Emotional Modeling

Modeling 'imbalance'

Laura Rodriguez, Katie Herzog, Josh LeFevre, Nowell Kahle, and Arden Wolf

Originally published on Medium

Weekly posts chronicling the development of Emotional Modeling, a project for New Ways To Think: Materializing Mental Health, September–October 2018

Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6

Week 6: October 18

This week we began testing our final design kit with students within CMU. From our initial testing and research we found that allowing individuals to create their representation in private yielded the most emotionally complex results. (Read more about our process in previous posts.)

we will outline the results of our final testing. Our goal in testing
was to verify the efficacy of the kit as well as to see what patterns
might emerge across individual creations and the meanings participants
chose to attach to certain shapes and materials.

final kit included cubic, rectangular, cylindrical, spherical, and
hemispherical geometric shapes in various sizes and materials (stone,
plastic, felt, and wood.) Along with the volumes, we provided stiff wood
connectors and flexible silicone connectors for participants to build
with. We also found that for some participants, providing a base or
platform on which to make their object lowered barriers for
participation. As such, we provided three types of bases (clear square
bases with holes as well as wooden circular bases with and without


test our kit, we approached several students on campus and asked them
if they had a few spare minutes to participate in our research. A
generalized structure of the prompt and conversation is provided here:

Hello, My name is _____, I am a masters student here conducting
anonymous research on the emotional and mental states of students at
Carnegie Mellon. Would you be willing to take 5 minutes to help us
understand how you visualize your emotions/mental state?


Please take a moment to consider the emotions or mental states you’ve
experienced in the last 24 hours. (pause) Now, choose the most prominent
emotion or mental state and write it on this tag. Then use the pieces
in this kit to model the emotion you wrote. Please feel free to take as
much time as you need. I’ll just sit over here but feel free to ask me
any questions. When you’re done, just let me know and I’d like to talk
about what you made and take a picture of your creation, but only if you
are ok with that.

PARTICIPANT: Fun! (makes object)


This looks awesome. Before I take a picture, if you feel comfortable,
would you mind walking me through what this creation means to you and
why you chose the shapes/materials that you used?

Participant explains creation and meaning assigned to elements of their
model. This opened up many deep thoughts and ideas they were
experiencing (100% of participants we interviewed were excited to share
what they had created and explain it to us).

RESEARCHER: Back and forth conversation until done.

Thank you for participating, your work and comments will remain
annonymous. Since this is your work, would you please take a picture for
me of your creation from the angle your creation should be viewed from?


Great! Would you like a copy of your picture? (95% said yes; then we
took a picture with our polaroid camera and left them with the photo)


were able to test with over 30 students. After the interviews we began
pairing the same emotional models together, along with the basics of
their descriptions to see what similarities or themes we could find.

Below, you can see a sampling of emotional representations created.

One participant created a family of emotions. The participant noted
that every mental state is a collection of competing emotions that live
together and act as a cohesive emotional family–fear, sadness,
loneliness, Anxiety, joy/happiness.

Material Insights

section below contains the most common metaphors used by participants
when describing various attributes. Interestingly, there were many
overlaps between geometry, materiality, etc.


  • Squares:
    were used as metaphors for stability, balance, structure, competition,
    connection, building, strength, and a unchanging nature.
  • Rectangles: were used as metaphors for consistency, consecutiveness, obstacles, and barriers.
  • Cylinders: were used as metaphors for slyness, unpredictability, humor, brains, and mobility.
  • Spheres: were used as metaphors for weight, flexibility, instability, motion, change, and potential.
  • Hemispheres: Were used as metaphors for stability, imbalance, resoluteness, individuality, and protection.


  • Felt: happiness, soft emotions, flexibility, and pliability.
  • Plastic: cold, unfeeling, imposed by others or self, and opportunity.
  • Wood: natural, daily occurrence, comforting, and familiarity.
  • Stone: strength, weight, unchangeable, and supportive.
  • Stiff connectors: specific and defined.
  • Flexible connectors: undefined, changing, and tiring.


