Fine: An Introduction

This thesis was written in 2017 for the Masters of Art in Design program at the Zürich University of the Arts. The version here is condensed and all literary and project references can be found here.

To read the full thesis, go here.
To see a log book of the research process, go
To find an overview of the project, the app and the exhibition, go


The online version is broken down into several posts here on Medium.
Introduction (this post)
Context chapters on Emotion, Recording & Visualization 
App chapters on Structure, Visualizing, Recording & Analyzing
Concluding on Designing for Emotion, Reflection & Outlook

Fine. is an investigation of how emotion visualization could look like and work. In it, I explore how data visualization could be used to help us communicate and reflect on our emotions.

Emotions are based on abstract phenomena, making them difficult to define and quantify. Though our experiences of emotion are subjective, we have a deep need to understand and communicate their complexities and effects on our lives. The stimuli that cause our emotions and our mental and physical reactions to them make up our emotion data. Visualization of this data brings tangibility, reveals patterns, and provides a visual language for expression.

This thesis offers a system, in the form of a digital application, for the recording and visualization of emotion. The result is an experience designed to provide users a path for learning about and gaining emotion awareness. In addition, a set of guidelines are laid out to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to designing tools for emotion recording.

This work is an attempt to encourage the community of data visualization to embrace the challenge of visualizing flexible and unpredictable data in the work that we do. It is also an effort to reconsider the languages we’re using to communicate our experiences.


Emotion is a phenomena that occurs in virtually all of us, yet its discrete definition remains today without consensus. When we experience emotion, our cognitive perception of it and our reactions to it are subjective and not always observable. Often, emotions are our impetus for communication, the heart of our exchanges with one another. Yet just as often, we are unaware of them and unable to control them. Should we find ourselves a part of a therapeutic intervention, it is emotion that got us there. And there is where we attempt to express complex emotions and their nuances. Natural spoken language is an innate human capability, but as we will discuss later, it falls short as a medium for emotion expression. Those without a “high emotional IQ”, or a honed skill set in narrative construction, are even further handicapped when faced with communicating their feelings. Emotion itself is a shared human experience, but the task to communicate it coherently is enormous. The task to empirically study it is even more vast.

So if it cannot be said, can it be shown? Emotion experiences can be thought of as our “data” and our emotion history as one of our natural datasets. Because this data is soft, maybe our articulation of it should be a creative interpretation. It is information that perhaps, is better off envisioned. According to statistician and data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte, to envision information, is to work at the intersection of image, word, number, and art. Data visualization, with its fluency in graphics, is a tool for conveying large amounts of information. It is often used to reach a wider audience that previously would be excluded because of the information’s complexity. As will be pointed out later, visualization can change the way we understand dense numeric data, intangible concepts, and even ourselves. A technique of applying diagrams to data and by doing so, offering a connection between a viewer and a phenomena.

The communication of emotion, in its unknown extensity, could be enhanced by visualization as a method of both visual expression and disclosure. A visual representation on its own is a basis for a conversation on emotion to begin. Something to point to and say “this is how I feel,” in all of its abstraction and nuance. If these representations are pieces and parts of a system, or a visual language, then two fields of knowledge form a symbiotic relationship. On one side, visualization gives a much richer quality to how we perceive and communicate emotion experiences. On the other side, the social sciences challenge traditional processes and patterns of visualization to embrace ambiguity and unpredictable themes.

On the basis of this idea, my thesis proposes an interdisciplinary approach to designing solutions for emotion recording, reflection and communication. The application presented as a practical design solution to this thesis was developed as a first iteration of a digital emotion recording tool utilizing a systematic visual language for emotion representation. The goal of this work is to begin a conversation between the branches of social sciences, specifically emotion research and psychology, and visualization.


The initial motivation of this project came from my research on the effects of late life divorce (commonly known today as Grey Divorce) on adult children. I conducted several interviews with counselors and persons who had gone to therapy because of the difficult changes and emotional traumas arising from loss. Psychology professionals and patients alike had specific points of frustration. To be expected, there is a “perfect patient” profile: One who understands that context is everything. One who understands the value of their personal histories and how their emotional experiences are conditioned by them. They are aware of the difference in the intensity of emotion. The patient who is willing to work consistently and repetitively at defining and understanding their experiences is ideal. Patients who are linguistically challenged, or simply have little experience of education in expressing emotion, have a lot of ground to make up. Even if one has a grasp on their experiences and can to some extent express them, there are still areas in which they are dependent. Only trained professionals are able to translate initial evaluation examinations. The emotion experience, with its subjective feelings, sensations and interpretations, is personal. Relying on another human to attempt to decipher these can be successful but not always encouraging self-confidence and a sense of independence.

In Flight, The Guardian
How Americans Die, Bloomberg
Keine Zeit für Wut, NZZ & Interactive Things

Throughout history, narrative storytelling has played a major role in sharing ideas, education, preserving culture and instilling values. With the invention of writing, stories became portable and their spread became essentially boundless. Skipping forward a few centuries, we see visual and digital storytelling everywhere, it is a powerful medium to inform. Designers are in many ways storytellers, much to Stefan Sagmeister’s dismay. If we are not creating the visual content, we are helping to structure the medium through which the narrative is being delivered. In fact, designers are a part of projects that tell the story of a century of passenger air travel, of every known drone strike in Pakistan, of what it’s like to live in solitary confinement, of how Americans die, and of the devastation after the triple disaster of north-eastern Japan in 2011. These are just a few projects where design is used to bring understanding to broad or complex topics. Later, we’ll see how the topic of emotion is full of opposing theories. We’ll see how language is limiting and that the visualization of qualitative data remains restrained to traditional forms and quantification.

