Design and its Relationship to Emotions

By Juan Carlos Rojas

When we talk about design, we usually associate it with the visual attraction of an object. However, something truly fascinating lies beyond the aesthetic aspect: the relationship with the emotions that an object transmits or evokes in a person. Recently, the field of design has created innovative possibilities by capitalizing on knowledge from other sciences that were previously considered completely unrelated to this topic, such as computer science, psychology and medicine, among others. Nowadays, there is an endless sea of possibilities for generating new product design solutions.

Design education is also undergoing positive changes. It used to focus on a process that was limited solely around the designer’s profile, which, it was believed, should dominate all the areas in an extremely generic manner. A classic example is that, previously, students were taught that designers should sit down, contemplate a bit and be inspired by the environment surrounding them, and then embody their idea. Now, the design process is more complex, because the designer needs to know, understand, investigate and analyze the environment as such, look for areas of opportunity, a specific market niche as the target for their ideas, create a solution and obtain feedback on the same.

Design has evolved in fundamental disciplines, such as robotics, human-machine interaction, education, medicine, art, health and wellbeing, sustainability, entertainment, software and media interaction, among others.

The current trend is for design solutions to emerge from an in-depth knowledge of the area for which the designer is working. For example, for social solutions, designers must study and learn, and not just design as such. This change is positive because it turns designers into creative experts in that specific area of knowledge. History shows us that the most iconic designs can be found in the real-estate sector; nevertheless, design has evolved in fundamental disciplines, such as robotics, human-machine interaction, education, medicine, art, health and wellbeing, sustainability, entertainment, software and media interaction, etc. The types of products created at present are much more complex and, therefore, their design processes are too.

In Fall 2016, I had the opportunity to attend an event called the International Conference on Design & Emotion, held every two years and attended by designers, researchers, professors and businesspersons, in order to seek and learn about different types of proposals centered on design and human emotions. The 2016 edition of the conference addressed current trends, which highlight eight key elements and their relationship with emotions.

The concepts are, to a certain extent, abstract; however, the designers’ talent integrates and gives meaning in their creations to:

  1. Ambiguity, which refers to experiences that are rich, ironic and uncomfortable
  2. Provocation, which concerns activism, creation and speculation in social design
  3. Wellbeing, in reference to social behavior, ethics, happiness and personal values
  4. Beauty, in relation to aesthetics, materials and consolidation of the senses
  5. Embodiment, which comprises new channels or means of executing design, such as the internet and embedded computing
  6. Poetry, which is openness in drama, emotional durability and storytelling
  7. Empathy, which addresses inclusion, participation and co-design, and
  8. Spirituality, which is related to memories, trust experiences and awe

The use of biometric technologies stands out in several points within these key elements of design and emotions. I had the opportunity to present my research on this topic, regarding the implementation of eye tracking and galvanic skin response (GSR) tests.

The former is a technique used to quantify the length of time of a person’s gaze or the level of attention to determine whether the idea of what an advertisement, branding or TV commercial seeks to transmit is being understood. This is relevant for product design because you can learn objectively, without the person expressing subjectively, what he or she likes or prefers: his or her gaze will convey it quantitatively.

The latter technique, GSR, is based on measuring, analyzing and interpreting the heart rate and the amount of blood it pumps around our body. The heart rate is related to a person’s basic emotions. For example, we can measure the excitement of browsing through a new phone, running a search on a new video interface, entering a store and perceiving the atmosphere or aromas, etc. My research as a designer is based on these technologies and other techniques that are not quite so recent, but that have gradually been perfected over the past two decades, giving researchers the task of integrating them into the area of emotion-based design.

Together with this, and in order to gain greater insight into where this trend is going in design, it is worth getting to know the work being conducted in this area. At the conference, several experts presented a series of projects that are invaluable for integrating design and emotions:

International Conference on Design & Emotion

International Conference on Design & Emotion

Sydney One Central Park

Sydney One Central Park

Jodi Forlizzi: specializes in the area of Human- Computer Interaction. She is a professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research focuses on the ranges of understanding and how products and services evoke social behavior.

Jonathan Chapman: is a professor of sustainable design and director of design and initiative research at the University of Brighton. His research has been used in brands such as Puma, Philips, The Body Shop, among others.

Maarten Baas: a Dutch designer whose works lie on the boundaries between art and design. Some of his them can be found in MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, in New York) and Rijksmuseum (The Museum of the Netherlands in Amsterdam). He has also collaborated with brands such as Louis Vuitton and Swarovski.

Sebastian Deterding: designer and researcher who works on gameful design. He is the founder of the behavioral design agency and an associate at HubBub, which have worked for companies such as BBC, BMW, Deutsche Telekom and KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines). Vanessa Evers: is a computer science professor at The University of Twente and forms part of the Human Media Interaction research group. Her research focuses on the interaction of intelligent, autonomous systems, such as robots.

I would like to invite the community of professionals, academics and people related to design to take a closer look at the aspects described here about emotions. I would also like to share with you my vision of contemporary product design, which must evolve toward more holistic objects and services that will foster positive elements in people’s daily lives.


Juan Carlos Rojas López is a PhD in Design and a professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey. He specializes in the area of emotional and affective evaluation of the design through subjective and objective methods / tools.

Imagen de encabezado por Pexels.