  • Black: darkness, sadness, deepness of feeling, contrast, nagging, mystery, pressure, and changability.
  • White: happiness, unkown, day, clarity, and achievable.
  • Natural: warmth, honesty, and transitory.
  • Grey: necessary, indecisive, weighty, and unchanging.

Bases/no bases

  • The bases had little metaphor or thought assigned to them. Participants regarded them more as opportunities for building.

Emotional/mental state insights

Overall, participants responded very positively to the process of
modeling their emotions and were generally enthusiastic (many noted that
creating their emotions felt “liberating.”) We also observed that after
individuals had finished creating their representation of an emotional
or mental state, it became easier for them to share their thoughts,
validating our theory that by “externalizing” their emotions, people
might feel more comfortable discussing them. We believe that by
addressing their emotions as a now-physical object, participants were
relieved of the burden that comes from having to talk directly about
themselves. We also found that most individuals wanted to keep a
photograph of their creation because, as one participant noted, “it
feels like a part of me.”

Joy and positive emotions emotional states were typically small and
relatively simple. Many participants noted that happy emotions seem
“easy” and simple to construct, while more negative emotions tended to
be more complex and unwieldy, resulting in representations that embodied
barriers and restrictions.

We found with some creations, even those that represented more positive
emotions, that participants were excited to take part, but there was
still an undercurrent of uncertainty and tension evoked by the thought
of sharing their emotions.

Next Steps

  1. Test with a larger sample size to aggregate more responses.
  2. Codify participant explanations.
  3. Display objects and allow people to react to what they see.


was an amazing project. We learned quite a bit about how individuals
think, what prompts them to engage, and how externalizing thoughts
encourages non-judgmental observation and discussion around difficult
topics often locked inside one’s head.

We believe this activity helped participants move beyond the some of the more typical metaphors associated with mental states/health (such as describing depression as “being in a pit of despair”) and assign meaning to physical objects more abstractly. It was interesting to explore how individuals apply meaning to objects, materials, and shape and how even with a simplified palette they are able to explain a complex feeling

Week 5: October 11

This week we are making the final elements of our prototype and user testing.

the past week we have continued to create additional materials for the
kit. We also identified a method to create an alternative to our
concrete objects. In order to create this new version, we placed ball
bearings inside of 3D printed objects to give them the desired weight.
We then covered the objects with a stone like finish.

addition to creating the objects for the kit, we also created a
container for the objects using plywood cut to form a box. We created
separate compartments for each type of material, size, and color and the
connectors. We painted the box grey to contrast with the objects.

on our initial tests, we recognized that people prefer to have a space
provided in which to work. While a marked area on a sheet of paper
worked well for the 2D kit, for 3D we needed to provide something
different. We created wooden and clear platforms for people to construct
their objects on. We also put holes into the platforms so that they
could start their objects with a connector should they so choose.

This final prototype will be tested prior to sharing our process and findings on October 18th.

Week 4: October 4

week we worked on developing a more refined prototype of our kit and
met again with Viviana Ferrer-Medina to discuss our concept.

Prototype Construction

develop the more refined kit, we began collecting materials and
fashioning them into the pieces we had planned. To begin, we decided on
the measurements we would use and purchased small wooden dowels to use
as the stiff connecting pieces. We also purchased silicone to use as
flexible connectors. These we cut down to two lengths to provide some
variety in how the other pieces could be joined.

then purchased or gathered wood to build the first set of shapes. We
cut the wood to proportion and drilled holes in them to fit the
connectors. We decided to leave the wood uncolored in order to leave the
feel unaltered and to keep the distinctive look of the wood relative to
the other materials we planned to include.

We cut and drilled each of the wooden pieces by hand

addition to the wooden objects, we also gathered materials to create a
set of objects using felt. We sewed the felt together into the desired
shapes and filled them with cotton balls to help create the forms. Small
holes were created in the felt to fit the connectors.

the plastic objects we made use of the 3D printers in the materials
lab. We had solid objects created with the holes necessary for the
connectors. These objects needed some additional work after creation. In
order for the connectors to fit properly the supports inside the holes
had to be cleared out and the holes had to be filed to be the correct

explored the possibility of creating materials from concrete, but found
that creating objects of the size we wanted with holes would not be
durable. As a result, we began investigating the possibility of creating
these objects in a different way that would still give the feeling of
stone or concrete, but would address the durability issue. We will work
on solving this over the next week.

also created plans for a container to hold the materials in the kit.
This will be created using plywood and cut to shape with laser cutters.

