Empathy and difference

ARC620 | Fall 2020
Professor Adam Thibodeaux

The relationship between designer and user is inevitably marked by difference; in most cases, the designer’s lived identity and experiences are different than those of the user for which they design. These differences may be the direct or indirect result of language, race, sex, ability and physiology, among other factors. This difference is unavoidable, but should not be seen as restrictive. Inclusive design requires difference to be acknowledged, understood and bridged.

Empathy can be used as a tool for acknowledging and addressing difference between the designer and user. The notion of empathy is closely related to its historical precursor, sympathy, but takes on a more specific definition in the context of inclusive design. Where the two concepts do overlap, sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy implies imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have. Empathy is the ability to recognize, internalize and relate to difference.

As a technical methods course, students engaged methodology directly by enacting it. The seminar used its participants as its case studies. Throughout the semester, students alternatively assumed both the roles of user and designer, to understand difference and action empathy among the group. The group first learned to understand and articulate their own differences and how they impact relationships to space. Through introspection, vulnerability, and ultimately empathy, students then worked in pairs to assimilate these differences and design with them in mind.