but you know your mom sees more beauty because of the connection that is there. When we are connected to something we see more beauty, but I believe it goes the other way too.
Just as saying that designers make things pretty is true, it is equally true to say designers give things emotion. They create connections and give things meaning. What is the point of usability if there is no purpose behind it? Why develop something that doesn’t connect with something else? Why analyze something if you didn’t try to relate to your users in the first place?
The biggest challenge after we accept the value of making it pretty is proving the value to others. My hope is that as you (re)discover the value for yourself it becomes easier for your passion and enthusiasm to convince others. It can be a challenge if you’re in an environment where people are focused on meeting a goal or are the only designer. The latter was the case for me, but as I went to other team members for feedback they were able to see my process and the way I thought about users, and it leads them to think about the users too. As they thought about the users they became advocates for design just as much as I was (and sometimes more)!
Why it Matters
My journey through design has been full of mixed emotions. I want to be able to help people and I often struggle to see a way to do that with design and question how much design matters. If I could stomach the sight of blood I would probably be a nurse — helping people in a “practical” way. But as I have grown as a designer and built a passion for it I have seen how the unique role of a designer is so important. Designers are frequently (though not always) the only people in a company putting the customer before anyone else; getting in their heads. Having empathy is a massive job requirement and if we really practice it and grow in our craft we are capable of having an impact on the world around us. Pixel perfect designs, consistently named layers, and clear handoffs are important, but ultimately our focus is on people. As my realization of this has grown I have become more and more passionate about what I do and the change this industry can make.
While researching for this article I found others who had similar (and more in-depth) thoughts on this topic:
- The Designer Will Make it Pretty by Jason Gross
- In Defense of Eye Candy by Stephen P. Anderson
- Emotion as a Cognitive Artifact and the Design Implications for Products That are Perceived As Pleasurable by Frank Spillers
- More Than “Make it Pretty”: Graphic Designers for Better Development
- The Importance of Emotional Design by Paul Jarvis
- Design For Emotion by Daniel Ruston
- The Most Overlooked Growth Hack: Designing for Emotions by Lisa