This thesis and its practical application is not meant to replace therapy. Rather, it is an idea that can be used as to answer the lack of intuitive visual solutions for recording and expressing our experiences. I present just one possible solution for support when a person is already engaged in therapy or for wide-use by persons interested in gaining emotion awareness.


The research was organized by the three following three objectives:

Creating a system for a user to record an emotion experience

In order to find out how we can record an emotion experience, I needed to research both how it was done historically and the ways we do it today. This included reading about the history of writing and communication, the history of psychology and psychiatry and the theories and tools used by researchers in the field of emotion. These texts revealed some of the challenges of emotion expression and systematic disclosure. To gain more personalized insight, I carried out interviews with people who have been to therapy, people who had tracked their emotion experiences, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists. These two methods helped me identify the issues these professionals deal with in expression or exchange of emotion experiences. Based on the literature review and interviews, a system was built for repetitive use which addressed the dimensionality of emotion. Through group experiments (explained in the Experiments chapter) I tested how intuitive recording emotion would be to people and used feedback interviews to discuss what the ideal of recording experience would be like for users.

Designing a language which translates emotion data visually and can be used systematically

Artists, designers and scientists all represent emotion or its’ processes in some visual manner. Interviews and field research revealed both widely accepted diagrammatic representations and more unique, abstract portrayals. An interview with data visualization expert Eric Rodenbeck revealed the constraints of designers working with researchers and the challenge of visualizing qualitative data. As the hypothesis and artefact address a wide audience, it was also necessary to observe how laymen (you and me) express emotion visually and how they describe those expressions with language.

Fear, as drawn by a participant

For this objective, I created an experiment asking participants to draw and use metaphor to gain inspiration how people feel and describe emotion. The ongoing self-recording and group experiments provided a rich data set which was used for visual design explorations. These were shown throughout the project in order to accumulate feedback on readability. This process brought to light more nuanced goals of a potential user i.e. a balance of readability and act-ability, flexibility in visualization as a representation, and the desire for interactivity. The design exploration process is described in the chapter on development.

A partial week of emotion tracking and visualization, as done by a participant
Defining a medium that provides a user the opportunity to reflect throughout the emotion recording process

This objective required a review of the current analog methods and digital applications used to collect personal data. As there are already applications that attempt to promote mood or emotion recording, identification of their holes was necessary to build further on what already exists. Through testing and candid conversations, I analyzed the features and interfaces of these tools, creating an analysis of their proven and potential success in user goals. This helped define what would be requirements of an application that records emotion. Together with previous knowledge resulting from interviews with psychologists, I was able to glean where priorities should lie in relation to user and therapist needs when emotion disclosure takes place. I also needed to pinpoint where the highest potential would be for reflection to occur during the tracking and visualization of emotion experiences. The group recording experiment and post-interviews helped clarify how people wanted to experience the recording and visualization processes: together, in real time. The post-interviews also highlighted the value of visualizing emotion over an expanded time frame, which validated the use of a small multiple visualization pattern.

Intended Audience

Through the thesis, the tool, and manifesto, this research addresses several audience groups.

The thesis, because it is written by a designer, provides an alternative perspective for professionals in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and emotion research. I call on professionals from these fields to begin a conversation on using visual design to make the expression of emotion more accessible. Visualization researchers who are attempting to create standardized processes for qualitative data will find this thesis a case supporting the importance of their work.

The tool‘s audience also includes those working in psychology and emotion research as a tool to aid them in their practices. Their applied use of the artefact would help further the development of visual devices in their fields. The target group is also widened to include anyone wishing to gain emotion awareness, journal efficiently or capture a more elusive type of personal data. It’s conceivable that this tool could be an addition to counseling or as an extension of mindful meditation. Like any method of data recording, this application provides a user with an opportunity to engage with their choices, set goals and monitor them.

The manifesto that concludes this thesis is directed toward designers, who will continue to iterate new solutions for emotion recording. They can use the needs from the audiences listed above together with the golden rules, to guide their development of tools at the intersection of these knowledge fields.

Project Contributions

There are five core contributions within this research.Through the research and development of the artefact, a manifesto for designing for emotion is laid out. These guidelines combine the desires and needs from each of the listed target audiences and are, for the first time, presented together with a concrete design solution. They can be tested and advanced by those with background in psychology, social behavior and emotion research. Used as guidelines and united with the tool, design practitioners now have a springboard, precipitating other digital interfaces or experiences with expressive visualization elements.

Within the tool, there are two individual contributions. The first is the recording system itself. Structured for the collection of emotion data, it helps give shape and context to emotion experience in a visual communication context. This method of collection used alongside the second contribution, visual system for experience representation, gives allowance for scientists and data analysts to step away from objective fact and quantitative data. For design and visualization researchers, these contributions are a reminder of the gaps within our field and an encouragement to expand our skill sets to unpredictable topics and datasets. Could Be Worse is also a small admonition to keep perspective when creating and sharing tools which could potentially be misused. There is a need, as this research points out. How that need should be met, and constrained, is still dependent on one’s interpretation.

Alongside the thesis, I present two other books to showcase my research.

  1. The book of visualizations, Alright, includes each day of my emotions visualized over the year I recorded them. Its appendix includes all of the numerical and textual data collected during that time. You can find a digital version of that publication here.
  2. Could Be Worse, as mentioned above, is a collection of short stories. It is meant as a projection of a world in which collecting emotion data is commonplace — or mandatory — and the disregard of the golden rules found in the conclusion of this thesis. You can read it here.

Continue to Emotion.

An overview of this project and a link to the log book of my process can be found online here.