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“ My tiny baby brother / Who's never read a book / Knows one
sex from the other / All he had to do was look!” —Irving
Empathy-inducing birds in the film March of the Penguins (© 2005
Warner Independent Pictures).
As a means of establishing gender or anything else, looking is
not as simple as it once was, but it is intrinsic to the design
process. Design almost always entails looking; moreover it demands
that the designer actually see what he or she is looking at. In
other words, looking, as a design activity, means noticing, which,
among human beings, tends to imply caring. It is a risky business,
possibly leading to what a politician recently identified as “a
slippery slope”: empathy.
Once on a college test I was asked to define empathy.
Never having seen the word before, but being in a smart-ass mood, I
wrote, “Not to be confused with sympathy or apathy.”
The professor didn't take off any points, but a stern marginal note
recommended that I look the word
up immediately. I did and thought ever since that I knew what
Until now. When the President listed empathy as one of the
qualifications he looked for in a Supreme Court justice, the
specification seemed unremarkable. Why wouldn't a judge need
the capacity for understanding someone else's situation? (The
President also said he wanted a person who respected the rule of
law, another trait I assumed should be taken for granted.) But then
I remembered that over time the term had taken on nuances not
predicted by my collegiate dictionary. In the theater, empathy has
been used to describe an actor's ability to relate to a character
or even an audience. In politics, it is perceived by some as a code
word for judicial activism. In design, the term has generally
functioned as a “good” word, which, like “innovative,”
“user-centered,” “creative” or “catalyst,” could be tacked with
impunity onto a product, service, brand or company name. It is
sometimes used to distinguish observational research from the kind
that tries to determine consumer taste not by watching what people
do but by asking them, in focus groups, what they like.
1939 Saturday Evening Post ad for the Big Ben alarm clock
designed by Henry Dreyfuss (clockhistory.com).
Well, one of a designer's inevitable responsibilities is to try
to meet the needs of people who may be very different from herself.
That this requires observation is hardly news, as the industrial
designer Henry Dreyfuss demonstrated in the 1930s, when he based
the redesign of an alarm clock on what he learned from watching
people buy alarm clocks. For the designer, as for the
ethologist, observation where possible is the primary resource for
Empathy in design focuses on the user as a person, not just a
consumer. And because it can be very difficult to imagine someone
else's needs, we try getting the necessary information directly.
This endeavor is supported by the wisdom of the ages, or at least
by a Native American legend admonishing us not to judge anyone
without first walking a mile in his moccasins. But, with moccasins
as with so much else, one size doesn't fit all. Once I was
researching an article about prisons in Connecticut. The state was
at the time experimenting with a program that encouraged lawyers
and judges to spend a voluntary weekend in the jug in order to
better understand the sentences for which they were responsible. It
was a well-meaning experiment, but I doubt that being locked up
taught the prosecutors and judges much about incarceration that
they didn't already know. Their experience would have been nothing
like that of the real inmates, who did not wish to be there and did
not know when they would get out. Empathy would have to supply what
a weekend behind bars would not.
When we were discussing Universal Design in a class I taught
last year, disability rights advocate Simi Linton, who uses a
wheelchair, addressed us. As part of her presentation she took the
entire class to the restroom with her so they could appreciate the
design requirements of people with disabilities. Simi pointed out,
however, that of course there is no way that simulating such an
experience can make any of us fully intimate with the problems of
people with disabilities; so she questioned the efficacy of
programs that put college students into wheelchairs as sensitivity
Title stills from 1955 film The Man with the Golden Arm
Designers can try to experience the user's situation as directly
as he or she can, while acknowledging the limitations. But direct
experience of another kind is crucial to any design—namely, direct
experience with the material used or the process of making
Although, it's not user-centered, I wonder if that's not another
aspect of empathy. To quote the late Saul Bass, “Every design
problem has a craft basis.” Describing his widely acclaimed graphic
title sequence for the film The Man with the
Golden Arm, Bass said, “If I had not myself fooled with cut
paper, I would not have gotten the symbol.” When the architect
Louis Kahn told his students, “The brick wants to be an arch,” I
don't believe they took him literally. They knew what he meant even
if the brick did not. Designers always relate personally to the
stuff they make things from. The 19th-century critic John Ruskin
coined the term “pathetic fallacy” to describe the predisposition
of painters and poets to attribute human qualities to inanimate
objects. Designers naturally do it all the time, but in their case,
it is neither pathetic nor fallacious.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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