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The Power of Empathy in Social Design

By | Design Education, Design Thinking, Human-Centered Design, Social Design | No Comments

PHOTO: QUINN DOMBROWSKI

Being able to step out of self and into an issue that is personal has proven to be the essence of connecting people to a cause. These days, it’s harder to do as we are becoming less and less intimate with anything outside from ourselves, but the more I come to understand the importance of using design to create sustainable, innovative solutions, the more I realize the power of empathy in social design. I have discovered that it has the power to transform communities, build lasting connections through shared interests, and even generate revolutionary change across the globe.

What is empathy?

In order to understand the significance, we first have to understand what empathy is. By definition, it is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. I like to describe empathy as the willingness to feel with, not for and believe that by practicing it, we are able to handle every story, experience, and project with a gentleness and compassion that we may have lacked before.

Why is it important for social design?

When it comes to social impact and human-centered design, empathy is no stranger. In fact, it is the key to finding creative solutions to some of our most troubling issues related to poverty, human trafficking, health, and education. Using empathy not only allows designers (and design thinkers) to create work that is meaningful and empowering, but it also helps us to understand someone else’s perspective and situation, whether it be a homeless family on the street or a community that needs a sustainable model for utilizing their own natural resources. Reaching that level of awareness and engagement is how inspirational stories are developed through campaigns and powerful call to actions become harder to ignore.

How can it be achieved?

Now that we understand what empathy is and why it is an important part of the design process, we have to know what to look out for and keep in mind during implementation.

  • Choosing photography that is empathetic not sympathetic. This means refraining from the faces of misery and showing the faces of hope and change
  • Using thoughtful storytelling as a way to motivate the audience and voice common denominators that everyone can relate to
  • Challenging resistance that you may discover in yourself or others by finding creative ways to make solutions more impactful
  • Placing yourself in the environment that you are trying to understand by studying the culture
  • Practicing being empathetic and making yourself more vulnerable

It’s becoming more evident that we can no longer look through one lens to see another’s hopes, fears, and motivations. By using the power of empathy, we will be able to reach observations we would have never noticed before and create bridges that can revolutionize someones experience through social design. It is, after all, the true emotion of empowerment that can make all the difference.

Watch the video below to hear author, scholar, and public speaker Dr. Brené Brown share how we can create genuine empathic connection.