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How to use emotions in creative work

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Why read this? : We explore how using emotions helps creative work stand out and be easier to remember. Learn how emotions work in the brain’s limbic system, and what that means for decision-making, communication and design. Read this to learn how to use emotions to deepen the connection with your target audience. 

Emotions help us connect with and make sense of the world. Great creative work uses emotions to engage the audience. When creative work hits the right emotion, it just feels right. 

But most people rarely think about the impact of emotions on creative skills like writing, design and photography. That’s mostly because thoughts and emotions happen in different parts of our brain.

To understand that better, let’s start with a rational view of emotions. 

White round badge with a read heart symbol against a dark grey background

The rational view of emotions

Emotion can be a hard concept to explain rationally. It’s easy to give examples of emotions. But hard to describe how they actually work. 

For example, there are 6 basic emotions according to psychologist Paul Ekman. These are enjoyment, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and surprise. We know what these feel like as well as their many variations. 

For example, enjoyment can show as happiness, amusement or pride. Anxiety, worry and panic are examples of fear.

Woman sticking up one middle finger to the camera - the non-verbal way of swearing

But what’s going on in our heads when we feel these emotions?

In scientific terms, emotions are electrical and chemical reactions in our brains. They affect our whole brain, but they’re centred in our limbic system, which has 4 key areas :-

  • thalamus – handles sensory information.
  • hypothalamus – controls physiological responses and hormones. 
  • amygdala – detects threats and manages fear and anxiety. 
  • hippocampus – stores, locates and retrieves memories. 

The thalamus - sensory

The thalamus handles the information that comes into our brain from our senses. Mainly sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

It converts that sensory information into signals, which go to different parts of the brain to process. The result of that processing drives our reaction.

This is often an emotional reaction. We see our family and feel happy for example. We hear sombre music and feel sad. And so on.

Two people holding up large ears on a small dog

The thalamus is like a junction box between your senses and your emotions. It sends signals to where they need to go.  

The hypothalamus - physiological

The hypothalamus controls physiological reactions. Hunger and thirst, for example. Body temperature. These all link to emotions. 

We get angry when we’re hungry. We get a warm, tingly feeling when we feel loved. A cold shiver down our back when something makes us afraid. 

The hypothalamus also controls hormones like adrenaline and dopamine. We physically feel the effect of those hormones when they kick in. 

Close up image of a man in a suit wiping away a tear and looking sad

Hormones drive our tears when we feel upset. They make our shoulders shake with laughter when something’s funny. These emotional signals all come out of the hypothalamus.

The amygdala - danger!

The amygdala is the brain’s “fear centre”. It drives the intense emotional reactions we get when we sense danger.

Our pulse quickens. We focus on what’s causing the fear, and how to deal with it.

The amygdala is what drives our “fight or flight” reaction. If you ever feel something bad’s about to happen, that’s your amygdala talking.

It’s the part of our brain which keeps us safe and protects us from harm. (See our thoughts about thinking article for more on the amygdala).

Triangular warning sticker with large exclamation mark on a wall. Sticker has many rips and tears in it.

The hippocampus - memory

The hippocampus controls how these different inputs and signals are converted into memories. These can be short- or long-term. 

The close connection between emotion and memory is important. It’s why it’s usually easier to remember feelings, rather than facts.

For example, we remember a joke was funny (a feeling), but can’t remember the joke itself (the facts). We remember a movie scared us (a feeling), but can’t explain why (the facts). Feelings stick in our memories better than facts.

man in a blue T-shirt looking at the ceiling

How this connects to creative work

Understanding what the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus do is a good first step. The next step though is to connect what they do to what creative work needs to do. That’s how you build an emotional connection. 

Let’s look at how each part of the limbic system helps you do that.

Creative and sensory

Think about how audiences first experience a piece of creative work.

It’s via one or more of the 5 senses, isn’t it? They see, hear, smell, taste, or touch it. These sensory inputs send signals to the thalamus.

The brain’s first exposure to creative work is part of the emotional system. 

Emotions drive an audience’s immediate reaction. Your creative work needs to send the right emotional signal to trigger the reaction you want.

Extreme close up on someone's blue eye

For example, a happy signal (e.g. a smiling face) to relax them. A danger signal (e.g. a loud noise) to grab their attention. You choose the right sensory inputs to trigger the emotional reaction you want.

That means you decide in advance the reaction you want. You then set up the right sensory signals. The words your audience will read. Your choice of colours, fonts and layout. Sounds, tastes and smells where relevant. These can all trigger emotional reactions. They influence how the audience reacts, and what they do next.

Creative and physiological

Creative work often evokes strong physiological reactions. You see someone smile and you smile too. You hear a loud noise, and you back away. Cute animal pictures make you feel warm and fuzzy. 

You can build this reaction into the creative experience to make it more impactful. 

For example, with facial expressions. We interpret a lot of emotion from other people’s expressions. A scowling face means they’re angry. A trembling lip means they’re sad. 

