Emotions and perceptions are a big factor in design psychology. Understanding how people process images and media, how people react to seeing certain types of images or media, or how to properly design something in order to portray the desired emotion are vital concepts to learn if your goal is to one day become a designer.

One of the more important aspects of design actually does not involve creating things at all, but rather how humans process information. Two theories have stood out from the mid-20th Century: James Gibson’s “bottoms-up” theory (1966) and Richard Gregory’s “top-down” theory (1970). In his “bottoms-up” theory, Gibson suggests that perception is evolution-based and that each object is complex enough where we can process the information immediately without needing to learn anything (McLeod). On the other hand, Gregory’s “top-down” theory suggests that our minds build a reality for us with the help of contextual information and past experiences (McLeod). Because of evidence that shows our minds can flip analogous images on the spot, that our brains lose up to 90% of the visual information we perceive, and that the brain and long-term memory have influenced perception (McLeod), Gregory’s “top-down” processing theory appears much more plausible than GIbson’s theory.

Understanding emotions and what types of emotions designs can evoke in people is also crucial to becoming a fantastic designer. According to Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, there are many emotions that can be evoked from a given design. This wheel also has emotion intensities and emotion combinations in order to better predict what series of emotions viewers may experience towards a given image. According to Donald Norman, there are also three different types of emotional repsonses, those being “visceral,” “behavioral,” and “reflective” (3). The visceral response is very surface level, where viewers hardly experience any emotional response whatsoever. The behavioral response is instinct-based, where viewers feel passionate about a certain subject and can act out passionately in response, whether it is in their favor or not. Reflective response is “the most intellectual,” where viewers take the time to self-examine thenselves, place blame for any response and have some of the strongest emotions (Norman, 3-5).

Lastly, once you understand perceptions and emotion, you must learn how to design what you are trying to create with the knowledge of different principles that will allow you to achieve the desired emotion with whatever you choose to design. The Gestalt theory, for example, expresses the idea that the whole of something is more important to our understanding than the individual parts (Bonner). There are over a dozen principles that each explain how one facet of design can make some figures appear in a group, such as being very close to each other in space (proximity), being symmetrical to one another (symmetry), when the elements are moving in the same direction (common fate) and when elements are closed together by a boundary (closure) (Bushe). Understanding what emotions match which individual colors, and which colors contrast well with each other is crucial to becoming a better designer, especially if you intend to have your designs portay a certain emotion that you want your audience to feel.

I will now show you three images (or posters and stills) that are meant to portray one emotion, but end up evoking another emotion in an audience, whether it’s based on universal perception of the product or events occurring over time.

1.Batman v Superman Movie Poster

Source: https://www.amazon.com/Batman-Superman-Justice-Movie-Poster/dp/B01DVXWU9Q

When I think of images that change its emotional response over time, movie posters immediately come to mind, because I feel like this happens with pretty much every movie poster. This poster gives off a very serious, dark and devastating vibe with the figures of two titans standing across from each other in the foreground. Off all of the emotions in Plutchik’s Wheel, fear is the most accurate for the emotion the poster is trying to portray. These two behemoths are about to square off and the entire planet may be put at risk because of it. Despite the fear the poster portrays, the fans initially felt anticipation as they anxiously awaited this film’s release, expecting a masterful clash between superhero’s two largest icons.

Once the film aired, however, fans were left with a sour taste in their mouth. The overall design of the poster had nothing to do with how the fans received the film, but now any fan that sees this poster will think of the poor experience they had watching this film. Viewers now have a mix of surprise from the film’s decision-making and sadness from their expectations not being met, which combines to a feeling of disapproval (IDF). It was very tragic to see people feeling nervous (or fearful) about what will happen to one or more of their favorite superheroes because of the poster’s menacing look, but today, all of the power and intimidation no longer reaches the fans the way the designers (and filmmakers) would have liked.

2. Fall Guys Ultimate Knockout Box Art

Source: https://www.playstation.com/en-us/games/fall-guys-ultimate-knockout-ps4/

Films are not the only medium where their covers can portray one emotion to an audience and the experience itself can change the emotional response completely. Video games suffer the same fate. This is the cover art for the new hit game, “Fall Guys” (2020). Fall Guys is an online multiplayer video game where users play as cute bean-like characters and try to survive a variety of platform-based stages in order to be the last man standing. The cover art looks very colorful, cute, and inviting. You instantly look over at all of the different Fall Guys and can’t help but get a happy feeling in your heart. You feel a sense of joy, if this poster portrayed any emotion on Plutchik’s Wheel.

