Empathy in Design

Empathy in design is a central idea that many designers are taught. But, several articles have come out against empathy. Empathy isn’t bad. We all have some form of empathy. It’s just that empathy can be used to reinforce an individual’s bias. It can also be used to separate one group from another.

“Empathy as it’s generally practiced ultimately subverts its own goals. It tends to reinforce ‘otherness’, promote anthropocentrism, and ignore ecological considerations.”

Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, is one of the main figures advocating against empathy. Bloom argues that “the world does not need more empathy; it needs less of it.” Empathy is “sugary soda, tempting and delicious and bad for us.” He states that empathy should be combined with reason, compassion, and self-control.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy deals with emotion. Action and designs based on too much emotion without reason can lead to bias.

“Empathy is easily exploited, marshalled on either side of the aisle to create not a bridge but an impasse of feelings.”

Thomas Wendt, in  Empathy as Faux Ethics, writes that the problem with empathy is that it has “become a crutch or shortcut for designers who mistake having empathy with doing good design.”

In order to make a good empathetic design, it requires the designers to “project themselves into the other’s perspective not just to appreciate their views, but also to turn that understanding into design interventions.” It’s a way for a designer to come in and solve the other’s problems. This framework assumes that “The Designer” possesses “a unique ability to access the psyche” of “The Other.”

In designs of today, “empathy is applied retroactively to fit a business-centric product into a human-centric frame. It becomes an ethical practice designers use to feel better about the potentially of making superfluous things that no one actually needs.”

“Empathy for commercial ends is simply marketing.”

This human-centered focus on design ignores the political, social, and ecological aspects of design. If humans are at the center, then “things like environmental sustainability, social justice, care for ourselves, economic equality…most political aspects of design, cannot be adequately considered.”

Again, none of the readings suggest that empathy is a bad thing. “Save for sociopaths, we all have it and use it every day.”

“It is this ubiquity that makes empathy in design such an unexciting topic. Worse than its banality, empathy has quickly become a catch-all concept for good design and ethical action…Real design skill is about realizing that empathy is a small part of a much larger system of influences, causes, and effects on the situation at hand.”


Thomas Wendt, Empathy as Faux Ethics
The Economist, The case for compassion, not empathy

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