The Power of Graphic Design Davidson-Merritt, Dominic. M.S. – BA (Hons) Graphic Design, University College Falmouth – UK Abstract: In this paper I explore the validity of considering emotion in graphic design as a conscious decision. Applying respected theories on emotion, emotion within product design, and practices of contemporary designers I question whether as a graphic design student, it is a quality that can form the basis of a graphic design project. Key words: Graphic Design, Emotion, Product Design, A Student Perspective
1. Introduction “Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.”  Emotion: seemingly impossible to explain yet fundamental to the way we act and live. It is such a vital aspect of our everyday life, but never physically seen. It exists in our minds, yet possesses great power over us. As a design student, I’m interested in how graphic design has the opportunity to use emotion and its potential to affect us; how can it adopt an emotional approach to design, and what emotions are utilized? I believe design shouldn’t be for design’s sake; it should be able to form a stronger, deeper connection to the target audience that makes the work more resonant and ultimately more effective, opposed to work that is simply aesthetically pleasing. Recently, an increased number of designers are focusing on a user-centered approach to projects – whether it’s a product or an interior, the user is at the centre of the design process. This is the umbrella idea under which designers are recognising the use of emotions to communicate more directly and intimately with users: “Over the last 50 years the economic base has shifted from production to consumption. It has gravitated from the sphere of rationality to the realm of desire; from the objective to the subjective; to the realm of psychology.”  The key texts that influenced and informed my thinking are Buchanan’s essay (Margolin, 1989) ‘Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice’, a strong starting point for the essay, and Peirce’s semiotic theory. More specific to emotion with regards to design, Donald Norman, Gerald Cupchik, and Jonathan Chapman have written extensively on our response to design and how emotion can be considered. John Dewey and Kenya Hara focus on the notion of experience and a space where strong connections can be made between object and user. In Chapter Two, I begin by looking at the worth of considering emotion in design as a theme, starting with existing and respected theories on human emotional response that reveal slight differences in the emotional process, but all support the innate power of emotion. It’s important to understand these theories as they form the basis for specific research into emotion and design, and show how complex and subtle human emotion can be. Buchanan’s rhetoricbased theory, whereby he argues that pathos (or emotion) is a valuable element of a triadic relationship reveals the value of emotion and how it can make design highly persuasive, and therefore effective. Chapter Three investigates
the relationship between user and designed object. First using Peirce’s semiotic theory, which provides the foundation for how signs can evoke seemingly arbitrary thoughts within the user, then Donald Norman and how he explains that these thoughts are linked to the emotional response at every level of interaction—especially the reflective—which can be seen in Anya Hindmarch’s ‘I’m not a Plastic Bag’. In Chapter Four I expand the idea of this ‘connective bond’ between object and user in Kenya Hara’s stunningly simple signage for a pre-natal clinic in Japan, and the impact it can have. Identifying obvious difficulties in controlling the emotional response of individuals, I discuss the potential power of an open dialogue using the Japanese national flag—a sign with ultimately arbitrary meaning. These debates and discussions informed my exploration into the topic, and helped me to form a strong understanding of how emotion can be considered in terms of graphic design. To begin, I want to define some ideas on what emotion actually means.