Discussion with Viviana

addition to creating materials for the next iteration of our kit, we
also met again with Viviana Ferrer-Medina. We discussed what we learned
from our initial testing, shared our plan for next steps and discuss the
script we had developed for when we explain the purpose and
instructions to participants.

on her feedback we made wording changes to our scripts to clarify the
purpose of the project and to make the instructions for participants
easier to follow. She suggested we use the word “visualization” as
oppose to “externalization” because she felt that “visualization” was
more approachable and easier for others to understand. She thought
including a word bank was a good idea because it would provide the
participant with a starting point. She suggested we adjust the words
included in the word bank by only using words that would be relatable to
everyone. So we removed words like Depression because it did not fit
well with the other words that were all emotions. She also suggested
that we add more words that would relate to the CMU community because
they were the individuals who we would be testing with. So we added
Loneliness and Stress since these fit with the other words and are
common feelings in our community.

Week 3: September 27

Exploring Construction Methods

these two sets of trials, we decided to create a more deliberate
version of a three-dimensional kit. We wanted to provide a balance of
flexibility and constraint in the materials provided. Because we found
in the first round of testing that participants had difficulty with the
actual construction of their visualization, we discussed multiple
methods of construction that would be easy for the user. A few ideas
included using magnets as a method of joining pieces, as well as
inserting wires into the pieces so that the user could easily bend them
into the shapes they wanted. We decided to move forward with a tinker
toy construction method.

Experimenting with different methods of construction

we found in the first round of testing that the participants felt
overwhelmed by the number of choices they could use and add their
personal meaning too, we decided to restrict the number of elements that
would act as representative elements. We choose to work with shape,
size and material/texture. The materials chosen were a set of shapes
(cube, rectangular prism, sphere, hemisphere, and cylinder) in two
sizes, and in four materials (wood, concrete, plastic, felt). The shapes
have holes in them that fit two different types of connectors (wood and
silicone) allowing participants to connect the objects together in a
variety of ways.

on this concept we created several prototype materials to validate our
thinking before investing the time and energy in creating them in the
desired materials.

Preliminary prototype for our custom kit

on our own experimentation with the prototype materials, we decided to
move forward with this approach. We will be prototyping in the correct
materials this week so we can test out the materials we have identified
and see how people relate and give meaning to the different materials
and forms we have provided.

Exploring the Verbal Presentation

we began work constructing this kit we also worked to finalize the
other details of how participants would interact with this kit,
specifically how we would invite people to participate, what
instructions they would receive, what the setting would be like for
people creating a sculpture with the kit, and if and how we would
communicate with them after they finish. We drafted a version of a
script for each stage of the process, emphasizing transparency and the
opportunity for anonymity. We also decided based on our initial trials
to offer participants a word bank from which they could select one
emotion to visualize. The reason for this approach was two fold. First,
we wanted to give some sort of prompt to avoid the intimidation that can
come with being faced with a blank sheet of paper. Second, we learned
that asking someone to create an object for a specific emotion could be
forcing them to engage with something that makes them uncomfortable.
Providing options in the form of a word bank and the ability to write in
something else alleviated that pressure.

words we initially chose were based on Robert Plutchik’s theory that
there are eight basic emotions: Fear, Anger, Sadness, Joy, Disgust,
Surprise, Trust, and Anticipation. We also wanted to include Anxiety and
Depression, per our initial trials.

Before using any of these scripts or the word bank in broader testing, we decided to meet again with Viviana Ferrer-Medina to hear her feedback and adjust accordingly.

Week 2: September 20

We decided to test 2D and 3D kits in parallel to see how users would react to the different methods and mediums.

