8 Ways to Evoke Positive Emotions in Visual Design

Tara Hornor

Designers who work in branding have the oh-so-glorious job of trying to create designs that are not only easy to remember and relate to, but portray the brand concisely and accurately as well. Add to this the need to evoke the right emotions and the inherent need for brand simplicity, and some might say that branding is one of the trickiest fields in which to work!

However, if you can learn to evoke positive emotions consistently with your design work, you’ll become highly desired and, probably highly paid as well. It’s critical to dive deep into the company and discover its true audience, because what may speak positively to one group may create negative feelings in another. Another key is to take each client on an individual basis. Methods for coming up with the right logo for one client may not work for the next.

And what does “positive” mean, exactly? For a client in the insurance industry, it may mean producing feelings of security. A bakery may want to create nostalgia from memories of Grandma’s homemade cookies and pies in its customers. Again, positive will have different meanings for each of your clients, so there is no effective one-size-fits-all formula for effective branding.

So, really, the most important and often-overlooked part of effective branding involves dedicated substantial time and effort to fully understand each client. Some of your clients will be those ideal ones who give you all of the information you need up front, but others will give you a vague one-liner description of their vision. This is where you will need to ask a lot of questions if you intend to produce branding ideas that not only make your clients do leaps of joy but also make you look like a star in your portfolio.

Knowing exactly where to start when studying a new client company, however, can be a bit overwhelming to say the least. Don’t despair! The following are eight excellent ways to delve into the depths of an organization and create brands that will foster positive emotions in their target market.

1.) Focus on a Single Emotion

Okay, so focusing on an emotion is fairly obvious, but many designers try to accomplish too much within a single design, dilute their efforts, and spread themselves to thin. Not all designers focus their efforts by asking client this specific question: What do you want customers to feel when they notice or recognize your brand? Common answers could include: happy, trusting, strong, joyous, sexy, and a variety of other positive sentiments. If you can establish a single primary emotion, that eliminates a lot of non-ideal design work, and the targeted sentiment becomes your design objective.

2.) Focus on Brand Attributes and Product Benefits

If you are creating a logo for the entire brand, then be sure to gain an understanding of how they would describe their brand attributes. Basically, ask what the brand is at its very center, its heart. For instance, Lexus is known under “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.” Similarly, Nike’s brand attribute is "authentic athletic performance".

If you are designing a visual for a specific product, then ask for the specific product benefits. Remind your client that benefits are different from features. A feature is the size, weight, ingredients, shelf life, or any other technical specification. A benefit is the underlying emotional need that the product fulfills. For instance, a lower calorie dark chocolate bar comes with the features of fewer calories but a rich taste to satisfy sweet cravings. The chocolate bar’s benefits could then be said to help create a slimmer figure, a greater sex appeal, more confidence, and ultimately a desirable partner. (Keep in mind that you don’t have to agree or even like the projected benefits to create a winning design.)

3.) Focus on the Audience

Knowing the target market of your client will help you even more in understanding how to evoke the right emotions. This is where your brand expertise may need to come into play. Some companies may not have a clear determination of their audience. Hopefully, asking the first two questions above will help you direct the client somewhat.

You’ll want specifics: an age range, income level, gender, location, career, and more. The greater the details, the better you can research what speaks to this group of consumers or businesses. Try to think like the customer of this brand, not like your client. Often a client will tell you what they think their customer thinks, or even worse, should think. It’s your job as the designer to see past any misconceptions put yourself in the eyes and emotions of the consumer. Your outside perspective can be invaluable.

4.) Anticipate Concerns

After you come up with a few mock-ups, consider any concerns your client may have with the concept. Do the visuals portray enough emotion or the right emotion? Also try to anticipate misconceptions consumers may have when viewing the design, including unintentional visual ambiguities, which have sunk many flawed brands. Just as with writers, designers and even the clients can get too close to their work and miss a glaring issue. Put your work aside and come back to it later. Ask friends, family, and colleagues for their opinions.