For the millions of people that have already played this game, however, they may no longer feel joy when they see this image. Because this game is a survival-based platformer, players will frequently get eliminated (making them angry), then will log into another game (as they anticipate a new match) and then try to take their anger out on other players with their play style (playing aggressively).

This poster also uses the triadic color scheme, which is a very reliable scheme that does not use too many colors nor make the colors feel overwhelming (Cao). The colors being slightly muted also allows the poster to be not too vibrant while also providing a cuddly, cute, and warming atmosphere. That being said, because of how competitive this game can get, those who have not had a good time playing the game can express negative emotions as soon as they see this poster.

3. Black Panther in Avengers Infinity War

Source: https://metro.co.uk/2018/04/26/what-role-does-wakanda-and-black-panther-play-in-avengers-infinity-war-7500772/

Lastly, I wanted to talk about images or stills that can change meaning over time due to real life events. There are still plenty of design elements that make this still very powerful. This was the moment immediately before the Avengers went to war with Thanos for the first time. You can see that the army in frame is mostly comprised of men of minority race, including Chadwick. Boseman, who played Black Panther. Gestalt’s principles of proximity and common fade are applied here, where each of these fighters are in close range together and are aligned in the same direction, thus making the viewer look at all of them as a group (Bushe). When viewers see this still, they experience a reflective response, which means they often think about themselves, self-examine their thoughts and discover a larger meaning to the still they are looking at (Norman, 5). For anyone either a fan of the MCU, or those who enjoy seeing strong figures unite like this, the emotion evoked is that of optimism, which is the combination of anticipation (waiting for battle) and joy (seeing all the heroes unite) (IDF).

Unfortunately, Boseman (the man in the Black Panther suit in the center of the frame) passed away one week ago (late August 2020), which forces supporters and fans who viewed him as a role model to experience different emotions when they see this still. What was originally portrayed as a still of hope, optimism, and unity, became a still of surprise (of the news of his passing) and sadness (upon the realization that he is no longer alive), which together combine to create a feeling of disapproval (IDF).

After the news spread about Boseman filming his last four films while battle stage three and four cancer, Boseman has been placed in positive light, and stills like this that show his toughness still force any viewer to reflect on themselves and to respond in an intellectual and though provoking manner (Norman, 5).


While no photographs were mentioned in this article, I do think it was important to bring into light the impact movie posters, game posters, and even stills from films have on people emotionally. While the design theories mentioned above help the designers attempt to portray an emotion through their images, it is ultimately up to real life events and personal user experiences that will shape their emotion over the image, as the designer has no control over how his design is perceived once it is released to the public (Norman, 2-3).

Works Cited

Bonner, Carolann. “Using Gestalt Principles for Natural Interactions.” Thoughtbot, 23 Mar, 2019. https://thoughtbot.com/blog/gestalt-principles

Bushe, Laura. “Simplicity, Symmetry and more: Gestalt theory and the design principles it gave birth to.” Canva, 2020. https://www.canva.com/learn/gestalt-theory/

Cao, Jerry. “Web design color theory: how to create the right emotions with color in web design.” TheNextWeb, 7 Apr, 2015. https://thenextweb.com/dd/2015/04/07/how-to-create-the-right-emotions-with-color-in-web-design/

McLeod, Saul. “Visual Perception Theory.” SimplyPsychology, 2018. https://www.simplypsychology.org/perception-theories.html

Norman, Donald and Andrew Ortony. Designers and Users: Two perspectives on emotion and design. Lawrence Erlbaum Associastes. Jan, 2006. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/202165736_Designers_and_users_Two_perspectives_on_emotion_and_design

“Putting Some Emotion into Your Design – Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.” Interaction Design Foundation, July 2020. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/putting-some-emotion-into-your-design-plutchik-s-wheel-of-emotions


  1. Gabe, insightful post! I also chose to analyze movie posters. Your first example about Batman vs Superman came from a perspective that I hadn’t mentioned in my post. You talked about how viewers’ positive perception of the poster turned negative after having seen the film. This was interesting because it brings in the concept of time and how that can affect visual perception.


  2. Hey Gabe, great stuff again this week as usual. One thing I noticed is how masterful you are at succinctly summarizing the reading material into very understandable summaries. I will try to emulate those skills in my own work going forward. I think your concept about movie posters is a fascinating one, one I had not considered prior. I think the same can be said for trailers too. Once you walk away from the actual movie, that’s what you are thinking about, not how it was marketed to you. You hit the nail on the head that if a movie does disappoint, we can look back to how it was sold to us and begin to poke holes. Looking forward to your work next week!


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