The lost art of Empathy in design

These days it seems everyone is a designer.  From industries like architecture and interiors, to educational training materials, user experience and IT, everyone seems to be attaching ‘designer’ to their title.

Sounds cool, but what is a designer?

Is the art of designing simply creating or is it more than that?

In my experience, the practise of ‘design thinking’ requires much more than creativity.  In fact, before you even begin, the very first step requires listening, understanding, observing, awareness of biases and moods and so much more.  It’s the lost art of Empathy.  But in today’s world full of time constraints and cost pressures, who has the time for that?

Empathy can be defined as “I feel what you feel”

Sympathy on the other hand is defined as “I feel bad for you”


“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection” Prof Brene Brown


Let’s remove Empathy from the creative process.  What’s left?

Ideas. Solutions. Concepts.

design process

Design Thinking process


And herein lies so much potential, fun and cool stuff, but how do you know which ones solve the users’ need?  So many ideas are launched every day but so many more fail and never see the light of day.  (Yes, I know we can learn from failure but imagine if you could get one step closer to a successful solution just by slowing down)


“Slow down to speed up”


It’s a phrase I use a lot in facilitation.  Simply put, take the time to listen, observe, understand your customer before designing a solution for your user.

Remember the user? That’s the person paying you for your ‘design’ capabilities.

Anyone can be creative, gain inspiration, adapt their own flair and create solutions.  Heck, I have an endless library of ideas in my head that just keeps growing! – some of which I’ve shared over drinks that receive the ‘oohs’ and ‘aah’s’ and ‘that would be so cool’.  I could deliver ALL of them, but why? For what purpose?  If there is no need, nobody will use them.  But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean we scrap the ideas.


Let’s imagine this..   (I’m aiming this scenario at the 30 somethings!)

Think of a cool new bar or restaurant you’ve visited.  You notice the mood lighting, the cool tunes playing in the background, the raw timber tables, plush chairs and pretty funky artwork on the walls.  You walk by, it looks good, feels cool, so you enter.

You’re taking it all in, you’re loving the vibe but pretty soon you realise that you can’t stop fidgeting in your chair, you can’t hear your friends unless they yell at the top of their lungs, you tune out of the conversation, you can’t walk to the bar without doing a lap of the whole venue because it’s such a tight squeeze.

What happened?  It looked good from the street!

This, my friends, is a cool idea – without empathy.

Had empathy taken place, you would have spent longer in the venue, spent more money on food and drinks, and got lost in conversation making it a memorable experience which ultimately, would make you either return or recommend it.  (Assuming there was no hangover)


However, this is so common in todays competitive world where everybody wants to deliver quickly and cheaply.  Whether you’re designing a bar, restaurant, app, bike or water bottle, empathy is crucial for a successful outcome.    In my role as an Innovation partner, I tell people that we can help them deliver any idea they want NOW, but why waste your time when nobody will use it?

So how do we practise empathy?

  1. Listen attentively without interruption or judgement.  Document what you hear as you hear it – not what you think you hear.
  2. Observe behaviours.  Where do they like to sit and talk, what are they buying, how are they using that new device?
  3. Talk to people. Conduct two on one interviews.  One person interviews while the other documents what they see and hear.  Ask open-ended questions.  Careful not to ask leading questions but more exploratory to find out more.
  4. Give your time.  Make this a priority but make it genuine and authentic.

But Empathy is not just about delivering a great solution.  The benefits are endless and include:

  • strengthens your connections and interactions
  • helps in conflict resolution
  • reduces stress and anxiety
  • fosters happier more satisfied people
  • it expands your perceptions

The good news is the more you do it the better you become at it!

So next time you tackle any type of design solution and you want to think like a designer, remember your user.  Feel what they feel.  Practise empathy and you’ll put yourself miles ahead of the rest, plus you’ll feel better for it!


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