Dr. Pieter Desmet is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Industrial DesignDelft University of Technology. His background is in industrial design, and his research for his PhD degree focussed on emotional product experience. His award winning research has been published in several journals and presented at international platforms. Pieter’s dissertation “Designing Emotions” is one that can be found on the desks of many (designers) and also for me was one of the first real encounters with this very interesting topic. I would like to suggest everybody to order this book, read it and realise that this is the best starting point you could have wished for. Pieter has done a fantastic job in summarising the complex and transforming it into the understandable. He has used his product emotion measurement tool PrEmo to help companies understand the emotional impact of their products and is a frequently invited speaker.
Ok, so it is clear that I admire Pieter’s work and I thought it was therefore time for us to stop chatting about and for the Design and Emotion Society (where Pieter is a board member) and start doing a serious interview. Read below what came out of that.
Pieter, it has been around four years since you promoted with your dissertation”Designing Emotions” about emotions that are elicited by products. In the book it is discussed what an emotion is, how products evoke emotions, and how these emotions can be measured and influenced. It was perhaps the first time that such an extensive report was given on the way products evoke emotional responses with us. Now, four years later, how would you evaluate the progress that the field of emotional design has experienced?
Emotion is now widely recognised as an indisputable ingredient of the human product relationship. We have definitely left behind the era in which “esign and emotion” was mainly associated with the occasional designer’s passionate explanation of how the curves of his new design were inspired by some female’s body. Nowadays, most of the conferences in the fields of ergonomics, human computer interaction, product design, and marketing, present an emotion track with design and emotion research papers. So yes, the field has shown substantial progress, and the discussion is much more advanced today than it was ten years ago. However, and at the same time, there is still an undeniable gap between those that study the phenomenon and those that actually work in design practice. For sure, research initiatives are booming, but we only see a modest influence of these initiatives in design activities outside the academic world. Nevertheless, we have now a new generation of designers that is familiar with tools, techniques, and structured approaches to emotional design. It is just a matter of time before these designers will have established positions that enable them to push the real progress in design for emotion.
You are also a board member of the Design & Emotion Society, which brings together practitioners, researchers and industry with the mission to integrate salient themes of emotional experience in the design profession. What would you say is the importance of getting these themes integrated in the design profession?
Emotion is a central quality of human existence, and most of our behaviour and thought is influenced en enriched by emotion. Our relationship with the world is affective, and all human interactions show emotion colour. Ignoring the emotional side of products would be like denying that these products are designed, bought, and used by humans. I believe that it is our responsibility to think about the emotional impact of our designs. My experience has taught me that science has many insights to offer that can help building a vocabulary that enables us to think about and discuss the abstract concept of emotion. The distinctions of this vocabulary help the design profession in two ways: they can inspire and at the same time shift the discussion from the realm of implicit intuition to a more explicit discourse.
One of the most fundamental arguments that support your research is that there is never a one-to-one relationship between the appearance of products and the emotions they evoke. Could you explain what this means and what impact it has on attempts of designers to manipulate the emotions that their product elicits?
This means that design for emotion requires an understanding of the contextualised concerns of the users; their goals, standards, and attitudes. The relationship between product and emotion is not universal, but at the same time the principles that underlie the processes that elicit emotion are universal. If you understand these principles you will know what questions need to be answered about the user in order to be able to design with a targeted emotion profile. The value of emotion theory is that it can help us to formulate these questions.
One of the results of your Ph.D. has been the product emotion measurement tool “PrEmo” which already has been successfully applied on products of several interesting organizations. Could you think of an example of a project that particularly shows the added value and impact of using PrEmo (and measuring emotions in general) in the design process?
The first example that comes to mind is a typical case of what I would call “emotional allignment” In this project we measured the emotional impact of several fabric conditioner package designs. The package that elicited highest levels of inspiration was selected. In the same way we measured emotional responses elicited by fabric conditioner fragrances, and selected the fragrance that elicited the highest level of inspiration. In that way we were able to develop a product that is emotionally consistent. Personally I am most inspired by a project in which we focussed on wheelchairs for children. On the basis of a PrEmo study a new children’s wheelchair was developed that had a fantastic emotional impact on these children. For me, that project best confirmed my belief in the value of structured design and emotion approaches.
Since recently, as assistant professor at Delft University, you have been involved in the Ph.D. project of Gael Laurans which focuses on the measurement of emotions that are evoked when interacting with products. What can designers learn from understanding the emotions that are evoked during interaction? And, which challenges do you face in trying to measure emotions that can perhaps even change from second to second within an interaction?
Emotional product experience is as dynamic as the human-product interaction itself. Products do not elicit a single emotion but complex emotional episodes. The emotional impact of a product “as such” differs from the emotional episode elicited by product usage. For designers it is relevant to understand the holistic nature of this emotional episode. We cannot simply break down the interaction into a sequence of actions because emotion in a particular action is determined by all previous actions. You can compare it to reading a book. The emotions experienced at any point of time are not just elicited by the particular page one is reading, but by all previous pages that have already been read. On of our main challenges is therefore to understand the relationship between this holistic emotional episode and the interaction narration.
You have been invited to present at many different occasions, covering a big variety of subjects that were related to emotional experiences. When I visited your website, I found that you have lectured about emotions in food experience, flight experience, in cultural expression, shaving experience, etc. Just how easy is it to generalize theories of emotional experience?
The great thing about the concept of emotion is that it is universal, and the principles that shape the processes that underlie emotions apply to all emotions, in all cultures, in all times, in all contexts, to all stimuli. Many students who enrol in our design and emotion course are surprised to see how that course teaches them about their emotional responses in other domains, such as in their social relationships. Of course the challenge is to find a balance between universal principles on the one hand (that can be too abstract) and context driven product and emotion relationships (that can be too contextualised). Nonetheless, one who understands the principles of emotion apply that to any domain.
In your latest column for the Design & Emotion Society newsletter (August 2006 edition) you talked about the connection between researchers’ empathetic research intentions and the commercial reality of the design field. You stated that the design area is probably better of with a wide variety of concepts to explicate product experience and realize the mentioned connection between research and commercial reality. Aren’t you afraid that the creation and existence of all of these different names and concepts keeps the “fuzzy” image that surrounds emotional design themes alive?
Yes I am. But in that particular column I wanted to acknowledge the fact that any emerging field requires an explorative phase in which a wide variety of concepts is introduced because that is part of the process of defining the field itself. I am convinced that the coming five years clear definitions will emerge. At the same time I must admit that I am sometimes frustrated when reading research papers that show little effort to actually define the particular affective concepts that are discussed. The consequence is that many design and emotion research initiatives suffer from isolation because it is very difficult to compare and relate them to a broader framework. That is why I belief that the design and emotion conferences are important: they stimulate the progress towards a general framework of product experience.
A few shorter questions:
Which products, brands or designs inspire or have inspired you?
In general: industrial structures, modernism, cultural and religious icons, and personality brands.
Which people inspire or have inspired you?
Wim Schermer; unique combination of design, spiritual, and artistic skills.
Ingo Mauer; master of light.
Rem Koolhaas; culture, meaning, structure, and surface.
Paul Hekkert; mentor in understanding design science.
Marcel Wanders; taught me how to design.
Which books inspire or have inspired you?
The emotions (Nico Frijda), Atonement (Ian Mc Ewan), Handbook of Affective Sciences (Eds. Davidson, Scherer, and Goldsmith), En l’absence des homes (Philippe Besson) and many many more.
Pieter, thank you very much for this conversation.