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Emotions and Inanimate Objects: ‘Kansei Engineering’ Explains How We Respond to Products

Have you ever looked a product and thought, “That coffee pot looks happy because it seems to be smiling at me” or, “Man that car sure looks mean”? I know I have on more than one occasion, but I just thought it was my imagination getting the best of me.

It turns out, though, that there’s an actual term for these inexplicable emotions: Kansei Engineering.

What it is:

What this crazy term means is that customers have emotional responses to the design of a product or service that are linked to its properties and characteristics. Basically, we give an emotional response to a product’s design based on what we see from it. Knowing what customers’ responses will be means that products can be designed to be the best fit possible between what’s expected and what’s received in terms of design.

"I love you, globe! You're so masculine, dignified, and alluring!"

“I love you, globe! You’re so masculine, dignified, and alluring!”

This isn’t exactly a new idea from this millennium, but instead from the 1970s when Professor Mitsuo Nagamachi at Hiroshima University in Japan proposed this theory. Several companies now use this information to design their newest product offerings for customers. For example, they’ll use maps of individual features of a product, service or brand and compare it to customers’ subjective responses. This information is then used to create a new design which deliberately uses these chosen set of positive instinctive responses.

How it works:

Someone from the company in question will ask a focus group which words come to mind when they see the new product. Responses aren’t meant to be paragraphs long, just one word. Some examples include products that appear:

Alluring, angry, clean, dignified, feminine, friendly, gentle, harsh, masculine, modern, nostalgic, smart, sporty, youthful, outdated

Companies now use this type of engineering to better entice customers in the marketplace. Mazda’s cars are developed so that the driver feels good about everything from the design functionality to driving dynamics. I know this sounds “new agey,” but when you really think about it, they’re making everything as simple and fluid as possible design-wise. There’s nothing worse than driving and wanting to change the radio station, but the dial is in the most inconvenient location.

The idea behind Kansei Engineering is to make it as simple as possible for customers to use something that’s aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

How it’s used today:

When Sony was looking to redesign their camcorder a few years ago, they thoroughly looked into this type of engineering. Who wants to use a camcorder that gives us the impression of being old or outdated? We want a camcorder that’s modern and clean looking because that’s what we want we want to preserve our memories. We don’t want to trust something that looks cheap or fragile.

What emotions come to mind with this Dyson?

Think about an Apple iPod compared to the now-obsolete Microsoft Zune. Or how about a Dyson vacuum cleaner versus one from Hoover? Which one would you buy based on design and usability? Chances are, you’ll pick the the Apple and Dyson products because of the sleek design (rather than having a clunky or awkward design).

While Kansei Engineering does seem like a weird theory to know, it does help companies produce better looking and easier-to-use products. Think if Apple products weren’t clean looking or if Crosley’s radios didn’t ooze nostalgia.

They just wouldn’t seem right, would they?

Have you ever noticed this principle before in your life? Are there specific emotions you would attach to your favorite products? What would they be? Sound off below!

Image credit to Williac and


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  1. Cybernetic SAM

    This is really neat! I think that anyone who says they haven’t noticed this is either not telling the truth or just aren’t very observant. I always knew things were designed for appeal but I had no idea to this degree and that there was a science behind it. It is so neat to apply this knowledge now to modern design and how things have change over decades. The whole idea behind this and the progress we have made, I tend to wonder where do some of these designs get their influence. Just like are have we evolved with design and the concept of what we think it is supposed to be, i.e. modern sleek futuristic design, was original sci-fi the common influence or is that the natural progression of design? or is design still influenced by things that already exist….. I think I just broke my brain! AWESOME POST AMY!

    • Amy Swanson

      YES!! Someone else who has noticed this before! That makes my day 😀

      Your comment totally blew my mind, I had never thought of design progressing from day one to day 482628621, very interesting!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Sam!!

  2. Mandy Kilinskis

    I have totally noticed this before, but I had no idea that it had so much ideology behind it. Perhaps this is why I love gadgets so much. The sleek design and functionality is really appealing…even if I might not have an immediate need for it.

    I also like to think that my car is smiling. Nuage is super happy to be driven by me and she gives off a very “friendly” feeling. And since I’ve determined it’s a she, it must be feminine, too!

    Super interesting post, Amy!

    • Amy Swanson

      Sad but true, I have chosen not to purchase a particular item because it looks like it would kill me (it was a waffle iron if I remember correctly).

      It’s funny that you also give human characteristics to your car. I do the same thing with Sonya! I totally picture her as an actual person, haha.

