Wicked Problems: Building Empathy by Designing “With”

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Wicked Problems: Building Empathy by Designing “With”

By Jon Kolko

Fundamentally, you need to establish an empathetic tie to the people in the community you are affecting.

The Challenge of Establishing Empathy

Empathy is formed through immersion. A designer who would foster empathetic connections with a group will spend many hours getting to know the individuals and trying to discover, without judgment, the cultural and social norms that exist within the group. Gaining the trust and respect of a group almost always requires some form of equitable value exchange. Unlike many formal anthropological activities, this immersion is not passive. Instead, the designer will strive to become part of the group by participating in activities, conversations, and job routines. In some cases, designers may augment their appearance to become closer to the target audience. In extreme examples, designers may actually impair or alter their bodies to better experience another person’s reality. For example, Patricia Moore wanted to feel what it was like to be a seventy-year-old woman. To gain knowledge, Moore could have spoken with people in that group, but she was looking to build empathy. So, for three years, she augmented her body to age it.

“I learned that putting little dabs of baby oil in my eyes would fog my vision and irritate my eyes. The look was that of eyes with cataracts…we decided to tape my fingers to simulate the lack of movement which people with arthritis must tolerate…it seemed a good idea also to restrain my movement in walking…we put small splints of balsa wood behind each knee.”

Download the full text from Wicked Problems for free here.

Jon Kolko
COO, Modernist Studio
Jon Kolko
COO, Modernist Studio
Jon is the COO, and a Partner, at Modernist Studio, and the Founder of Austin Center for Design. He was previously the Vice President of Design at Blackboard, the largest educational software company in the world. Jon has also held the positions of Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv, a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas, and both Principal Designer and Associate Creative Director at frog design, a global innovation firm.