Man in a suit sitting at a desk holding a phone and angrily shouting into the mouthpiece

That interpretation affects how we feel too. Empathy kicks in. We feel what they’re feeling. Emotions are contagious. Show someone experiencing an emotion to trigger that emotion in your audience.

For example, show smiling faces to make people feel happy. Show angry faces to grab their attention and put them on guard. Whatever it is, think of the reaction you want. Show that emotion in your creative work.

And it’s not just facial expressions. It works for other behaviours too.

We see people happily eating food products for example. Maybe we’d happily eat that food too? We see fashion models wearing clothes that make them look confident. Maybe we’d feel confident wearing those clothes too?

Most of the time, we don’t notice these emotional reactions. There’s little conscious thought behind them. The exception is when creative provokes a sense of fear. We all definitely notice fear. 

Creative and fear

Fear can be a powerful motivator in creative work.

You can use it to stop your audience from making bad decisions. Make them afraid of what might happen if they don’t do the right thing. 

Fear creates a strong call to action. Used properly, it drives positive behaviour changes. 

For example, health messaging uses fear a lot. The consequences of not giving up smoking. Of not using sunscreen or going to your doctor for regular health checks. All based on the fear of getting sick. 

Man on apartment balcony holding hand in front of face to say stop

Fear motivates people to prevent “bad” situations. For example, look at home, travel and car insurance. Fear of the worst happening drives people to sign up.

Fear signals grab the audience’s attention. Use them when you want the audience to do something to make the fear go away.

Creative and memory

Our memories shape our emotional responses. They give us a reference point so we react appropriately. To laugh at a joke. To hug someone when there’s bad news. We’re exposed to an experience, and remember how to react when it happens again. That’s our memories kicking in.  

Think about what memories you want your creative work to trigger. Look for common patterns. Family picnics make us smile, for example. Those are happy memories. Loud snarling dogs make us afraid. They signal danger in our memories. 

Memory associations work in many areas of creativity. Let’s look at some examples. 

Memory and colours

For example, take colours. Different colours make you feel differently. These are subtle, subconscious memory associations.

You associate blue with calmness and serenity, for example. It implies trust. That’s why so many banks use blue in their designs. 

Green on the other hand signals nature and freshness. It implies purity. That’s why it’s on so many health food brands.

Creatives can use colour as shortcuts to trigger these associations. (See our colour psychology article for more on this). 

Colour psychology - an applied use of colour in marketing

Memory and typography

Typography is another creative area where memory associations come into play.

Serif fonts trigger feelings of reassurance for example. Your memory associates them with respectability and tradition. They’re about the past.

Sans serif fonts are more about aesthetic pleasure. Your memory associates them with modernity and clarity. They’re about the future. 

These small associations all add up over time. Use them in your creative work to make your emotional connections stronger.

Emotions and decision-making

Emotions don’t go away once you get past that first reaction. They have an ongoing impact on how we make decisions. Even when the analytical part of our brain kicks in.

Emotions are a necessary part of decision-making. Antonio Damasio, a professor at the University of Southern California showed this in studies with patients who had limbic system injuries. These patients found it harder to make decisions.

They could still think rationally. They could make a list of pros and cons. But they struggled to make a decision. Without emotions, they went into a decision limbo. They needed emotions to compel them to act and make a final decision.

We like to think decisions are rational. But often it’s emotions that play a bigger role. 

There’s a great example in Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy. A UK financial services firm tested out 2 different customer offers. One was a straight cash rebate. The other was a cute penguin cuddly toy, worth much less than the cash rebate. 

Which one did people go for? The penguin was easily more popular. Rationally, the cash option made more sense. But cute penguins showed emotions trumped the more rational choice.

Think about what you want your audience to feel. The emotion in your creative work influences how they make decisions. How they feel influences what they think and what they do. Learning how to use emotions helps you deliver better creative work.

More reading on how to use emotions

There’s a lot of research on emotions and how to use them. To finish we share some of our favourite examples which cover what emotions mean for decision-making, communications and design

Thinking, fast and slow - Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a psychology book about decision-making. It’s a must-read if you’re into behavioural science.

It shares many studies, stories and structures which help explain decision-making.

Our brains are complex it argues. Hard to understand. But to make it easier to understand, you can break down how the brain works into 2 systems.

First, there’s System 1.

This is the “fast” part of our brain. It handles around 95% of our decisions. It includes the limbic system. 

System 1 isn’t about making the best decision. It’s about making a good enough decision. 

Fast decisions help us navigate through most day-to-day situations. We’d struggle to do anything without System 1 helping us decide. 

So most creative work gets evaluated by this “fast” decision-making. And as emotions are part of that system, most creative work needs to use emotions.

However, these fast decisions are easily biased. These biases are usually driven by emotions. What makes us feel good, isn’t always what’s best for us. System 1 is responsible for most bad decisions we make.

Then there’s System 2. This is the “slow” part of our brain. It handles the other 5% of decisions. That’s where we need deeper analysis, logic and statistics.