The next few points deal with different design ideas for including emotional elements in your visuals. If you are stuck as to where to begin, you may want to try one of the following.

5.) Create Metaphorical Comparisons

A metaphorical comparison in design is done by comparing the brand or product to a seemingly unrelated item. For instance, if the company was a drink, what kind would it be? If this shampoo was a car, what make and model would it be? This exercise can help to catalyze creativity and gain a better understanding of your client. It’s a good idea to ask your client’s opinion on such comparisons for the most accurate answers.

6.) Use a Symbol

Sometimes an emotion can be conveyed with a simple symbol. Some companies have even chosen a more subliminal approach to evoking emotions in their logos, such as the FedEx logo that uses the negative space within the typography to hide an arrow, suggesting forward movement. More recently, the fast food chain Wendy’s recently updated its logo and even included an almost indistinguishable "mom" on the collar of the girl’s dress.

Symbols can also be more obvious in their approach to evoke emotions. For instance, Amazon’s upward curved arrow points from the "a" to the "z" within the word and also looks like a smile. Walmart’s brand redesign in 2008 included a new "spark" symbol, which added a more happy and upbeat look and feel to the brand.

7.) Create a Character

A mascot as a visual is a great way to personify a brand. People can associate positive feelings with a brand easily if the character is a cute animal, a baby, or even a sexy silhouette. For a brand that’s not really easy to associate with feelings, such as technology, an appealing mascot can help to both make the brand memorable and give people the desired warm and fuzzy feelings.

The World Wildlife Fund logo has always featured an adorable panda, and even though the design is a simple negative space rendering, the curves are soft and "cuddly" and the face is kind. MailChimp uses an adorable monkey carrying a mail bag, and Twitter’s blue bird silhouette is quite adorable. The Gerber baby is a perfect example for the ultimate in cute baby logos, but you can also use baby-like, neotenic characters, such as the Pillsbury Doughboy.

An endearing kid-like character can also evoke positive feelings, such as with the Morton Salt’s little girl with the umbrella. Chiquita Banana has always used sex appeal for most of their logo updates over the years. You can also use a mascot that portrays strength or speed, such as with the Puma’s ubiquitous cat.

Keep in mind that obnoxious, poorly-crafted cartoon characters will at times elicit annoyance from an older audience. However, cartoon characters are effective with kids and even young adults, especially if they are cute and cuddly or "cool" and funny. This is another great example for why it’s so important to keep your audience in mind.

8.) Choose the Right Elements

The right concept with the wrong design elements will end up creating mixed signals. Make sure the brand colors, fonts, and even the angle of your lines all lend to the deliberately chosen positive emotion. And, as always, keep the organization and the audience in mind. For instance, sharp lines for a brand of knives is a necessity for eliciting trust in the quality of the brand. However, sharply angled lines are too cold for a brand of toys. This is why Toys R Us and Fisher Price use such rounded, embellished fonts in the logo.

Colors are especially important for fostering the right emotions. This is why most detergents include some shade of blue in their logos – blue is associated with water and cleanliness. Different colors can also symbolize different types of happiness. Bright yellow is cheery, while orange is more of an energetic warmth. Green is excellent for portraying growth, and blue can stand for stability, which serves investment company well.

What do you do to create a positive, emotionally evocative visual design?

Free book: Jump Start HTML5 Basics

Grab a free copy of one our latest ebooks! Packed with hints and tips on HTML5's most powerful new features.

  • Catherine

    what a fantastic article! you know the designers have done a great job when it makes you smile. clever, clever, clever.

  • Devaraj D

    nice article

  • Daniel

    You make some very good points. Worth noting.

  • Ricardo Muniz Crespo

    In my opinion it is always valuable to create a list of suitable colors, shapes, objects or even metaphores and the connection between the provider and the customer.

  • Anonymous

    Great article… Thank you!!!