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Why Should We Design Emotional Systems?

Before the very first page of a book has been read, you’ve already analyzed it in countless ways without even noticing. The paper stock, the thickness of the binding, the aroma, the color of the type and even the texture of the cover; the very character of the book is being dissected by the hand and eye at every moment. [Links checked & repaired March/24/2017]

In this brief second there is a dialogue between the reader and the object. This conversation is subtle and complex, but for most people it is entirely subconscious. This is because we rarely think about these things  —  we feel them instead.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Before this dialogue can take place however, the ideas of the author must be given shape. By examining the relationship between the form of the book and the information contained within, we can begin to understand how these visual and sensory components work, but it will also teach us how to create long-lasting emotional bonds that we’ll want to keep forever.

Lost In Translation Link

I recently read The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. His book explores the wonder of evolution and scientific discovery and also goes into explicit detail as to how these ideas better our society and affect our perspective of morality and philosophy. But its uncomfortable size and shape as well as its flimsy typesetting gives the book characteristics of apathy and exhaustion.

The object reveals much about the world in which it was made: a heartless, ignorant and illiterate world, filled with people that viewed the author and the reader as a stepping stone to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

And yet, these aesthetic and ergonomic failures are more than skin deep as they interfere with the relationship between writer and reader. Dawkins’ evidence seems less empirical, less established and somehow less wonderful, as the book miserably fails to explain the poetry of its content.

The Greatest Show on Earth5
Notice how jarring and uncomfortable it is as these glossy, brightly colored pages sit next to ordinary blocks of text.

Dawkins’ argument is damaged by these cluttered, noisy and mistreated illustrative pages. Whilst he describes the wonderful and unique beauty of life, his ideas feel ordinarily ugly. The images to the left of the spread, their jarring and chaotic arrangement, the tension built by their seemingly random position, fail to reflect the ideas of wonder, beauty and order that the writer so eloquently describes.

The broken pages of The Greatest Show on Earth
The ideas contained within have lasted centuries, yet this book has barely lasted a single reading.

Walk into any large, commercial bookstore and you’ll see thousands of books treated in a similar way  —  each with layer upon layer of unnecessary information that conflicts with the intent of the author. Something crucial is destroyed in this journey as the object disrupts vital information on transit.

To understand why these books are not working, we must first examine how information passes from writer to reader.

The Journey Link

For centuries, the book was a tool that existed for a single purpose; to transfer information from one mind to another. Although much has changed6, there will always be a problem with this form of communication, and in our reliance on systems to safely relay data.

In bookmaking these systems are traditionally enforced by a publisher, as they have complete control over the quality of the binding, the typographic details, the use of color and the overall physical identity of the idea. All of these visual and sensory elements combine to produce the system by which the idea is given form. However, as in the case of the majority of books out there, this system poisons and infects it.

These systems comprise of an immense number of components, such as the combination of typefaces, the paper density, the use of color, the printing method, the measure, the width of margins, and other typographic details. But the problem with these systems is that they are incapable of reflecting the ideas of the writer with the form of the book. They act as a barrier that the information must travel through to be able to find the reader.

Idea, System, Form

Cheap paper, bad typesetting and an awkward binding cause confusion and disrespect to the author’s ideas. But if we understand how these elements work together we can make systems that provide useful signs to the reader, and also manage to safely transport the ideas of the writer at the same time.

Emotional Information Link

When a visual component accurately represents the ideas of the writer, it becomes a source of emotional information. This aids in the transferral of ideas, and promotes and persuades the reader that the content is worthy of their precious time.

It’s more than just a pretty cover, visual pun or marketing gimmick that creates emotional information. It’s everything from the size of the type to the texture of the page, because these components not only help to explain the content of the book but also continue to engage and stimulate the reader throughout.

Two versions of As I Lay Dying
The Vintage Classics edition of As I Lay Dying is almost lifeless, whereas Trevor Baum’s redesign provides the reader with an emotional experience as they must carry this dying woman in their hands, much like the characters in the novel.

A system can bind the ideas of the writer to the form of the book with these carefully chosen elements, but it’s when the form and the idea become inseparable that unique relationships begin to emerge.

Take for example Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? that was published by the Chin Music Press7 back in 2008. The book is focused primarily on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the impact it had on the music, economy and spirit of the city.

Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? cover
The physical elements of the book act as a rhetorical device, directing the reader with subtlety and charm.

Nineteenth century engravings flourish beside carefully set blocks of text and each page has been lavishly printed on high quality paper. These components, amongst many others, combine to create a distinct sense of pace that sets itself apart from legions of other books. The idea of the book and the form of the book become one  —  they merge into an emotional cornucopia that is impossible to ignore.

Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? spread
The texture of the page, the subtle typographic details and the distinctive illustrations implies a specific tone and atmosphere.

This is emotional information and it coerces the reader to take notice of the subject and to read each page with as much attention and focus as those that designed and published it.

