Emotions, Visual Design and Marketing

Pradeep Mahadeshwar
Feb 7, 2017 · 8 min read

“Visual designers are the problem solvers of the design world. Rather than just bringing brands to life, they play a key role in defining what goes into a brand’s unique style and voice. In addition to creating beautiful designs, they know how to explain design concepts and the decisions behind their work.” — from skillcrush.com

Human beings are visual animals. Around 90% of information transmitted to our brain is visual. Our brain processes image 60,000 times faster than text. Thinking comes second to our initial emotional response.

An advertisement is an information or message, consisting of static or moving images, typeface and colours. People are attracted to compelling imagery. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Indeed, an image is capable of evoking emotions in individuals that in turn motivate them to act.

A visual storytelling, based on the science of emotion, plays an important role in the life cycle of the visual design. The American neuroeconomist, Paul Zak’s, famous storytelling experiment, has already shown us how our neurological signals reflect engagement in stories and predict post-narrative behaviours. Zak’s study revealed the effect of using emotions in marketing content and the revenue generation that resulted because of it.

The IPA is the world’s most influential professional body for advertising and marketing practitioners. It holds a data bank of 1,400 real-life marketing case studies. The IPA compared the profitability of campaigns that fit into two different categories: campaigns that used purely emotional content and those which used rational information. The study showed that campaigns with purely emotional content performed around twice as well (31% compared to 16%) as those that had only rational content. This supports the importance of the use of emotions in visual design for marketing.

Several studies have attempted to classify human emotions. Psychologist Paul Ekman, a pioneer of research into human emotion recognition in the 1960s, proposed that there were six core “universal” emotions: joy, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust and fear. American psychologist Robert Plutchik, famous for his evolutionary theory of emotions, created a graphical representation of the range of emotions in the 1980s, called “The Wheel of Emotions”. This illustration demonstrates the complexity of interlinked emotions, with eight primary emotions at the centre of the wheel: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy.

The most recent research, carried out by scientists at the University of Glasgow, challenged previous studies and suggested that all human behaviour can actually be broken down into four basic emotions: happy, sad, fear/surprise and anger/disgust. The combinations of and interrelationships between these emotions, create infinite layers of other emotions.

Each of these emotions is useful as a means to influence a customer’s decision making. Our social and physical circumstances in our daily lives mean that we feel countless emotions. To fully understand how many emotions we experience each day, is a very complex process.

Let’s consider the four emotions in marketing:

1. Happiness increases by sharing

Brands need to be creative in order to grab the attention of their target audience. The promise of happiness and fulfilment attracts us the most. When we feel happy, we enjoy sharing that feeling with others. Beneath the activity of sharing of experiences with others, there is a complex mesh of interlinked emotions.

The more you share, the happier you feel and the more people like what you have shared, the more appreciated you feel. That’s how viral sharing works. Marketing content that consists of happy emotion visuals, multiplies the possibilities of a brand’s reach.

English paediatrician, psychoanalyst and author of “Playing and Reality”, Donald Winnicott, studied the importance of sharing happiness. Winnicott’s research showed us that playfulness is important for our emotional and psychological well-being. His concept of “playing” applies to every age group. Adults “play” through art, sports, hobbies, humour and meaningful conversation. This “playing” helps us to move towards the development of authentic selfhood. When we play, it makes us feel real and connected to others. Winnicott noted that when people feel happy, they share their happiness, which in turn increases their happiness. Sharing our happiness makes us feel real and alive. The majority of top drivers of viral content are related to happiness and playfulness. By sharing our happiness on social media, we replicate the “real life” playfulness in the virtual world.

Viewers become more engaged with visual content when they chose it spontaneously. “Liking” is one of the principles of the science of persuasion. We like people similar to us that is one of the most important factors in linking. To put it another way, we look out for people who are similar to us — people with similar food likes or people with similar interests, in things such as outdoor sports or beauty tips, for example. Genuine praise and positive feedback about the content shared on social media by people who are similar to us, increases the chance of us having a positive response to it.

