Emotional Design

Donald A. Norman, 2004
Read October 2010

I am glad that I read this book before attending the Design & Emotion Conference. It seemed that nearly every presentation referenced Don Norman in some way. The major base for this book is Norman’s theory that the human brain has 3 levels of processing (21). These 3 levels are:

  1. Visceral (the automatic, prewired layer)
  2. Behavioral (processes that control everyday behavior)
  3. Reflective (the contemplative part of brain)

Each of these levels, Norman says, requires a different style of design. The 3 levels remind me of his earlier work, Things that Make Us Smart, in which Norman wrote about the two modes of cognition: experiential and reflective. In Emotional Design, however, Norman is specifically referring to our emotional responses to designed objects, which can be visceral (a “gut” reaction), behavioral (we like something because it’s useful), or reflective (we like something because it conveys a certain image, or contains a treasured memory).

About emotions, Norman writes that they aid in decision-making, by helping us “make rapid selections between good and bad, reducing the number of things to be considered” (12). Emotions “change the way the human mind solves problems” (18). For example, Norman says that

“Attractive things do work better—their attractiveness produces positive emotions, causing mental processes to be more creative, more tolerant of minor difficulties” (60).

Positive emotions, Norman says, have a positive effect on our cognition as well.

“Positive affect arouses curiosity, engages creativity, and makes the brain into an effective learning organism” (26).

The idea that positive emotions actually facilitate learning is a concept that I had not considered previously. In The Psychology of Attitudes and Attitude Change, I read a slightly different viewpoint on emotions: that uncertain emotions, such as fear or surprise, cause us to carefully consider a message, and that happiness, a more “certain” emotion, causes us to accept a message without considering it carefully. I am still trying to decide how these different ideas fit with each other and whether they contradict or support each other. Norman’s writing seems more based on observation and intuition than theories and studies. Nonetheless, his point that positive emotions help us to deal with stress is helpful for me. During my thesis project, I will be covering topics that can be quite stressful to think about. If I can find a way to help people feel positive emotions in spite of this—empowerment, for example—perhaps they will be more likely to engage in creative problem-solving and action.

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