Designing with emotion: Fuel or Fire?

My answer: both.


Shannel Wheeler

3 years ago | 5 min read

Design is a unique mix of visual problem solving, art, and communication. When we design freely, it’s common to infuse our unique style, personality, and passion into our work.

Creating can be an emotional and personal experience. How we channel these emotions can either elevate that experience or lead to a project’s detriment, depending on how we control these emotions.


It’s always a great feeling to look forward to a creative project. You’re blooming with ideas, you feel confident about your abilities to execute and you’re hopeful for a good outcome.

Maybe you’re excited to work on something you really believe in, work with a particular client, collaborate with a talented team, tackle something new and challenging, or look forward to an outcome with high visibility (and pay).

Excitement is a good driver for energy, fresh ideas, and initiative. If you can keep your energy high throughout the course of the project, it’s likely to be an enjoyable (or at least tolerable) experience.

Caution: What happens when the excitement fades and challenges arise? Passion and excitement are nice ingredients to have, but it doesn’t make the entire recipe. You’ll need structure, purpose, and a clear path to completion to fuel you if the excitement doesn’t last.

Inspiration spawned from new ideas, innovative initiatives, creative communities, and common goals can create an atmosphere of excitement. Just recently, thousands of creatives across the nation and worldwide shared excitement at the first all-virtual Adobe Max conference, a catalyst for continued learning, creation, and collaboration.


There’s always an advantage when you can place yourself in the shoes of the client or user and channel empathy to understand your audience's pain points and desires.

Empathy can fuel deeper questions and greater insights in a quest to understanding core needs and design with meaning. It’s also a great tool to use in delivering sincere customer service, as well as pinpointing strengths and weaknesses on the project team to leverage the best talents from each team player.

Caution: Be careful to draw the line between empathy and unhealthy emotional investment in a project or client. You can be understanding, but still stand firm on keeping within the scope, adhering to contract guidelines, and making solid decisions based on research, project requirements, logic, and good business sense.

Resources like the Design Thinking Handbook give guidance on how to leverage empathy to build a greater strategy for your next design project.


I believe purpose can be one of the greatest drivers of a successful project. When you know exactly why you are designing something, who it’s for, and what results you want to yield, there’s an innate desire for completion, no matter what circumstances may arise.

Designing with purpose not only sets the tone of how a project is chartered, but it also inspires perseverance and determination to overcome inevitable obstacles. If the purpose is worth it — a huge business output, valuable experience, higher competency, empowering others, creating change, etc. — then the journey will be worth it.

Caution: Regulate your purpose and vision with practicality and realistic expectations. The purpose may be clear, but unclear plans and processes can still derail good intentions. Continually monitor progress, mitigate risk, and adapt where necessary to stay on track.

A few real-life examples of designing with purpose: the philanthropic Toms shoes, creative initiatives built around movements like Breast Cancer Awareness, and books like Designing for Social Change.


It’s natural to get frustrated during the course of a project. Maybe you and the client have opposing views, your software crashes and you forgot to hit “save”, or a task takes way longer than you anticipate.

Frustration isn’t necessarily bad unless you allow your frustration to cloud your better judgment. When managed correctly, you can use your frustration to pause, step away, regroup, and refocus.

It can even lead to a more efficient workflow or process, especially when you’ve gotten fed up (with yourself or the project) and are ready to finish strong.

But when frustration overrides clarity, it can lead to poor judgment and decision making. Instead of solving for the source of your frustration, things can easily spiral downward, causing errors, deficiencies in your process and outputs, decreased or strained communication, or a lack of quality and care for your work.

Remedy: Increased planning, organization, and communication can help curb frustration. When frustrating moments arise, pause, evaluate, regroup, and refocus. Channel frustration or even anger into constructive action.


What makes a project scary? Lack of self-confidence, undefined scope and expectations, intimidating clients/stakeholders, lack of competence, and not enough resources are a few reasons. Creating with a looming cloud of fear can stifle, and in some cases, halt progress (or even getting started) altogether. It leads to anxiety, overthinking, doubt, and potentially underdelivering.

Remedy: Get to the bottom of what actually scares you about the project. What is the root cause of your anxiety? Find people who can guide/mentor you, research examples and case studies of similar projects, and get a greater understanding of your role and expectations for the project.

Increase your confidence and competency by taking a class, reading books, completing online tutorials and/or practicing to sharpen skills and techniques. If your fear is too overwhelming or paralyzing, consider if you should take on the project at all, get another resource to assist or take over your role, or take a step back to address a potentially deeper issue.


Aside from creating with malice or ill-intention, this may be the most dangerous emotion to create with. When you truly don’t care about the outcome, there’s not much else that can be done, besides accepting whatever consequences that follow. Designing with apathy means that you are indifferent to the project’s success, progress, and outcome.

If you get to this point or feel the beginnings of apathy creeping in, it’s time to reevaluate what you are doing and if you should honestly continue.

Not only will apathy be a detriment to the project, but also to the client and stakeholders, the business or organization, your reputation, and possibly your pockets (if there’s a breach of contract).

Remedy: It’s not always realistic or possible, but try to avoid taking on projects that you truly don’t care about. You’ll do yourself—and everyone else—a favor. Keep your professionalism high and execute to the best of your ability to complete the project if feelings of apathy occur on a project you cannot get out of.

When we aim to deliver positive experiences for our clients, customers, users, and intended audiences, we can use our emotions to help push the project forward.

Because we are human, we are sure to experience the gamut of emotions over the course of our projects and our careers. How we manage our emotions will surely determine the success or failure of our creative efforts.


Created by

Shannel Wheeler







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