Conveying Emotional Messages in Visual Design

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Emotions are some of the most influential forces on Earth, and visual imagery can promote one or more of these powerful feelings. This lesson details some specific design elements that have been scientifically proven to evoke a particular emotion.

Eliciting Emotion Using Visual Multimedia

As humans, emotions play a profound role in our thoughts, decisions, and behavior. When choosing a course of action, we often mix rational thoughts with (perhaps not-so-rational) emotions to produce a decision that is both technically right and feels good. Visual storytelling is one of the most effective ways to provoke emotion and (hopefully) action. Because emotions are so visceral (as well as instructive and strong), communications that trigger an emotional response are tremendously influential.

Design Elements that Elicit Emotion and Tell Stories

A design element is the use of an image or visual effect that will become a component of the overall message or story. Design elements commonly include things like foreground, background, color, space, focus, or special effects. Graphic designers combine art and science to assemble the right configuration of visual design elements to bring together a message.


Framing is a common visual effect in which a person's thoughts or behavior are influenced by emotion. Framing involves using visual images from a particular point in a process in order to prompt a particular emotion. One of the most common channels for emotion-inducing visual communications is television advertising.

The technique of framing is easy to see in the television spots for organizations like World Vision. The non-profit humanitarian aid organization uses heavy framing that evokes emotions like sympathy, sorrow, pain, and even a healthy dose of guilt. World Vision's ads use the visual depiction of malnourished children to frame why donating to the organization is so important.

This happy couple is being framed to evoke the emotions of togetherness and bliss. The couple might argue a lot, but they are being framed in only their happy moment.


Even though visual media is one of the most powerful tools in marketing, visual storytelling is equally important in entertainment. Acclaimed movie producer Steven Spielberg used a simple but incredibly powerful visual effect to begin the storytelling of his film Schindler's List. This technique uses the effect of color pop to bring out only the color red in the otherwise black-and-white scene.

In the scene using this storytelling effect, a young Jewish girl is standing in front of a group of Jewish adults and German soldiers about to be taken to the death camps. The scene is entirely in black-and-white, except for the young girl's coat which appears in red.

This emotional scene makes strong use of color pop.

The simple effect of a red coat in an otherwise entirely black-and-white scene is incredibly powerful as it immediately draws the eye to the young girl. Her youth and innocence are a stark contrast even without the effect, but the red coat elicits emotions that are deep, sobering, and grave. Somehow, the red coat makes the girl even more innocent, and her imminent deportation and death even more cruel and pointless. The red coat tells a truly massive story (the Holocaust) using a single scene with a single color. Such is the power of visual imagery.

When considering design elements that contain color, it's important to remember that there's a well-established connection between certain colors and human emotion. Take a look at these companies that use color intentionally to highlight an emotion related to their product:

  • Red: bold, passionate, active, risky, energetic, active (Red Bull, Virgin, and Nintendo)
  • Lavender/Purple: love, peace, respect, longevity, nurturing, caring, warmth (Victoria's Secret, Barbie, and Cosmopolitan)
  • Green: harmony, equilibrium, positive, safe, stable, natural, generous (Starbucks, Holiday Inn, and John Deere)

Portraits and Facial Expressions

In the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, the opening sequence features extreme close-ups of eyes and faces. Some are so close that a facial expression cannot be inferred. Other times, enough of the mouth and nose is visible so as to be able perceive a smile, frown, or other expression. The rapid-fire progression through the eyes and faces (portraits) locks the viewer into an emotional roller-coaster by showing faces depicting anger, boredom, laughter, and intensity.

Without requiring any overt thought, the opening sequence demonstrates to the viewer that each of the show's women (who are in a federal prison) have a different attitude about their situation. Portraits are among the most powerful images because no inference by the observer is required. The human experience is evident within milliseconds of a viewer seeing the image.

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