Richard Buchanan, in his essay 'Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice' (1989) identifies the importance of communication in design, pointing out that graphic design is predominately driven by this theme although it is often focused mainly on the importance of the semiotic, rather than the rhetorical. He claims persuasive speakers aim to provide the audience with words that form reasons for changing their actions or attitude, and now, due to developments in technology and a shift in perception of what it is, man-made objects can now do something similar: “[Objects] create a persuasive argument that comes to life whenever a user considers or uses a product as a means to some end.”  Buchanan suggests there are three interrelated elements to a design argument: technological reasoning, character, and emotion, and he believes designers use all three equally but they can all be identified individually as resources for forming an argument. For the purposes of this dissertation, I am most interested in the emotional element of a design argument, and how he believes that when emotion starts to be considered, design can start to achieve fine art status. Pathos (or emotion) is identified as how a design persuades users that it is desirable and useful to them, its ‘sexiness’ if you like.  The three elements are all of equal importance, and he highlights that the biggest problem design faces is the ability to put the audience into a frame of mind that will encourage them to accept that design is emotionally desirable, and valuable in their lives. It is impossible for design to provide a structure for the way we might respond to an object, because this is always in relation to the environment. He goes on to say; “When emotion enters design, it is not an end in itself but a mode of persuasive communication that serves a broader argument…it collapses the distance between the object and the minds of the users, leading them to identify with the expressive movement and allow it to carry them where it will.”  Buchanan’s theory is essentially a methodology for considering emotion when designing. He shows emotion as an equally vital component to the success of an object, valuing design that has an intentional purpose. This reinforces my belief that graphic design shouldn’t be solely aesthetically pleasing, but something of value and objective, and this theory provides a solid foundation for me to investigate emotion as part of graphic design further. When applying theories to the realm of graphic design, one must note the difference in issues of functionality from product design. When Buchanan discuses the persuasive argument design possesses, he refers to the functionality of
a product that is needed for it to be embraced by a user. For example, a chair must persuade us to sit on it, and a kettle must persuade us that it will be beneficial as part of our lifestyle. Graphic design, although obviously requiring to function according to basic criteria it also needs to persuade us how to feel about particular issues or topics. For example, if you saw an advert for a children’s charity to which you make a donation, your mind wasn’t saying “yes, that really worked well and fulfilled it’s function”, instead you’re thinking about how you should donate because of your reaction. On reflection, you could argue that the advert worked on you, but the client, hopefully seen in a rise in donations, is better able to observe how well it functioned. Therefore, you can see how its success isn’t linked to the functionality of use as much, but more the functionality of the users reaction.
1.2. Reaction When expanding Buchanan’s idea of ‘expressive movement…allowing it to carry them where it will’, Peirce’s semiotic theory must be recognized as an integral part of understanding how we react to stimulation. Explaining three elements that form a triadic relationship that he believes can account for all human experience, he identifies three types of signs: the icon, index, and symbol. Determining whether a sign is in one category or another depends on the relationship between the sign, the object it is representing, and the person who interprets it.  The important aspect of this theory is the fact we can use signs that are arbitrary, and therefore may have no personal experience on which to base the relationship, make it possible to create a world entirely separate to one of direct experience. Therefore, in the broadest sense, this is a theory on the power of representation and the basis of how a designer can bring great difference to the signifier, depending on the context. Although Peirce doesn’t include any views on the subsequent emotional power in the use of signs, this is the other dimension where the viewer will experience an emotional response and how graphic design can have the power to utilise emotion through representation. So when Buchanan refers to ‘collapsing the distance between objects and minds’, he is relying on the use of semiotics, which in that ‘expressive movement’ they are experiencing symbolic relationships in their head that connect with the subject or theme of the design—allowing emotion to "reach into the mind of the user and set loose their imagination”  This makes me question why much of this topic is based around products? Surely graphic design, as a much broader field, can be said to contain many more vehicles for symbolic representation, the power of which can be even more far reaching. The variety of signs that graphic design can include must make it highly cognitively responsive, and thus potent when considering representation and emotion. For example, using the image of a safety pin holding ripped clothing together instantly gives us a mental image of 1980s punk culture, featuring ideas of rebellion, anarchy, and progressive political views, to which individuals will feel differently; some sympathise with it, and others are reminded of trouble and problems in youth. There are a number of more specific theories on response to emotion within design, although as I mentioned in the introduction, the focus for much of the research is in relation to product design where physical elements are so integral. Therefore, I will focus on theories that help explain the cognitive and emotional interaction to design.