But this takes lots of energy. And that means System 2 can be lazy. It only switches on when we need it. For those 5% of decisions when we need to be more rational and considered. 

Made to Stick - Chip and Dan Heath 

Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick shares 6 factors which help make communications sticky.

Sticky means your message gets noticed more and is easier to remember.

To increase stickiness, comms should be Simple; Unexpected; Concrete; Credible; Emotional and/or Story-based

The section on how emotions make comms sticky ties in with what we said about the hippocampus.

Remember, it regulates memories. Emotional messages “stick” in our memory better, they argue.  

For example, they share details of a 2004 Carnegie Mellon University study. After taking part in another test, study participants were given a small amount of money ($5 in one-dollar bills). They were asked to donate some, or all of it to charity.

Each respondent was given a leaflet about African charities. Half of them got a leaflet telling the story of an individual African girl. It talked about the hardships she’d suffered. The other half got a leaflet talking about the broader issues facing children in Africa. It had lots of facts and statistics.

Donations were far higher in the first group who heard the individual story. ($2.38 on average vs. $1.14 for the other group). 

They put this down to emotions. You feel more emotionally connected to one girl’s story. So, you’re more generous with the donation. Facts and charts are less motivating. As we said earlier, emotions drive us to act.

Emotional Design - Don Norman

Don Norman’s Emotional Design looks at the link between design and psychology. It focuses on how we form emotional connections to objects.

His previous work focussed on the importance of usability in design. The basis of good design is objects that do what we need them to do. 

But here he argues, that didn’t go far enough.

Designers also need to factor in the impact of emotions on how people interact with objects. It reinforces the importance of emotions in decision-making. 

He proposes emotions play a role at 3 levels of design. Visceral. Behavioural. And reflective.

These all connect. Designers should learn how to use emotions at each level to create better, more impactful designs. 


The visceral level is similar to Kahneman’s System 1. The appearance of a design gives us sensory inputs that lead to immediate emotional reactions.

Our emotions use an object’s appearance to decide if we like it. If it’s worth more attention Or not. Examples of design elements which drive visceral reactions include :-

  • positive reactions – bright, highly saturated colours; attractive smiling people and rounded, smooth objects.
  • negative reactions – darkness; crowds of people; body fluids and vomit; sharp objects.

He talks about the design of the Mini Cooper as an example of positive visceral reactions.

There’s something very appealing about the design. It makes people smile.

That rounded, smooth front design makes them happy. It often overrides more rational thinking.

Buyers don’t care so much about fuel economy or performance because the design triggers positive emotions for them. 

Blue mini car driving along a city street


The behavioural level covers the functionality of a design that leads to an emotional reaction.

Things that feel good to use make us feel better about using them. 

That’s a big part of Apple’s design appeal for example. Apple products feel good to use. The textures of their materials. How the keyboard sounds and feels when you use it.

All “designed” to make us feel good about using the product. Emotional reactions are part of the design.

Half open and lit up apple macbook on a glossy beige table

Norman describes a set of expensive kitchen knives he uses as another example. He loves the weight of them in his hand when chopping food. The effectiveness of the knives makes him happy. Their great design makes him feel good about using them. 


Finally, there’s the reflective level of design. 

This deals with what the design says about the owner or user.

It’s about self-image, personal satisfaction and memories. Remember, memories are part of our emotional system. There’s a longer-term emotional connection, such as feeling proud or confident about certain objects we have in our lives. 

We feel strongly about these objects. They mean a lot to us because they’re about us.

Woman siting in an armchair reading a book titled Storytelling

For example, he talks about the books and art you might own. These have long-term meaning for you. There’s a deep emotional connection because those objects reflect your personality. They reflect your sense of who you are. 

Many CRM and loyalty programs tap into this type of emotional benefit. You join them because they say something about you. This is the reflective level of design in action. The audience relates to the creative work because it says something about them.

Conclusion - How to use emotion in creative work

Emotions shape how we live our lives. They help us make decisions and connect with others. They’re how we feel experiences.

They manage our senses, our physiological reactions, our fears and our memories. But most of the time, we’re barely aware they’re there. 

In creative work though, you have to be more aware of the role emotions play.

Emotions decide whether your audience will notice your work. Emotions help you connect with them. 

lady with arms up in the air and happy smiley face

Show emotion in your work to influence the audience’s emotions. Build your creative around the emotional reactions you want. Make them feel something, and you’ll feel the benefit of it. That’s how you create deeper connections with customers.  

Check out our creative evaluation and behavioural science articles for more on this. Or get in touch if you need help with how to use emotions in your creative work. 

Photo credits

Happy woman : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Heart pin button : Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Woman giving the finger : Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Man crying : Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

Attention sign : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Man looking at ceiling (adapted) : Photo by Anton Danilov on Unsplash

Eye : Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

Hand / Stop : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Mini Cooper : Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash

Macbook : Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Woman reading storytelling book : Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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