Reclaiming Empathy Through Design
Pratt MFA in Communications Design Thesis
Throughout my time at Pratt, I always questioned things that were presented as best practices or rules to follow. Afterall, there is no wisdom in accepting things as they are without questioning their accuracy across.
For my thesis topic, I chose to dive deeper into the trend of empathic design, especially as it had become a big trend in design. My years of research boiled down to one question which combined my interest in society and human relations with the design field.
How can designers develop a genuine way to utilize empathy by analyzing both altruistic and manipulative uses of empathy in the design field?
In recent years, designers have been using various methodologies, such as user-centered design, human-centered design, ethnographic research, as well as persuasive design in an attempt to create emotional connections with their audiences. All these design methodologies lead to better communication between designers and audiences. This deeper level of understanding has created different outcomes. There have been rare altruistic approaches when designers utilize empathic design to draw attention to important issues such as war, discrimination, hunger, and natural disasters. However, more often than not designers have abused empathy to sell a product or a service. Abusing empathy leads to manipulating the audience’s emotions rather than being genuine with them. Hence the recent popularity of empathy in design has consumerist and manipulative intentions behind it instead of altruistic intentions which would aim to promote genuine human connections.
This thesis will analyze the two extreme motives of using empathy in design: altruistic motives and consumerist motives. Through the investigation of written articles and analysis of empathic design work, the thesis will suggest using transparency and honesty as part of the design process will help designers reclaim empathy through their practice.