Empathy and Inclusive Design

Do we understand well enough our motivations as designers? Do we take commissions because we feel we can make a real difference, or because it might look great on our website? There’s no reason that those things must be mutually exclusive, but it’s important that designers understand the positive social impact of their work must be valued at least as much as website clicks.

I recently attended a Metropolis Think Tank on empathy and inclusive design across education and work. The panelists – whose areas of expertise ranged from architecture to mental health to innovation – raised some very interesting ideas about the role of architecture and designers design in creating a better world. Here are three of those ideas that stood out to me the most.

Am I here to help or to keep things the same?

Do we understand well enough our motivations as designers? Do we take commissions because we feel we can make a real difference, or because it might look great on our website? There’s no reason that those things must be mutually exclusive, but it’s important that designers understand the positive social impact of their work must be valued at least as much as website clicks. The panelists called on designers to be more selective in the kind of work they take, not only based on a designer’s motivation but also in response to the question, “Am I the right person to lead this effort?” Sometimes, a project can be made better by helping a potential client find the person or team that is more plugged in, more representative, or just plain better suited to the task at hand.

Give design agency to those who might not have it otherwise.

Most would agree that a good design process starts with understanding the people who will be most impacted by its outcome. But often the designer’s method of information gathering are too shallow to engage a truly representative audience. Designers speak with leaders, educators, student governments, high-performing and actively involved students, and those that are extroverted enough to engage in any public process that might be offered on campus or within the organization. But this pool – while important – is not necessarily representative of the whole organization. Questions of methodology, timing, literacy, personality, language barriers, and many, many more factors can limit the participation of a truly representative audience. The panel challenged designers to look beyond the first level of extroverts and leaders to find representation from the entire population that will be impacted by the outcomes of these design conversations.

What does my design say?

Just as there are two sides to a coin, there are multiple messages communicated by any design. For example, the panelists mentioned two office amenities that are becoming more and more standard for the workplace – the foosball table and the kegerator. On one hand, these are potentially symbols of a fun and lively office culture where it’s okay to relax and enjoy the company of your colleagues. But some might see these well-intentioned amenities as a call from office leadership to be extroverted and outgoing, to drink, or to spend more time in the office than one is otherwise comfortable doing. These are just two small examples of design decisions that communicate very different things based on the perspective of the viewer. The goal of empathic design isn’t the banishment of all foosball tables and kegerators from workplaces, but an honest consideration of the way different, unique human beings might view them.
 
Today, empathy and inclusion are surprisingly divisive topics. But the goal of these ideas is a better understanding of our fellow human beings, and a respect for their autonomy. As designers, empathy and inclusion should not be our trending hashtags, but the core of a truly people-first design process. We can make our world a little bit better with every design decision. So, why shouldn’t we try?

Jason Villarreal MBA, CPSM
Senior Associate, Director of Business Development & Marketing