Experiment: Sketching Emotion
03 August 2016
For the first round of what I expect to be an iterated experiment, I sent out 17 envelops with 17 postcards to be returned inside. On these postcards, participants are asked to draw an Emotion experience.
The goal of the experiment is to very generally understand how people visualize their emotions in a graphic manner, as opposed to spoken or written.
17 envelops were sent out - nine with the first set of basic emotions and 8 with the second set of Human Feeling states. The receivers have an age range between 24 and 60, 10 being women and seven being men in professions both in and far outside of design and communications. Some of the receivers have at one time or currently see a therapist.
Within the envelop there are two cards.
The first contains a short explanation of the project, instructions for their task, and an example. Nine cards have a list of the following Emotions: Joy, Sadness, Trust, Disgust, Fear, Anger, Surprise and Anticipation. The other eight have listed: Optimism, Love, Submission, Awe, Disapproval, Remorse, Contempt and Aggressiveness.
Participants choose one Emotion from the list and illustrate it on the blank side of the postcard. There are purposely no constraints. After drawing, participants are asked: whether they experience the emotion in the body, mind or both and to provide a short description of what they drew and why.
Things to look for
- Patterns in how participants manually visualize an emotion
- Patterns in the metaphorical or referential description of emotions
- Is there iconography?
- i.e. Are positive Emotions drawn more up?
- i.e. Are negative Emotions drawn darker, inside of something or down?
- Is there any evidence suggesting that a participant understands an emotion as a blend of two or more emotions?
- Do participants understand Emotion as a bodily or mental process?
- Do participants refer to Intensity in any way either in drawing or description?
Discussion and Expectations
The administration of the experiment, unobserved, yet personally toned, allows participants to take their time and use the own tools. Here, only their own visual language and the their own perceptions of Emotions are being asked for. There is no on-boarding or learning to be done and as few logistic obstacles as possible.
My hopes are that the experiment isn’t understood to be some sort of art therapy, but rather a challenge to use graphics as a language to express emotion. It would be interesting to see if a participant chooses to reflect an emotion in a systemic or procedural.
As there are no constraints, participants can use any instrument they wish to create the Emotion representation. This might show whether or not there are limitations with either one basic tool (pen or pencil) or physical tools in general.
Responses and Conclusions
Designing from the real world
As expected, I received back less than half of the postcards that I sent out. Of the ones returned, many of them were realistic drawings. Initially disappointing as I expected to glean a abstract and visual metaphors from the representations. Much later in the design process, the responses proved to support a visualization reflecting something in the real world. I also looked out for and found metaphors showing up in the drawings. Because we understand our worlds from what we see (or, the our physical experiences), we use physical terms to describe the nonphysical.
For example, one participant (above) draw roots of a tree growing downwards for sadness (Sad is Down) and compared the dichotomy between the parts using spatial metaphor: downward meaning death and falling apart, upward meaning alive and positive. Another participant (below) drew small fires for his expression of anger and wrote “a fire burning in my chest culminating in headaches of rage that makes me want to go super saiyan”. Drawing anger as fire is an example of The Temperature Model by which intense emotions are referred to as hotter than those lower in intensity. The mention of “going super saiyan” is a reference to Dragon Ball Z, where characters transform into a Super Saiyan and unlock extremely powerful powers. Comical, but it’s a perfect example of the metaphor Emotion is Insanity. An emotion is so extreme, that it changes the person from their rational self to another, lacking all emotional control.
Emotion from body and mind
Another consequence of perceiving non physical concepts in terms of the physical world is that we view ourselves, and everything else, as a container with an inside and outside. Our body is then seen as a container for emotions, from which positive emotions are projected outward, and negative emotions often kept inside. In light of this, I expect many of the participants to answer that they experienced their emotions in either just their bodies or both in their bodies and in their minds. Two participants only chose “mind,” suggesting that their chosen emotion experiences (sadness and fear) are processed cognitively and have little physiological response. According to what we assume to be true about the emotion process, this is categorically false in perception, however it is of interest when thinking about how to design for both a physical reference and a cognitive one.
Three participants suggested their emotion experience as a process with a beginning and end (all shown below). One, who chose fear, described fear as springs and tightly compressed coils and “as fear becomes less acute, these coils begin to open and reach out from the tight inner circles toward light and absence of fear.” The participant who chose awe describes a sunset rising up “a warmth in the heart and belly” then “an intense rush in the middle, and a legacy of warmth and wonder left behind” as the emotion subsides. Both of these participants write about emotion as it just happens inside of them, just as we describe emotion as an innate, evolutionary process. The participant who chose fear, and noted that he experienced it only in his mind, represented it as a dark staircase where the top is “my room or safe place, but it’s dark and I have a climb to get there.” He too sees the beginning and end to his emotion experience, but sees it as something he physically has to do. This coincides with his answer of working through fear in his mind - an awareness of every step of his process.
Fear, the springs and coils rolled tightly. As the coils begin to open they reach out toward light and absence of fear.
Awe, cool before, an intense rush in the middle, and a legacy of warmth and wonder left behind.
Fear, a dark staircase. At the top is a safe place but I have to climb to get there.