Emotional Intelligence for Designers: What It Is, Why You Need It & How to Acquire It

Last Updated on September 14, 2022 by 13 Comments

Emotional Intelligence for Designers: What It Is, Why You Need It & How to Acquire It
Blog / Resources / Emotional Intelligence for Designers: What It Is, Why You Need It & How to Acquire It

Did a web design project recently tug at your heart strings?

No wonder. You’re intrigued with the freelance web designer’s lifestyle. Being your own boss, you wake up, feel inspired, search some work, call on your inner muse, and sometimes bond with other freelance web designers who have also unlocked the secret of: new projects, big bucks, networking events in exotic locations, and expensive dine-outs.

It all sounds great, but the reality could be far different (just read this post on 1stWebDesigner). After agreeing to a web design project, it’s easy to end up in a period of uncertainty, where instead of just reporting to one person, you’re trying to please 25 different individuals across 4 different time zones who want to change the aspect ratio, enlarge the hero image, etc. Sigh!

It can swing both ways, but you’re more likely to be successful if you have a grip on your emotions, and you learn to focus on your client’s requirements because your own are already taken care of.

In other words, you need emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) to overcome the challenges of being a freelance web designer.

Emotional Intelligence benefits

Image Source: TalentSmart

Building a reputable name, communicating your expertise, collaborating, networking, negotiating, speaking and other activities are included in the daily grind for long-term success. Without emotional intelligence, taking these actions can be challenging at best. Futile at worst.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is your ability to successfully manage relationships and understand emotional information. It does not convey a feeling of a robot, but implies emphatic and fair control over interpersonal relationships.

Emotional intelligence has the following 5 characteristics according to the NYT best-selling author Dr. Daniel Goleman:

  1. Regulation of Own: Taking responsibility of your actions, managing change, and listening to new ideas from customers and team members.
  2. Awareness of Own: The ability to recognize emotions as they’re happening, tuning into your self-confidence and true skills during the creative process.
  3. Empathy: Recognizing the struggle of others by walking in their shoes. Emphatic freelance web designers are good at cooperating.
  4. Motivation: Staying optimistic and recasting negative emotions despite facing difficulties in a project. For instance, you can reduce blind spots and glean more ideas by being a part of a diverse team.
  5. People Skills: The ability to forge an alliance, inspire others and manage conflict. This characteristic is beneficial in web design as conflicts often arise between the freelancer, creative agency and the agency’s client.

By acquiring these 5 characteristics of emotional intelligence, you can become more successful and productive in your field as well as help others to be successful and productive. Byron Stock stated that EI helps individuals in making informed decisions in-the-moment.

Sabina Idler did a blog post in which she covered the importance of using good design to emotionally connect with users. She highlighted the works of visual design experts like Don Norman and made the following revelations about emotions being associated with web design:

  • Behavioral: How the site functions or doesn’t for customers.
  • Reflective: How customers understand the site and whether it leaves a good impression.
  • Visceral: How customers feel when they see the site on a gut level.

Keep in mind that you design a website for humans; for the overall experience and to enable a brand to connect with people. That’s why it is also important to consider who your client’s target users are and how they’re going to react to the design. According to a research on emotional intelligence, the emotional connection with customers is going to define the future of business. Emotions will be the breadcrumbs that help you determine what is truly important to the end user.

The application of emotional intelligence is easier for freelance web designers than in-house web designers. The latter will get eaten by a pool of corporate sharks if they tell the creative lead that their design strategy will be based on the emotional needs of the end user. The former allows you to get out of the cubicle and learn through drafting and testing about what users and customers are feeling.

Why You Need Emotional Intelligence

Freelance web designers have strong skills in designing mockups around use cases and scenarios, going beyond just features to full workflows to create an optimized experience. While the result reduces friction in real experiences, emotional intelligence is needed to take the work to the next level. Delightful experiences require the addition of desired emotions to the design process.

Emotional Intelligence freelance web design

Image Source: RightlyWritten

When you have emotional intelligence, you’ll listen carefully to the client’s needs and create a design that enriches the end user’s experience. You’ll also embrace changes and show empathy if the client’s website visitors respond negatively to some aspect of the design.

Clients will then use their social skills (relationship management) and personal competence (self-awareness) – their own emotional intelligence – to make informed decisions, which will increase customer loyalty. An MIT study pointed out that when customers receive the exact experience they desire, you win engagement and loyalty.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning psychologist, stated that individuals would rather give their business to those they trust and like rather than individuals they don’t, even if it’s costing them more. EI is necessary to make clients feel good about you. If you can see the design requirements from someone’s perspective, that of a client or a collaborator, you can provide satisfactory work.

Let’s see an example. Groove’s founder Alex Turnbull shared how the firm left some customers enraged when it discontinued its live chat offering, which was one of the company’s two core products. However, the company was saved by the transparency and honesty of its decisions, and said they’d come up with something better (rather than promising an enhancement to an existing offering, like most companies do).