Another book that provides the reader with emotional information is the Book of war, mortification and love. The author, Ruud Linssen, investigates why people suffer voluntarily whether it be for love, war, religion or art. The blend of fiction and non-fiction, and the haunting accounts of depression and loneliness are only reinforced by the physical elements of the object.

The text also acts as a specimen for the typeface Fakir8. This dark blackletter eloquently explains the subject and forewarns the reader of the book’s ghostly nature. It is even printed with the author’s own blood, the ink on the cover blends into the background as if the words are shaking with anxiety.

Book of war, mortification and love page
Texture, ink, type: three dimensions of emotional data that captures the spirit of the writer’s intent.

It’s these extra pieces of information, these tangible components of a unique sensory and visual language that must be pieced together in order to accurately reflect the author’s ideas. It is the format, the texture, and the combination of the printed word and the weight of the object that ignites this special relationship, and aids in the transfer of information between writer and reader. Ideally, these extra pieces of information provide the reader with the unspoken history, idea and argument of the book. Without them, the conversation between the book and the reader would be less interactive and engaging.

Of course, not every book can feel like Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?, or Book of war, mortification and love – but then why should they? Each book should be treated as a unique problem requiring a distinct and innovative solution.

Emotionless Systems Link

This is the problem with the current state of ebooks. As e-readers split content numerically or into ‘real’ turning pages they impersonate the form of the book, whilst disregarding the unique nature of the writer’s ideas. This gives us books that all feel and look the same.

The Picture of Dorian Gray and Shit My Dad Says
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Shit My Dad Says by Justin Halpern look and feel the same, but are different in every meaningful way.

The system disregards the writer almost entirely; all ideas have the same graphic character, tone and appearance. But just as unique and brilliant writers follow a certain pattern and rhythm within their work, so too must the visual and sensory elements of a system. This indicates to the reader that the content is one of a kind and worthy of their precious time, but these systems are also capable of creating emotional experiences that can entertain, persuade, teach and inspire.

So the problems on screen are very similar to that of the problems on paper: the system is acting as a barrier into the author’s ideas.

Why Should We Design Emotional Systems? Link

In a perfect world we would share ideas through a semipermeable membrane; we would absorb ideas via osmosis and send them around the world as casually as we breathe. Sadly, we cannot do this. Instead, we have systems set in place to communicate. The problem is that these systems are failing us. They are hurting us. They are making beautiful things boring and are getting in between us and the ideas that we need.

This is not about nostalgia or the glorification of a particular medium. This is about information, and how best to communicate the content as a visual and sensory device. These systems have an obligation to not only safely and quickly transfer data, but also to make us care.

Of course, this is subjective and very little of this article goes into the specifics as to how to create emotional experiences, but this is because each idea requires a different visual and sensory tone. Some books require explosive typography and thick paper to feel revolutionary, others require a softer and more delicate tone to feel calm or charming.

The form of the book is merely a tool, a sometimes wonderfully beautiful and effective tool, but a tool nonetheless. It is the ideas within that give us wonder, and these tools must be built for their purpose if they are not to be thrown away, lost or forgotten.

We can embed within these systems a lasting piece of our culture if only we are willing to change the way we think. So instead of us asking the question, “How do these things look?” perhaps we should rather be asking, “How do these things feel?”

Further Reading Link

  • The Crystal Goblet9
    The classic essay by Beatrice Warde on the art of printing, still applicable to book and Web design today.
  • Designing for Emotion10
    The lead UX designer at MailChimp, Aaron Walter, discusses how emotion can be used in interfaces.
  • On Book Design11
    Richard Hendel examines how and why books are designed in the way that they are.


Footnotes Link

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Robin is a writer and designer. You can follow him on twitter.

  1. 1

    Interesting article! Thanks!

  2. 2

    Extremely interesting article Robin. Congratulations

  3. 3

    Kristian Olson

    February 8, 2012 8:02 pm

    Excellent article and excellent argument regarding the function of form.

  4. 4

    Love the fact that you talk about the usage of REAL books that you can touch, feels, smell, etc. They will be around much longer than our digital powered lives. Love a good real book as the author intended us to view it. Ability to hold the book trembling and see the pages flutter when there is a suspenseful part of a book, or the smell of the pages of a book, the weight. I think a lot of emotion is taken out of the equation with the advent of the ebook. Sure it saves space, but I like my books I can feel, smell, hear the crisp, swish of the pages and to bend the book, bend the pages to keep my place, actually have an attachment to a book rather than using my index to swipe across a piece of plastic to “change” the page.
    Don’t like it, just seems lifeless. Just seems the way technology is going with everything made for a tablet or phone, lifeless and disposable on to the next thing every 2 seconds.
    I like the way an actually book doesn’t need a battery to view, won’t interrupt you when you have an email, I can disconnect from technology. My life is filled with too much technology. It is nice to slow down and just sit and read a good, actual paper book.