2D Testing Results

As a way of testing the potential of a 2-dimensional kit of parts in expressing emotion, we decided to borrow pieces from the Mental Landscapes set
(thick stock paper cut into different shapes and colors.) Participants
were asked to create a visualization of each of three emotions/mental
states: Joy, Anxiety, and Depression. They were provided an 11″ x 17″
piece of paper with a space for them to work and room to annotate their
creations. Testing with this initial kit revealed several things:
Similarities in the shapes used for particular feelings, e.g. the spiral
and anxiety, hesitation in engaging with creating something for
depression (relative to joy and anxiety), and the benefit of reflecting
on certain emotions, particularly anxiety.

3D Testing Results

second iteration of the kit provided materials to create a three
dimensional object. The materials were found items that were available
in the design studio. They included among other items, clay, pipe
cleaners of various sizes and colors, fluffy balls, wooden skewers,
fabric and balloons. Based on testing this kit with participants we
found that the participants felt overwhelmed by the amount of material
options presented to them and that it difficult to construct structures
with large volumes. One interesting thing we observed is that the
participants would give meaning to the texture of the elements they were
choosing. For example, with the representation below (the pink one),
the participant associated “energy” with the fluffy texture of the large
pipe cleaner.

3D representations of anxiety and depression, created by one participant

class we decided to test our 3D kit with two classmates to solicit
further feedback. Neither of our participants was interested in writing
about their representation, and only one of the two felt comfortable
sharing about their thought process after the fact. However, we observed
some similar patterns in the ways participants chose to use the
materials .

3D representations of anxiety, created by two different participants

Reflection on Testing Results

reflecting on the testing process, we found that we had conversations
with participants about how they felt constrained or empowered by the
materials provided. This underlying tension speaks to the unique ways in
which people prefer to communicate, particularly when it comes to what
can be sensitive topics, and the depth of what can be communicated. We
experienced first hand the challenge of navigating the trade-offs we had
seen in other projects about what you select to communicate, or in our
case empower others to communicate. Two examples of projects we drew on
that made choices between similar trade-offs were Giorgia Lupi and Kaki
King’s “Bruises” and Jill Simpson’s “A Day of OCD — Conscious Acts of

the design of the visual for “Bruises,” Giorgia Lupi included
quantified data, but focused on creating something that could evoke
empathy and engage people at an emotional level.

Simpson had to make a similar type of choice. She spoke with our class
and commented on the challenge of deciding what to communicate and as a
result, what to leave out. Although quantifying the acts of checking was
critical to communicating how disruptive OCD is, she spoke about how
this approach strips out the complexity and only represents one element
of OCD.

Both projects acknowledge the challenge of communicating something so complex as mental health and emotion and make decisions on what to focus on in terms of what they communicate. Realizing the necessity of making a choice, we opted to create a fixed set of materials that would allow participants to feel safe to participate, without the pressure of judgment of their artistic or other skills, and potentially assign meaning to particular objects or qualities of objects. This decision came with an added benefit of enabling us to more easily identify similarities in how people choose to represent particular emotions. We also discovered that participants responded well to the opportunity to create in 3 dimensions. As a result, we began to design a new version of a kit for additional testing.

Week 1: September 13

kick off! For this project, we will be exploring how we can design
methods that enable people to materialize, visualize or externalize
their own experiences of mental health.

began this project by examining others in this space including Brendan
Dawes’ “States of Mind” and Candy Chang’s “A Monument for the Anxious
and Hopeful.” While we were intrigued by the States of Mind project, one
element we felt was missing was the ability to spark a meaningful
conversation about the creations. This stemmed from the lack of
identifiers for the images that were created. As a result, we wanted to
be able to associate participant creations with an identifying word,
e.g. an emotion. Chang’s project created a sense of community and
encouraged conversation in a compelling way. This provided inspiration
for our own publicly displayed collection that would have a similar

addition to spurring conversation about the creations, we wanted to
ensure that the creation process itself felt safe and helpful for
participants. Creating a process that provides this, can be tricky. It
was immediately clear from our group discussions and hearing from
Viviana Ferrer-Medina in Carnegie Mellon University’s Counseling and
Psychological Services, that allowing for anonymity, flexibility, and
transparency in the process would be critical.

a team, we performed a quick exercise to gain an understanding of the
variety of ways different people may visualize emotions and mental
health. Based on this quick exercise we decided to begin by exploring
both 2D and 3D methods of visualization.

Quick team exercise on visualization