Showing empathy

Image Source: Groove

When you can discern your client’s emotions and empathize with their needs, it’s easier to avoid conflicts or resolve them early, like Groove did. The company was also able to communicate its vision in a more constructive manner. Whatever you do has to meet the emotional needs of the customers not only now, but over a period of time.

EI is also needed to deliver a design experience that feels human or organic. As people display emotions to different elements of a website, from the color and copy to the hero image and user input responsiveness, you need emotional intelligence to inject personality into web design. Even a small, emotionally intelligent interaction, could make a big difference.

Intercom IO emotional intelligence web design

Intercom.io’s web design has several different emotionally intelligent interactions. Hover over one of their cartoons and they make a move demonstrating the feature they’re promoting. Then there’s a chat bubble that expands a little if users hover over it. It expands more and occupies the right quarter of the screen if users click on it. Intercom intelligently doesn’t bother users with GIFs or live chat, but empathize with users if they want help. The movements of icons and characters create personal and welcoming moments during the first interaction visitors have with the website’s design.

How to Acquire Emotional Intelligence

Is there a way to acquire emotional intelligence? Can you become more effective in staying composed, withstanding pressure, and listening with empathy? Yes is the short answer. Anyone can increase their emotional intelligence, regardless of their initial level. Here are some tips.

1. Work on Your Listening Skills

Listening skills don’t receive a lot of attention, but to manage emotions of others, you need to recognize that your customers have a strong will to be heard. With good listening skills, you are able to pick up the emotions behind briefs, and receive crucial information (that you would normally miss out) about projects.

To develop listening skills, acknowledge that you are listening when talking to a customer. Mentally restate their requirements, and repeat what you heard at the end of the conversation. Avoid saying anything that begins with “you”, such as “you need to….”and “you are…” It will make the customer feel you’re directing them, and they’ll be less willing to reveal their emotions during a conversation.

2. React Positively to Criticism

Whether a beginner or a veteran freelance web designer, criticism is never welcoming. After you invest hours into a project, it can be extremely stressful when a customer tears down your design. When that happens, you have two options: let your emotions get the best of you or analyze the situation and learn from it.

So when you’re on the receiving end, whether the delivery is ideal or not, use the feedback to help improve your design. Don’t close your mind to negative feedback, but put your personal feelings aside and draw from the experience by examining what the client is dealing with that you don’t see.

3. Get EI Coaching

According to Harvard Business Review, interpersonal skills is the most coachable element of EI. Adults can be trained in social etiquette, stress management, and even empathy. According to a cited study that highlights the social brain’s plasticity, it is suggested that people, through adequate training, can become more compassionate, altruistic, and pro-social.

EI coaching not only enhances productivity – it leads to higher levels of physical and mental health as well as happiness. The most popular coaching programs fall under the category of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Programs that increase psychological flexibility – ability to deal with unpleasant circumstances – are also effective.

Final Thoughts

In the light of demands that come with freelance design work, you’ve got to keep an eye out for emotional demands. Consider yourself in an uncharted territory, where you’ll need emotional intelligence to combine human emotion, cognitive behavior and design technology. And be open to the possibility that you’re wrong and you’re going to adapt to the changes demanded by customers.

Article thumbnail image by Dmitry Guzhanin / shutterstock.com


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  1. Make an effort to be social (aka, practice!). The more people you are around, the more you can exercise emotional intelligence. Even better if you are around a diversity of people. When you encounter people who are weird, annoying, or otherwise “turn you off”, don’t just dismiss them. Make an effort to understand them regardless, that’s the kind of challenge that can help build EI. Just like with physical exercise, you can’t give up the moment it becomes uncomfortable.

  2. Well, maybe this empathic status is more about I like you and you like me. Birds of a feather flock together.

  3. It’s eerie how appropriate this post was for me today. Dealing with a difficult client right now who has torn apart the first mock ups for their website. Thank you for the insight and wisdom.

  4. Nicely written!

  5. A powerful ingredient towards the path of success.

    Well said!

  6. Thank you

  7. We often ignore the EI, as so far I know, this EI give big impact to my business.

  8. Maybe “emphatic” should be changed to “empathic”?

  9. This is so true to anyone thinking of being a freelancer as it can all become a bit too much at times.
    I’ve done it for 15 years now and without doubt it comes down to how well you can handle pressure, workload and how well you can interact with your clients.

    I think empathy can be a great way to keep business and create a strong working relationship. I have always tried to help and go the extra mile to make sure the client is happy and it works.

  10. Great article about a super important issue. I agree that EI is super important.

    I hope that ET is also having EI on the many Divi user requests, for example such as for a much easier editing of the footer …

    But I’m also sure that from their perspective they try to do their very best to improve Divi as much as possible on all levels … and sure its difficult to satisfy ALL customer groups, from an experienced programmer to a print designer who also starts building websites with Divi.


  11. Great post – I could have gained a lot from taking this on board years ago as I have had to learn this wisdom the hard way

  12. This is one of my favorite posts. It highlights the facts that we are human and have emotions. Sometimes we designers forget this, don’t we?

  13. Great post, not too many people see the value in EI, but its something that is very important to use in content marketing and content. It’s the driving force that creates relationships. Thanks for going into great detail.

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