    • 5

      I think the problem here is how we see the current form of the digital book. Just because our current systems are failing us, doesn’t mean we should give up on making them better.

  5. 6

    I think your article is extremely well-written and highlights a lot of valid points that I have wanted to communicate myself. In the meantime, wouldn’t you hope that inspiring writing has a merit of its own, regardless of the form? I would certainly hope so. Say, this comment that I am posting will have the exact same type, spacing, and formatting as all the other comments. Am I supposed to feel constrained or discouraged in communicating my message? The perception of the content of communication is always influenced by the form, which is something to note and try to leverage from a writer’s perspective. I have faith in the publishing industry though that they wouldn’t publish my novel in comic sans. That’s why your research when looking for a publisher should extend to the considerations that you mentioned.

    • 7

      @Szabo Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.

      I think that writing certainly has merit without form, but it’s less persuasive and ultimately less interesting. This idea of rhetoric in terms of design is really important to me and I think that you have to make people care about whatever the topic is first, no matter what you’re communicating.

      You can’t just dive into Newton’s laws of motion before putting it all into context; historically, scientifically, culturally. You need to give the information oomph and showmanship before you really dive into the subject, because people need a reason to listen. All good writers do this, because they have to, but sadly only a small percentage of them see the possibilities that the book offers them.

      Ultimately, it’s all about context.

      Maybe each comment here should be typeset differently. My writing might feel more like one typeface and colour, whilst someone else’s might look and feel completely different. Sometimes messy is a good thing.

  6. 8

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I am currently working on a novel as a matter of fact, and I use two different fonts, one for each main character… I would like to retain that format if (!) I get offered a book deal, but we will see what the publisher has to say about that…

  7. 9

    Ironic perhaps that I read this fine article on my computer’s plastic screen, yet Robin’s ability to convey heartfelt emotion through a heartless medium is testament to his skill. Congratulations, sir.

  8. 10

    Calvin Jarrod

    February 9, 2012 5:37 pm

    I understand and completely agree about everything said in the article when I comes to the responsibilities of a designer. But when it comes to every non-designing person, who can help the poor design features. A book should be judged by its content not it’s aesthetic appeal. I read books all of the time and not once do I judge it based on the outside.

    We are all designers and we are spoiled with our own talent. We design beautiful pieces of art for the world to see, but most people are not gifted in that way. They are non-designers. There is nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if you would ask any non-designer what his impression of this “poorly designed” book in question, what would his answer be?

    I personally think that this article was not called for. Every single person hear reading is hear to learn, and not to judge. This article is pointing at a poorly designed book and completely overlooking the content of the book. Completely overlooking the information that will aid in learning. This article is teaching its reader to judge a book based on it’s cover. Should a fashion designer judge the contents of a persons mind by what they wear?

    • 11

      William Johnson

      February 12, 2012 8:13 pm

      I strongly disagree that “this article was not called for.” It was a fine article (really an essay), and the semi-illiterate prose in your comment only underscores your utter failure to understand the complex relationship between form and content, which is what the article’s author was addressing.

  9. 12

    I think everyone can relate to this concept. I think back to high school and remember two history teachers I had. One class was dry and boring. We followed the book, did the worksheets and quiz’s, and got by. The other history class was fun, we were all engaged, and we learned quite a bit. The difference was entirely in presentation. In one room it was the standard by the book experience and the other room it was an emotional experience where the teacher connected you to the history by sparking your imagination.

    Content is our teacher today.

    • 13

      Absolutely! I think pretty much everything I said about these books could be used as criticism towards our education systems.

  10. 14

    Finally an article that makes sense on smashing. It’s been a while everything I see is “how to’s” and “20 best”. I missed those articles that make you think beyond today’s trend and toward sustainable practices that work across medias. Thanks!

  11. 15

    Does it really matter if The Picture of Dorian Gray and Shit My Dad Says look and feel the same on a Kindle? Spend 5 seconds reading either and I suspect the differences will reveal themselves.

    I find these articles on the emotional impact of the look and feel of books vaguely comical. Why the ornate language and hushed tone when the popular old paperback is essentially a mass market, democratic format?

    Why not write about the content of books instead?

  12. 16

    Marcus Marritt

    February 10, 2012 4:27 pm

    This approach and the arguments made here fit so much the challenge of content working with form, and the happy marriage the two must be living with. Focusing on book publishing shows how this design objective runs across multiple mediums – publishing, web design, illustration etc

  13. 17

    Highly informative and interesting article! It accurately explains the problems we have to deal with everyday as designers. There needs to be a marriage between content and design – both aiding each other to tell the story.

  14. 18

    How nice to see this. A sensitive look at what goes into a book, integrity, concept, reader experience. It warmed my heart to see you and your readers share something in common with a sensibility I hold dear. Thank you.


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