1.3. Interaction A professor in cognitive psychology at the University of California, Donald Norman has recently focused his research and writings on positive emotional response to products. In his book, Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things (2004) he describes three levels of interaction. The visceral, the behavioural, and finally the reflective that will shape the emotional experience for the user, and although relating to products, I believe they are equally relevant to graphic design. Where Buchanan provides a methodology for incorporating emotion into design, Norman’s theory is an approach to understanding how users interact. These levels of response are similar to Buchanan’s emotional element of a design argument; for an object to persuade the viewer to adopt it, whether physically or mentally, emotion is a key element. Norman could be said to expand on Buchanan’s idea, in the sense that he describes how powerful a design rationale can be, opposed to it being of equal importance, to the extent that emotion in the reflective response can over-ride all other emotional issues. Norman’s theory claims an intertwined relationship between cognition and emotion, therefore we can see the emotional response integrated at every level of response, some which can be controlled and others that cannot. Cognition and emotion go hand in hand—you can't have one without the other. It is worth mentioning that in slight contrast to Norman's three levels of interaction, Gerald Cupchik, a professor of psychology whose focus of research has been on the search for meaning of emotions in the aesthetic, believes that “Emotional processes involved in generating and using industrial design objects...they begin with an initial impression of the object, continue through actual experiences utilizing it, and culminates with degrees of emotional attachment to it.”  So instead of an instant emotional response, we must first form a relevant or significant cognitive connection to an object. Referring back to Peirce’s semiotic theory, we know this can be done using signs and symbols that the user will connect with. These, according to Cupchik, then become the foundation for any arousal or emotion that follows: cognitive meaning + arousal = emotion  Both of these theories highlight the importance of the emotional response and provide platforms for how we can understand the way in which it occurs. I think it’s easy to see the links between these theories and the wider theories of emotion featured earlier in the dissertation, both describing how we might experience emotion differently. Norman’s three levels of interaction relate to the James-Lange theory; how the initial natural, in-built reactions (which could also be described as somatic) are then acted and reflected on. Cupchik believes in the importance of a cognitive relationship being established first, similar to the Canon-Bard theory. Despite similarities, there are obviously discrepancies in how we approach emotion and it is easy to see how difficult it can be to control this. Norman and Cupchik are both primarily concerned with the experience of pleasure in products, but graphic design must sometimes address some uncomfortable issues. Much charity advertising relies on evoking guilt and pity to persuade people to donate money. So, where the visceral and behavioural responses may be stronger in an object, I think graphic design has the ability to use the reflective level to truly great effect. The different ‘faces‘ of emotions fuel the reflective response, as how we want to feel and how others perceive us are of upmost importance, and prove the innate power of dialogue between object and user.
1.4. Power of Dialogue Consumer goods can be seen as “bridges to our hopes and dreams”  allowing the different levels of emotional connection to exist in the space between where we want to be, and where we actually are. This proposes the possibility of a dialogue between the object (where we want to be), and the user (where we actually are). If design is being actively persuasive, it’s incredible to see how the reflective level of interaction can have large post experience emotional impacts on the user. For example, the iconic and much sought after Anya Hindmarch cotton bag with the words "I'm not a plastic bag" screen printed onto the side (see Fig. 2), were designed to convey a strong ethical statement about the user. Even though it’s ironic that the bags were made in China, and cost fifty times more than a normal 'bag for life', the powerful reflective response is one of moral pride. Initially the bag could even be seen to evoke feelings of guilt or embarrassment, as it is shoppers, who could be easily blamed for advocating a shallow consumerist lifestyle, that buy it. This is because they think others will see them as ethically intelligent, so any initial feelings are over-ridden . When an individual’s emotional attachment at the visceral and behavioural levels could be said to be fairly weak, the reflective response can over-rule both of these. In other words, emotions exist with a ‘public-face’ that is obviously very important and influential over our responses.
Fig. 1—Hindmarch. A, (2007), I’m not a Plastic Bag, Flikr: Nadio Available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nadio/734388948/ (accessed on 2/3/10). This shows the true power of emotional engagement, and the dialogue that can exist between the user and the design. One must also remember that the skill is not in consistently bombarding the user with emotional vehicles in the hope they will react. It is to offer up emotional connections that allow users to find their own way in understanding and responding. Chapman likens this to persuasive writing where techniques of repetition, and formulaic structure are used, and by excessively arousing the viewer, their ability to interact coherently with it deteriorates quickly.  In John Dewey’s book Art As Experience, he also identifies the power of this emotional dialogue but as part of his wider theory on the importance of human experience when viewing art. He believes that emotion exists in the
individual, as the object is simply an aesthetic signpost where emotion is not inherent.  This idea runs parallel to semiotic representation, and reiterates how emotion can subsequently be experienced after forging cognitive connections with signs. For Dewey, emotion that “evokes, assembles, accepts, and reject memories, images, observations, and works them into a whole toned throughout by the same immediate feeling”  will provide the user with the most fulfilling of experiences. To consider the notion of a 'two-way' experience further, Marc Gobé, a president of d/g* worldwide, had the insight of how powerful emotional connections can be in the realm of branding. He realised that a 'push/pull' relationship, rather than simply ’pushing’ can have huge benefits for the perception of that brand, “Advertising can now instantaneously convey a brand message and actually help build a real dialogue with people!”  So if we now consider design to be able to create an emotionally persuasive, and engaging dialogue for the recipient, then I have no doubt in believing that graphic design has inherent ability to do this. This approach to design has the undeniable ability to deliver more than just functionality to the user; it can access thoughts and emotions through a more personally involving experience for the user.
