The Role of Empathy in Design Thinking

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Empathy is the ability to compassionately understand what someone else is going through and be able to recognize how we would feel under those same circumstances. Ken Robinson, in his book Creative Schools (which I recommend if you havn't read) points out that many of the problems that young people face are rooted in lack of compassion. Bullying, violence, emotional abuse, social exclusion and prejudices based on ethnicity, culture, or sexuality are all fueled by failure of empathy. As the world becomes progressively more connected, having empathy is more important than ever and is a quality that we try to not only instill in our students, but practice ourselves as human beings. So how does empathy play such an important role in design thinking?

Empathy is ingrained in the design thinking process. Its core purpose stems from students having an awareness of the world around them and the people in it. Design thinking is more than just problem solving, it starts with seeking out problems that exist and then working towards creatively designing solutions to fix them. True design thinking is not just designing for the sake of making something, it is designing with a purpose and with an audience in mind. 
In the book LAUNCH (one of my favorite books), A.J. Juliani and John Spencer's first stage of the design thinking process is Look, Listen, and Learn. In this stage, they really aim to raise student awareness by having them look closely at the world, and in this case the people around them. One of their methods for brainstorming, is to have students 'Start with Empathy Towards a Specific Group'. Students are relating to a group of people on a personal level and making connections that evoke empathy. However, as A.J. Juliani & John Spencer point out, it does not have to be focused on an ethnic group or social issue, it can also be empathy for a specific consumer market (For example: athletes, students, artists, etc.). 

By coming from that foundation of empathy, products become more authentic because they were created to solve problems that real people are facing. Students are learning to be purposeful in their designing and are being mindful of the people and problems that are found in their communities and in the world. Empathy has proven to be one the strongest drivers in the design thinking process, and in being a compassionate human being, and a well-rounded global citizen.

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