  3. Rachel

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees faces in cars. 🙂 Some of those cars with the super-crazy-bright-blue headlights have scary eyes!!

    Thanks for writing about this; I hadn’t heard of Kansei Engineering before. It’s fascinating how much thought and research goes into the design of a product, and what emotions we associate with design. Awesome stuff!

    • Amy Swanson

      Haha, blue or yellow headlights do give cars a funny look, don’t they? Excellent point, Rachel!

      Thank you so much for reading it! I’m happy someone else enjoys crazy stuff like this too 🙂

  4. Jill Tooley

    I hate to admit it, but sleek design does factor into my buying decisions. That’s why I prefer Apple/Mac products to competing products… They’re so gosh darn attractive. (I will also say that I’ve had FAR less issues with them than non-Apple products, by the way. So it feels a bit more justified…)

    Kansei Engineering is a term that I was completely unfamiliar with before reading this, but I have heard of the emotional marketing that came about as a result of it. Isn’t it creepy that marketers try to get inside of our heads before we even have an emotional response to a product? Yikes.

    I don’t know about you, but I tend to get sentimentally attached to products with “faces” or expressions, even if it’s all in my head. That makes things harder to get rid of! 🙁

    • Amy Swanson

      You’re not alone with your last point about getting attached to products! Of course now I can’t think of any specifics, but I know I’ve thrown things away and have thought, “Ahh, it looks so sad sitting in the garbage”. Sad, but true. Glad I’m not the only one!!

      Marketers are sneaky bunch, that’s for sure 😉 Thanks so much for reading and for the awesome comment, Jill!

  5. Jen

    Like almost everyone I am totally drawn to things that look clean, shiny, and modern. I have a Mac, an iPod, a Dyson vacuum, a Kitchen Aid mixer, and stainless steel appliances. They make me feel very refined and smart when I use them. I like to think I’m a savvy shopper, so almost everything I get is on sale, but I’m still paying more for everything because it’s all high end.

    • Amy Swanson

      I know exactly what you mean when you say that you feel smart when you use these types of products! There’s something about using a sleek and modern product that immediately makes you feel sleek and modern using it. It’s weird how that transfers, but it does.

      Hey, as long as you’re not breaking the bank I say go all out on the “good” stuff! You only live once! 😉

  6. Jeff Porretto

    I actually took a class in college about almost this exact topic. We were tasked to design a daily programmable thermostat that was SOLELY designed for usability. So i created one with 24 sliders, one for each hour of the day. It was the class’ winning design! Then we all agreed that no one would ever buy it because it was as ugly as all hell. Looks matter. There’s no getting around it.

    Honestly, that class kind of ruined me, because now I almost always obsess over functionality, rather than aesthetic design. I’m not a big iPod/iPhone fan because of it. Many of these “prettier” products strip away what’s POSSIBLE in favor of what’s PRACTICAL. But when those two come together (I’m thinking Dyson), it’s pretty exquisite!

    Another stellar marketing post Amy!

    • Amy Swanson

      That sounds like a fascinating class, I would’ve loved to had taken it!

      It’s funny how we seem to exact opposites on the scale here. The first thing I notice is the aesthetic design of a product, if I like it I’ll then consider how functional the design is. I think women do this more than men though, we care more about how something looks and later we’ll factor in how functional it really is. I mean, how else do we justify wearing heels 😉

  7. Eric

    This actually makes total sense to me. Ironically, like Jeff, functionality’s been more important to me the older I get. I’ll now buy a jacket based more on how many pockets it has over how it looks, or a pretty utilitarian-looking belt, simply because I know it’ll hold up better in the long haul.

    In some cases, the sleeker design really becomes a pain in the @$$. Shelley owns a MacBook Air, and sure, it’s really light and sleek (and can slice an apple apparentely, too)…but the keys lie almost entirely flat without any sort of a “click,” there’s not a CD/DVD drive to be had…it’s not the most practical computer for the average user. Don’t get me wrong. I owned a Mac myself for four years and loved it every minute I had it, but they pushed the envelope so far on that one, it’s almost like they built the sports car and forgot about the seats.

    • Amy Swanson

      I’m a PC user through and through so I have no idea how quirky Mac’s are. I personally could probably survive without a CD/DVD drive but non-clicking keys? That would be a stretch for me. I love the sound they make when I’m on a roll typing something up (that’s mainly what got me through writing some papers in college actually).

      Guess that just proves that you can’t only look at the design of a product, you must factor in functionality in there too- at least somewhere on the list, haha!

      Thanks for commenting and giving your insight here, Eric! Much appreciated!!

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