1.5. Involvement Kenya Hara's signage system for the Umeda Clinic in Japan (see Fig. 3) is a clear example of how this experiential connection and dialogue can be entered into in a very unobtrusive manner. As a place where women spend time before, during and after childbirth, he aimed to create a quiet, tender atmosphere through emotional connections. Each sign is made from white cotton cloth stretched over a form like a bed sheet. The signs, designed to be washed whenever they become dirty (whether from dust over-time or the sticky hands of a young child) and the crispness of the white cotton invokes visceral responses of pleasure; just imagining the softness and being reminded of the sweet smell of just washed sheets as you get into bed evokes a certain warmth and comfort. The clear functionality of the signage is evident in the typography that makes them easy to understand, and the simple idea of washing the cloth when it's dirty, this makes it even easier for the patient to see how it works. The reflective response would be the reassurance that is evoked within the medical setting, similar to the quality of a world-class restaurant where crisp white tablecloths make a statement of cleanliness and attention to detail. 
Fig. 2—Hara. K, 2002, Umeda Clinic, Designing Design, Press, Tokyo. You are persuaded to relax and concentrate on feeling comfortable by the commitment and openness of the design, knowing that if your child touched one (and some are purposely placed at this level) and made it dirty, then they would simply have it washed; so they are not just caring for you, but your family as well; “I meant to imprint the message ‘cleanliness’ upon the minds of those who experience the Umeda Hospital.”  This project shows the subconscious emotions that can be evoked by a clear and emotionally aware approach to design. Of course, Kenya Hara can describe the sorts of emotions he is trying to create, but the level of response is down to the individual patient and how willing they are to enter into an emotional relationship with the design. This is the dialogue that persuades the viewer in an unobtrusive way, yet has the ability to heighten emotional resonance. In his book, Emotionally Durable Design, Jonathan Chapman describes what he thinks the aims for emotional experiences should be; “Subtle and more ephemeral user experiences such as refilling a fountain pen with ink will be revisited time and time again, as with each visit the experience grows and evolves a little further. Insignificant as they may at first seem, these subconscious experiences may be the most potent and influential of all. They establish strong and durable connections within users, on both rational and emotional levels.”  It’s interesting to note the tight relationship between the graphic and three-dimensional aspects of the design in this example. It is undeniable that graphic design obviously encompasses many physical elements; from the texture of a paper, to the sounds featured in an advert, it is the combination that will often allow the design to ‘come alive’. The
power of visual signs is shown here by the way users respond, without ever actually touching the signs, they experience a powerful emotional response, displaying the innate impact design can possess.
1.6. Impact The Umeda Clinic signage had comprehensible and obvious emotional aims, without being ‘in your face’ or overpowering in its message. Whilst designers must be clear in their emotional intentions of a design, it must be remembered that emotion cannot exist on its own. While this can be seen as the biggest problem in trying to consciously consider emotion in design, it is also one of the most important factors that can make an experience truly unique and engaging for a user. “A given emotional response to an object will be largely dictated by the prior experiences of the onlooker. It follows, therefore, that emotions must also exist within a wider cultural context since the way we interact with and respond to the world is largely conditioned by our prior experiences.”  “Personal experiences and emotional meanings complete the image of the object whose appearance and functions are but initial cues as to their broader meaning. The more an individual consciously or unconsciously relates to the sensory/aesthetic, cognitive/behavioural, and personal /symbolic qualities of an object, the more profound will be the attachment.”  Designers can embrace this uncertainty as a conscious space to allow the user to interact with the design. Kenya Hara cites the Japanese flag (see Fig. 4) to illustrate the idea of users formulating their own personal attachment and emotional connection to a sign. A solid red circle on a white background, it is undeniably simple. The red circle doesn't mean anything, it is simply a red circle, and any meaning given to it is arbitrary. It can mean anything from the sun in Shinto Buddhism to a pickled plum in a bed of rice. To many it signifies a peaceful nation, but it must have meant something quite different to the soldiers who placed the flag on their forehead as they killed during World War II.  What is important is that whatever it means to an individual, it becomes their personal interpretation allowing the design to have far more impact than if everything was spelt out for the user. Hara writes: “There aren't many symbols that possess such great receptivity, but it's this that makes them attract attention…there is no right or wrong reading of a symbol that is empty to begin with. Therefore, even if our flag inevitably reflects a sad history, it can still hold every possible meaning if we place our will and hope in it. The Japanese flag fulfils its function silently while embracing the contradictory notions of sadness, disgrace, hope, and peace.” 
