Emotional Information Design


‘Typographical Art’: Early version of typographic emoticons published in the US magazine Puck (1880s)

Sometimes emotions can be hard to understand and define, and therefore to verbally express. Even though, when we are asked how we are doing, we tend to respond to with a simple ‘Fine’, we often are experiencing much more complex feelings than that. Sounds and gestures frequently act as complementary ways of expressing emotional states which are characterised by negative, positive and mixed emotions. But the difficulty of expressing feelings is related to their complexity and emotional variety.

Emotions are affective states of consciousness in which one or various feelings are experienced in different intensities and ways (intensity factor). Feelings are often described as ‘energy shifts’ experienced by our body to which it responds with signals: ‘a smile, a frown, tears, or trembling’ (Keeran, 2004), and/or other changes in expressions and behaviours. Each emotional state is a combination of various components, which starts with a perceptual evaluation of the nature of a situation. We positively or negatively evaluate situations in terms of our concerns, objectives or values, and based on that perception we deal with emotional states, which end when we shift our focus to a different situation.

This is an overview of the Theory of Emotion introduced by Robert Plutchik in the 80s and later expanded by W. Gerrod Parrott who studied the link between emotions and the decision-making process. Plutchik focused his studies on the communication of emotions with expressions and gestures (nonverbal communication). He determined eight basic emotional responses: anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise and trust. Then he constructed his theory stating how those emotions related to each other and determined emotional nuances within each basic emotion (annoyance, interest, serenity, acceptance, apprehension, distraction, pensiveness and boredom). He found that advanced emotions are the result of combining two basic emotions. For example, from combining feelings of anticipation and joy, we experience optimism, and when we feel joy and trust we experience love. Further work on similar subjects suggested that there may be more sub-categories or types of emotions to Plutchik’s theory, but his work provided an interesting view of emotional variety and how emotions can be understood and described.

Plutchik's grapefruit diagram

Plutchik’s grapefruit diagram (Keeran, 2004) / Plutchik’s wheel of emotions

Understanding our emotions in each situation is sometimes challenging, but necessary. By expressing those feelings as clear as possible we are more likely to achieve effective communication, and therefore, avoid misunderstandings. Throughout the years, information design has had an important role in the nonverbal communication of emotions.

Visualising emotional states

In the last 20 years, a visual language for nonverbal communication of emotions seems to have consolidated: emoticons. People use emoticons each day, but they don’t realise the conceptual complexity involved to effectively create those little icons. To some extent, emoticons address many of Plutchik’s theoretical concepts. They are described as ‘a metacommunicative pictorial representation of a facial expression’, which use eye and mouth behaviours to communicate emotional states. These synthetic drawings display feelings and emotions with only eyes and mouths, although versions greatly vary, and some of them include noses and eye browns too. Back in 1880s, an early version of typographic emoticons was published in the US magazine Puck, as an example of ‘typographical art’.

Much more recently, Scott Fahlman is referred to as the first person to use typographic emoticons to represent or express emotion. In 1982, he proposed using “: – )” and “: – (” to indicate the nature of different messages in a meeting and, this way, facilitate understanding. The former combination of typographic characters indicated no serious messages or jokes, while the latter more serious ones.


Fahlman’s typographic emoticons introduced in 1980s.

Nowadays, a wide variety of emoticons aids the communication of feelings and affective responses. Software (Skype, Whatsapp, Facebook) and devices (Blackberries, iPhones) have their own set of emoticons, and most of them are so rich that sometimes words seem to be unnecessary. However, not all emoticons are equally functional and comprehensible. To achieve both qualities, a set of emoticons needs to effectively depict the following variables:

  • Emotions
  • Emotions intensity
  • Emotional variety
  • Negative/positive feelings

On a related note, an article published this weekend in La Nacion newspaper, visually links emoticons language with Plutchik’s Theory of emotions. Each basic emotion and mostly all advanced emotions and nuances are represented with an emoticon. The mixed of graphic languages (iconic and typographic emoticons) needed to fully illustrate the theory indicates the difficulty to depict each emotional variety in a set of emoticons with the same communication effectiveness.


Plutchik’s eight basic emotions (from La Nacion Online)

In addition, nonverbal communication of feelings and emotions needs to overcome cultural differences. Unambiguous nonverbal communication follows the same principles as verbal communication, but to achieve understanding it is necessary to decode eye behaviours, learn cultural and personal differences, and nonverbal cues instead of (or in addition to) learning a ‘written’ alphabet. And then, and only then, those cues can be translated into visual language.

Keeran, J.A. (2004) Emotive Energy – A Theory of Life, Mind & Emotion

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