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Triggering Emotions With Visuals

Triggering Emotions With Visuals

April 15, 2024

Whether we like it or not, our emotions dictate how we live day to day. From what we eat to where we shop, our emotions are not only hard at work, they’re actively being manipulated. But is that as bad as it sounds?

The science of feeling

On a very simplistic level, the human brain is wired to look for threats or rewards. It’s quite literally a risk-assessing computer in our skulls, that keeps us alive by reading the situation. Am I hungry? Am I in danger? Am I too hot or cold? And when presented with a new set of circumstances, we often experience a very automatic response. That’s because our emotions hijack the controls in our brain, and often act before the logical side kicks in. Have you ever walked into a shop and jumped out of your skin because you thought a cardboard cut-out was a person? That’s a prime example of emotion overtaking reason, to keep you safe. It’s not a bad thing but you’re left feeling like an idiot.

So where are we going with this biology-cum-psychology lesson? Well, as evolved beings, many of these reactions are residual. And the way we apply them in our daily lives is a little different. Survival in the wild has filtered down to something like.. picking up social cues in a bar. Is this person approaching me going to buy me a drink or are they a threat? And we subconsciously use these skills and indicators all the time. So much so, it’s almost impossible to turn off.

The wheel of fortune.. and misery.. and disgust

Through culture and context, we have continued to spread a lot of these cues. In the way that we’re raised and reinforced by what we see around us. But how often do we question where these traditions come from? Do we paint signs in red to signify danger because it’s the best fit? Or is it art imitating life? As there are countless examples of animals that display bright red colours to ward off predators. It’s a question we may never know the answer to, but as creatives, we experience the effect of this all the time.

With design, advertising, marketing, construction, we try to capture and present a shared emotional commonality. As such, there’s the belief that you can take a quick glance at a video, photograph or image and become instantly flooded with an intended feeling. It’s a strong component in colour theory and it’s what gave rise to Dr Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.

A colour wheel with various shades, all labelled with the colours we identify with emotions. Such as red for rage and yellow for joy.
Every day is a spin of the wheel.

While that may sound like a horrific new gameshow, it’s actually the study of association between colours and emotions. Warmer colours instil serenity, while cooler colours inject a sense of sadness. Vibrancy is a reflection of buoyancy and life, while desaturation makes us feel loss and misery. And the same goes for soothing pastels and striking solids. These are all shorthand ways for us to very quickly put the viewer in a certain mood.

Seeing the past in a different shade

But we’re not just saying, show a yellow background and people will feel joy. It’s about levels of complexity. A well-stocked set of tools for an artist to draw on. Take Roger Deakins: easily the greatest living cinematographer… and we’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. When working on O Brother, Where Art Thou? he washed out the natural colour and utilised a warm sepia tone throughout. And he did this to help ground the movie in its 1930s dust bowl setting. As this had to be done for every single shot, it became the first film to be fully digitally colour graded.

Now, the interesting thing is that it’s not accurate or authentic in any way at all. It’s not a good representation of the time period that the story is set in. But because of technology (i.e. photos and early film), we collectively see the past in a stylistic hue. Because we’re not talking about a rational science, we’re talking about an impressionistic choice.

Colouring within the lines

Knowing this, you’d think our job would be really easy. Say a charitable body comes to us to produce a video which conveys a specific plight. More than that, they want the audience to feel a genuine sense of compassion. Time to whip out Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion and job done, right? Well it’s not as simple as that. There’s subtle nuance to how these colours can be employed but right off the bat, we tend to run into an immediate sticking point: brand colours.

Every company should have brand guidelines. This is a simple document that outlines the look, feel, tone and – most importantly here – fonts and colours that represent that brand. And while there may be a bit of wiggle room, these are pretty important. Ok, that’s a bit of an understatement. In truth, they’re sacred texts to be followed very closely. So with the viewer automatically drawing an emotional connection to a colour, on a subconscious level, we have to get very creative to achieve the desired results.

That Outmost feeling

Let’s take a look at some very specific examples from our portfolio. Zurich champion a conference called Youth Against Carbon (YAC) and wanted an animated explainer video which would speak to young people. What’s more, the topic at hand is incredibly important and needed to be presented in an engaging but informative way. So throughout the video, we utilised bold, fun and straightforward visuals. Images of superheroes astride the globe, multiple loudspeakers stacked up to literally amplify young voices, and the specific animals at risk from climate change. All designed to elicit an emotional response, empowering and motivating the viewer.

When tackling Wiley Edge’s video speaking to graduates, we needed something bold, unique and memorable. So we used an angler fish. I know what you’re thinking. That’s ridiculous. That fish is ugly and terrifying looking. Why would you use that to inspire positive emotions? It’s a valid question. Part of the core message was inclusion. The angler fish was chosen for the very reason that it’s a deep sea fish that feels out of place. It’s not the usual go-to for a main character. And so, when we see this creature rising up, succeeding and eventually celebrating by jumping out of the water, we feel that underdog journey. Against all odds, that little fish has overcome expectation and, kitted out in a tie, is now thriving.

In addition to visuals, sound, music and dialogue can be equally powerful ways to stir emotion. But we know that the majority of people watching videos online, do so with the sound turned off. And we had to consider that with the text-led explainer video for Audoo. This resulted in pulsing abstract spheres, jumping soundwave bars, and iconographic depictions of everywhere music is played. Because we wanted to cultivate a feeling of rhythm. Kinetic movement to trigger excitement and action.

Emotionally aware

Is this just manipulation? Is it as underhand as it sounds? No, not exactly. It’s an empathy exercise. A ‘what if’ scenario. By adopting relatable terms, situations and visuals, we can use them to remind the audience of a pain they’ve been suffering. An inconvenience which the explainer in question can directly aid. In lesser hands, this is blunt and cheesy and embarrassing. But properly utilised, the reward is a series of visual cues that are reassuring and comforting. Like a friend offering helpful advice in your time of need.