2. Sadness teaches empathy!

Sadness reminds us of what matters to us and what gives our life meaning, as well as what we miss from the past (nostalgia). Happiness and sadness have a similar effect on our brain.

Belgian League of Alhzeimer, Alhzeimer’s Day. Advertising Agency: Publicis, Brussels, Belgium

Paul Zak carried out a study regarding the impact of storytelling on our brain. He proved that the experience of sadness causes our brain to release two neurochemicals, known as cortisol and oxytocin. The “stress hormone”, cortisol, encourages us to pay attention to the story, while the oxytocin promotes connection and care and encourages us to feel empathy.

Zak’s research suggests that advertisers should use visuals that cause our brains to release oxytocin, in order to build trust in a product or engagement in a brand, as a way to increase sales.

3. Fear and Surprise, to keep the interest alive

PhD graduate from Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, Lea Dunn, conducted a study around brand loyalty and the role of fear in consumer behaviour. The study revealed that fear actually stimulates people to report greater brand attachment.

Culturally, we have been conditioned to be fearful of the bad and surrender ourselves to the culturally set measures of rightfulness. When our expectations don’t match the reality, we feel surprised. This surprise is the gap between our assumptions and our expectations. Surprise can be neutral/moderate, pleasant, unpleasant, positive or negative and has a connection with fear.

Fear is mostly controlled by a small, almond-shaped structure in the brain known as the amygdala. We share the fear with others, just as we share happiness. When we are unable to find a real person to share our fear with, we rely on other things. From the consumer point of view, fear ignites the necessity in us to cling to something that is safe and reliable. This safe and reliable thing could be in any form — a physical product, or a service provided by a brand through an app, for example.

Fear creates within us the necessity to feel be safe. Insurance companies are a good example of using fear to sell. Fear can also build a long-term brand relationship, with buyers not feeling that they are safe unless they keep their relationship with the brand alive.

The feeling of losing something is one of the principles in the science of persuasion. A limited time sale and urgency message work by making a customer fear that they are going to miss an opportunity if they don’t act quickly. Things are more attractive when their availability is limited, with the feeling of fear and insecurity persuading the customer to make a decision as soon as possible.

4. Anger and disgust

Arguably, anger and disgust have the biggest value for virality. You can see this in action by looking at any social media content related to political debates. In 2016, we saw the heated political arguments on social media. Social media has been proven to be influential in the user’s critical decision making. Out of all of the negative emotions, feelings that are related to anger are the most powerful when it comes to virality.

Viral content that causes anger provokes us to make a comparison and take a definite stand in the argument — for or against. In a way, it enables us to become stubborn. Putting a brand or product at the forefront of public debate and enabling viewers to “take a stand”, is an age-old marketing tactic. The audiovisual campaigns of Mercedes-Benz vs. Jaguar and Microsoft vs. Google Chrome are some of the most famous examples.

As human beings, we are not rational but are rationalisers. We align our rational thinking with our emotions. At the same time, our emotions originate on a sub-conscious level — we don’t choose them, there is no free will. All we can do is choose a response to that emotion.


The use of emotions in visual design for marketing plays a far greater role in determining business outcomes than many marketing executives realise. Visual design for marketing is more than just creating a fancy design using graphics software or adding a stakeholder’s subjective choice of colour. In the sea of distractions that is the internet, the visual design based on a scientific understanding of human emotions is becoming more important than ever before, in order to effectively reaching and engaging with potential customers.



Culture of Fear Revisited by Frank Furedi
The Impact of Fear on Emotional Brand Attachment. Author(s): Lea Dunn and JoAndrea Hoegg, Published by The University of Chicago Press, 2024
Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman
Playing and Reality by Donald Winnicott
‘Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior’ by Jonah Berger
Influence: How and why People Agree to Things by Robert Cialdini
The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works by Paul J. Zak
Written all over your face: humans express four basic emotions rather than six, says new study — Dr Rachael Jack, University of Glasgow

Pradeep Mahadeshwar

Written by

Visual Designer at Groupon. Visual artist, daydreamer and constantly searching a reason of my existence.

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