Emotions are a powerful weapon in the designer’s arsenal. They hold sway over us, impacting the decisions we make. Designers use emotion to elicit desired user actions (e.g., to read on, click a button, or buy a product).

In Design is Storytelling, Ellen Lupton says, “Emotions are adaptations that aid the survival of a species…They are active, embodied responses to people, places, and events encountered in the world around us.” She explains that designing for emotion involves considering how users will both anticipate and recall experiences.

Donald Norman and Andrew Ortony break user emotional response to design into three levels: visceral, behavioral, reflective.

Visceral Level

Visceral level responses are classified as “perceptually-induced reactions.” It is subconscious; users are unaware of it.  “Visceral responses involve an automatic evaluation of the perceptual properties of objects, and a quick classification of them as safe or dangerous, good or bad, cold and forbidding or warm and inviting” (Norman & Ortoney, 2004).

Behavioral Level

The behavioral level is “expectation-induced reactions.” These reactions are also subconscious reactions that users are unaware of making.  They are learned and experience-based. “Behavioral level processes are still sub-conscious and automatic, but because the associated skills and routines are acquired through learning, they also involve past experience and expectations of future states and events.” (Norman & Ortoney, 2004).

Reflective Level

Norman and Ortony classify the reflective level as “intellectually-induced reactions.” This is the highest level of human processing, conscious and self-aware—the superego. This is the user’s emotional association. It’s individual, experience, and culturally based.

The goal of designers is to tap our visceral and behavioral reactions to influence reflective responses (like establishing brand loyalty).

How It’s Done in Pictures

To demonstrate how designers establish emotions, I’ve examined three movie posters. I used Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions as a reference. I chose joy for this discussion.  According to Plutchik’s wheel, joy has three levels of intensity: ecstasy (extreme), joy, and serenity (mild).

Duck Soup(1933)—Ecstasy


The theatrical release poster for Duck Soup visualizes ecstasy. The entry point – or spot the eyes look first—is not the top left (the convention for Latin readers) but the four faces of the Marx Brothers.

The faces are exaggerated, which stimulates a stronger response. All four faces depict fun. Three of the brothers are smirking or smiling, and Groucho (the one with the mustache) has an additional layer of exaggeration (part of his shtick), his cigar and fake mustache and eyebrows. This liberal use of exaggeration is called supernormal stimulus: “an exaggerate imitation that elicits a stronger response than the real thing” (Lidwell, Holden & Butler, 2015).

The next feature I notice is the color. This poster uses bright colors: orange, yellow, and red. We naturally like bright colors; we equate bright colors with happiness. Orange is associated with friendliness and energy, and yellow is connected with happiness and enthusiasm.

In the background, Harpo is depicted chasing two women, as his character was apt to do. Again, the drawings use exaggeration to elicit fun and frenzied feelings. Despite Harpo being situated on the top right of the poster and the women at the bottom, the eyes group them together. Two of the Gestalt principles, continuity and similarity, explain the association.

Even separated by text and the four faces, our eyes follow the line between Harpo and the women. This is an example of the Gestalt principle of continuity. Hagen and Golombisky define it as “Our minds will continue a pattern beyond its ending points. Further, our eyes will follow the direction of a line.” The principle of similarity also explains this associate because the women and Harpo are the same color and drawn in the same style, so we associate them together.

Gestalt principles of similarity, proximity, and enclosure explain why we mentally group the four heads. They are drawn in the same style (similarity), and the heads are grouped into two groups of two. This grouping is an example of proximity— “closely-spaced elements form groups” (Lupton, 2017)—and enclosure. Enclosure is the idea the elements that appear to have a boundary are perceived to be grouped together and thus related.

The Mark of Zorro (1920)—Joy


The poster for Douglas Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro aptly visualizes joy.

Despite being a more detailed illustration than the Duck Soup example above, this poster contains fewer visual emotion elements. The sense of joy is almost exclusively shown in the two illustrations of Douglas Fairbanks. The laughing rogue Zorro is leaning relaxed against the image of Don Diego Vega. The positioning of Zorro to the picture of Don Diego uses the Gestalt principle of proximity to group them and enables viewers to infer that they are the same person. Zorro is in an infectious state of joy that is reflected in the smile on Don Diego’s face and anyone who views the poster. I can’t help but smile when I look at it. It just feels like a good time. The choice of yellow text adds another layer of happiness and enthusiasm.

The Sound of Music (1965)—Serenity


The mildest state of joy is serenity according to Plutchick’s wheel. The poster for The Sound of Music portrays serenity. The illustration depicts Maria and the kids frolicking on a green hill, all of them are dressed in bright colors and smiling (presumably singing).  The background also uses bright colors. The sky is a warm color and the mountains are a pleasant desaturated purple. The sound music title text has a friendly roundish feel and incorporates brightly colored musical notes. The poster is serene and pleasant, telling a story of fun and music. It shows no signs of the imminent war.

Check out part two where we’ll look at examples of movie posters that incorporate multiple emotions on Plutchick’s wheel.


Bonner, C. (2014, September 15). Using gestalt principles for natural interactions. Retrieved from https://thoughtbot.com/blog/gestalt-principles

Cao, J. (2015, April 7). Web design color theory: How to create the right emotions with color in web design. Retrieved from https://thenextweb.com/dd/2015/04/07/how-to-create-the-right-emotions-with-color-in-web-design/

Hagen, R., & Golombisky, K. (2017). Mini arts school. White space is not your enemy: A beginner’s guide to communicating visually through graphic, web & multimedia design (Third ed., pp. 46-64). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Bulter, J. (2015). The pocket universal principles of design (1st ed.). Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers Inc.

Lupton, E. (2017). Design is storytelling. New York, NY: Cooper Hewitt.

Norman, D. A. (2004). Designers and users: Two perspectives on emotions and design. Paper presented at the Foundations of Interaction Design, Ivrea, Italy.