Fig. 3â€”Japanese National Flag, Seaholme blog (online) Available at: http://seaholmeps.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/asian-studies/ (accessed on 2/2/10). Could this be seen as the holy grail of design? To communicate through design in a deeper emotional fashion that has limitless potential for the user to engage with it. We could take Buchanan's idea of rhetoric in design further; perhaps saying nothing could be more persuasive than trying to formulate a structured argument at all, instead we should simply 'nod' towards more ambiguous themes that if or when recipients connect and understand it, will have far more resonance than something more obvious.
1.7. Conclusion In this dissertation I wanted to investigate the validity of emotion as a theme within graphic design and find out how it can be used to become, in my eyes, more effective. With the exception of Marc Gobe and Gerald Cupchik (in a small article for RGD Ontario), the majority of the research is focused on product design. From my first experiences as a graphic design student, I felt attentiveness for the emotional approach to projects, but given the lack of spotlight and science behind it, I couldnâ€™t explain how it was appropriate. I wanted to prove that emotion in graphic design is an important concept, drawing on a range of respected theories and philosophies. What became clear is that graphic design essentially relies on the foundation of Peirceâ€™s theory of representation between signs and the viewer. This allows design to carry the viewer in their mind to ideas and subjects that need not be directly linked to the starting sign, thus allowing them to subsequently experience powerful emotions as they respond. If we go back to the triadic relationship Peirce offers in Chapter Three; the sign, the signified, and the person experiencing these, create the infinite possibility for cognitive movement in viewers, so if designers aimed to use these then graphic design would naturally possess emotion. This also proves the aesthetic emotion graphic design can obtain, and is the primary characteristic I observed. However, looking at the fundamental differences between
graphic and product design that arose when looking at Buchanan in Chapter Two, I believe that because of the variety of uses it fulfils (i.e. it’s not always just trying to provide pleasure to users but also more complex and difficult feelings such as guilt, anger, and sadness), and its slight detachment from the idea of user functionality, it has an inherent ability to evoke emotions that can be a more raw and unadulterated sensation. When graphic design involves its audiences at this deeper emotional level, the resonance is increased, and the mental bond created through a respectful dialogue can encourage them to feel appreciated and valued, where product design ends, graphic design seems to be able to pick up and carry on. As seen in Kenya Hara’s signage system in Chapter Four, this showed the inherent quality in fusing the two; even though the user never touched the object, through observation and imagination, the user feels touched by the approach, and it is projects like this that really interest me as a young designer. I can see that emotion in design is undeniably a daunting and often misunderstood topic, but we must remember the skill is not in being able to tell people how to feel or respond to signs, it’s in creating a space where emotional connections can exist. Without dictating everything, graphic designers must try to find subtle ways of allowing its audiences to understand and feel, without being too obscure or leaving them feeling confused and neglected. By understanding the different levels of emotional response that as designers we can use, there is limitless potential for us to access those deeper emotions that govern our choices and reactions. Therefore, the opportunity to intentionally harness these to create graphic design that has greater power and value is also arguably limitless. Going back to the umbrella approach of ‘user-centered’ design, it is clear how the user’s needs can be catered to at every level of a design through a conscious consideration of emotion in graphic design and I hope that the topic continues to be better understood and accepted by designers. I intend to continue my foray into this topic and will attempt to implement these ideas into my own studio work, in the hope I can produce graphic design that is embedded in emotion.
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Published on Feb 24, 2013