July 26, 2004
News & Opinion: Book Review: Emotional Design
If youve ever labored to bring something to market, youve probably been party to this daisy chain of blame: designers and engineers fight vicious battles over form vs. function; marketing and the ad agency bicker over on-strategy content relative to award-winning graphics and copy; and everyone loathes the fluffy branding ruminations of the chief marketer. As is the case in the fields of physics or economics, what we product developers really need is a grand unifying theory a way to get these divergent viewpoints pulling together in order to make great stuff. Well, search no longer, for Donald Norman serves up a comprehensive theory of product development in his remarkable Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things.
This outstanding book is by no means Normans first on the subject of design. In the 80s, Norman authored another landmark book, The Design of Everyday Things, which argued for function over other considerations, such as aesthetics and meaning (or brand). In doing so, it established Norman as the curmudgeon of the design world. But in Emotional Design, a mellowed Norman arrives at a more balanced yet revolutionary conclusion: things that look and feel good work better for their user because human cognitive processes (which enable functionality in the first place) function more smoothly in the presence of beauty. For example, a beautiful computer interface puts us in a frame of mind more conducive to finding successful functional workarounds than does a nasty interface. Think Mac versus DOS. Rooted in scientific research, this idea would have made for a good book in and of itself, but in the course of outlining a model of human cognition to support this conclusion, Norman puts forth a unifying theory of great product development, and thats where the fun begins.
Normans theory of great product development is built upon a tripartite model of human cognition: we breathe in the world via two channels, one Visceral, which is the realm of things like feel, looks, and smell, the other Behavioral, which is what allows us to create movement and take action. Operating on top of those channels is our Reflective processor, which Norman describes as the level that conscious and the highest levels of feeling, emotions, and cognition reside. Most of what we call branding happens at the Reflective level. Imagine an iPod in your hand. Viscerally, you love the shape, the heft, its intense whiteness, the chromed back, the feel of the controls even the look of the advertising and packaging delights you. Behaviorally, the Click Wheel gets you to any of your 20,000 bootleg copies of Wild Thing in three clicks or less sweet! On a Reflective level, you cant imagine living without all this music on your hip, and the iPod fits your self image in a deep way; you love the Apple brand. Normans Visceral-Behavioral-Reflective model of cognition explains nicely why Apples products just plain rock: great products fire at all levels of cognition, while bad ones fail at one or, in the case of the AMC Pacer, all three.
In my earlier review of Lovemarks, I noted how au courant it is for business thinkers to say we should all be marketers, that were all designers. And theyre right. But with his Visceral-Behavioral-Reflective model, Norman gives us a way to put that thought into action. Back to the iPod in your hand: that it is so compelling Viscerally isnt just a function of great product design; its about Apples ability to go to market with ads and packaging whose aesthetic elements are as carefully designed as the product itself. That the iPod is now the digital music player speaks to Apples ability to market to our Reflective level (though advertising, packaging, and even its retail stores) with messages and images carefully selected to shape the meaning of the iPod within our culture.
And therein lies the Big Idea of Emotional Design: when marketing cant agree with engineering who cant abide the industrial design group, its because theyre each worried about only one of the three levels of cognition. But, as the iPod proves, it is possible to have a product where beauty, joy, functionality and crisp marketing positioning not only coexist but actually reinforce each other. The key is to get each discipline to acknowledge and support the successful design of the two cognitive elements it would otherwise never deal with. In doing so, we all become designers, engineers, and marketers, unlocking the key to creating great stuff.
I approached Emotional Design thinking it would be just another book from the often insular field of product design. It is anything but. Theres more here about the essence of branding than in any marketing spiel in recent memory. Normans lucid prose and elegant thinking combine to make Emotional Design a must-read for anyone who wants to create remarkable things, no matter your domain.
Diego Rodriguez loves creating great stuff. You can read more of his thinking on product development at metacool
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.