Design and empathy

28 March 2013  |   0 Comments   |    |  

Design and empathy

The 8th Saint-Étienne International Design Biennial, which is currently taking place, gives us a good opportunity to present the work our studio proposed during the consultation for the event's communications.

Launched in 1998 by teams from the École Supérieure d'Art et Design de Saint-Étienne, this event is unique in terms of the audiences it reaches (85,000 visitors): professionals (designers and companies), higher education and the general public (including schoolchildren).
Its positioning is in line with the prospective approach for exhibitions and innovation for all professional events. The international dimension is also reasserted (member of the UNESCO Creative Cities network).

Empathy theme of the year

Faced with ecological threats and an expected economic revival, philosophers, sociologists and intellectuals today believe that it is urgent to rethink society and found a new social contract on bases that are more respectful of the human community. Building a new society based on empathy - the mechanism by which an individual can experience the feelings and emotions of others - is one of the paths opened up by these thinkers.

Empathy, or the experience of the other, is at once the opening of a reflection that brings together all fields of society, but it is also very directly linked to design as a design activity. Whether we're talking about putting ourselves in the user's shoes to understand and anticipate their needs, or enabling and supporting new forms of social bonding, empathy has been at the heart of the discipline since its origins.

What is empathy ?

After reading the subject and the various definitions of empathy, we tried to put together a collection of reference images on the subject. One of the aims of this stage was to produce a workbook that would enable us to reflect in total empathy with the Cité du Design team. In a way, we were proposing to put the subject into practice, by trying to conduct a joint reflection, in an attempt to get as close as possible to their vision.

It has to be said, however, that the public procurement framework is not necessarily the right place for such emphatic reflection! The formalities required to ensure equality between candidates do not really invite discussion with the client. A discussion in which trust is established, the essential breeding ground for empathy. So affirming the role of empathy in design sounds a little like wishful thinking.

Here, we present some of that work.


Yawning is a communicative act affecting 75% of the population, with 25% having little or no awareness of this contagion. As an act of replication, one person's yawn often involves the yawns of those around them, and is correlated with empathy. It's the most common experience of empathy !

bâillement empathie-biennale-design-poster

Blend in with the other

Empathy is putting on someone else's shoes without getting blisters.


Putting yourself in the other person's shoes

According to Geoffrey Miller in The Eating Mind, empathy developed because "putting yourself in another person's shoes" to find out how they think and might react is an important survival factor in a world where man is constantly competing with man.

Empathy means entering into pain. The most symbolic example of this definition is the little words you can write on the plaster cast of a friend's broken arm...


Man's best friend

Yawn next to your dog, and he might just do the same. Although it may seem harmless, this contagious behavior is actually quite remarkable: only a few animals are capable of it, and only dogs cross the species barrier. A new study has found that dogs yawn even when they only hear us yawn, proving that our faithful companions are capable of empathy.
By the way, I suggest you read our article on the lolcat phenomenon... you know, those cute little cats that are such a hit ! The empathy we feel for them is probably one of the reasons for their success !animaux-empathie-biennale-design-poster4

Empathy can change the world


Getting inside the other person's head


Is empathy impossible to represent ?

Empathy is the ability to understand another person's feelings precisely, while maintaining an emotional distance, a neutrality in relation to the other, whereas sympathy supposes a sharing of feelings and the establishment of affective links.
It is empathy's neutrality that makes its representation impossible...

Empathy is a complex notion that differs from sympathy, compassion or emotional contagion. However, these latter notions are much easier to translate into images! In fact, they benefit from a rich and varied popular imagery (religious images, Epinal pictures, etc.).

Our research ended with this photomontage, very ugly, but terribly evocative of empathy and design !
chien-lampe-empathie design

At this stage, in line with our desire to apply the principle of empathy to this work, we should have been able to confront our visions with those of the Cité du Design team, in order to establish a constructive dialogue from which the visual project should have emerged.

However, aware that submitting a book of reflections without proposing a finalized result for a call for tenders would be poorly perceived, we extended our reflections to come up with several ideas... always with a view to opening up possibilities... to initiating reflection...
An idealistic approach to a call for tenders, where clients expect a clear, directive vision! Our work was not selected.

Experiencing others

This idea offers a visual metaphor for the experience of the other. The gaze becomes multiple. The treatment is deliberately "hand-made" to preserve the importance of man in the notion of empathy...



E for Empathy, E for Experience

The fusion of the "E" for empathy with the "E" for experience forms a coherent whole that plays on the notion of double reading.
To complete this idea of double reading, we propose a typeface with a contradictory perspective.

Empathy is pink and looks like a little dog!

With a touch of derision, we suggest using a painting by Briton Riviere. Full of good feelings, old-fashioned and kitsch, this image seems to us a good translation of what empathy would look like. But it's not all about loving little dogs - where's the design in all this?
The typographic composition, the iconographic treatment (bitmap effect) and the play of superimpositions have the ambition to be resolutely avant-garde, in keeping with the positioning of this biennial event...


And what does empathy mean to you?

Although not selected, this project was a good opportunity to question our design practice. Delving into this complex notion was truly a moment of exchange and reflection within our team, a rare opportunity to take a step back from our design practice. By sharing this work, we can only invite you to pursue this reflection :

And for you, what is empathy ?

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