Is empathy the answer?

August 13, 2020

In the “design world,” the term empathy takes up a lot of space. Empathy is often listed as a nice-to-have skill in job descriptions. There are even how-to blog posts claiming to teach empathy in a few simple steps.

I think what seems off, is the way we talk about empathy as a tool, not a mindset (speaking of mindsets). Empathy isn’t something we pull out of our back pocket when we need it, it’s a way of being.

There’s a lot to unpack here, because empathy overlaps with many topics relevant to participatory design, like power and lived experience. For now, here are a few takes on empathy.


Compassionate action over empathy

We can offer compassion, which doesn’t require our own understanding in order to validate it as being real and worthy of attention.

Tatiana Mac makes the point that empathy is often the cause and result of one centering themselves (and in many cases, centering whiteness). While empathy leads to guilt, she argues, compassion leads to action.

Design has an empathy problem, white men can't design for everyone

When we design for someone else we design for our interpretation of their needs, and the more divergent our experience is from theirs the more likely it is we are wrong.

This piece argues for designers to move away from buzzword-empathy. Instead, Jesse Weaver urges design teams to hire people with lived experience; arguing that our biases, life circumstances and the systems we live in prohibit us from ever working from a frame of reference different than our own.

In the ground of our unknowing

Interpersonal solidarity—layer upon tearful layer of empathy for one another—in the midst of enforced solitude and loneliness.

But without empathy, I think we might truly be doomed. Read this piece as a return to connection, the type that happens when we’re not forgetting to care of each other (and the planet). At the very least, it will remind you of the nuances of our wacky emotions, including empathy.


As Kelly-Ann McKercher said:

While we might feel good about exercising empathy for people with lived experience, empathy alone doesn't pay bills, interrupt disadvantage or reduce isolation.

This was originally published on my newsletter, Design With. It was archived in 2023.