Designing for Empathy

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“Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

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Empathy has become a branding and marketing buzzword, where empathy is cultivated to create a business edge! There is also a growing interest in empathy amongst designers, not with the hope of selling more products, but with the intention to promote people’s wellbeing. For example, under a conference arranged by the Cumulus International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media in Hong Kong November 21–24 2016 one of the paper tracks was for open design for empathy.  Service design, co-design, critical design, participatory design, social design and universal design are just some of the design terms that have emerged over the last years as human-centred design has become the norm. 

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In the Pictogram-me project empathy was a relevant subject and in the original project description we asked:“How can a pictographic examination of various experiences and perceptions contribute to reflection on what it means to be human in a difficult life?” and “How can simple visual symbols encourage empathy?” We translated the word empathy as: “insight, solidarity and sharing feelings. Being empathetic means you have the ability to emotionally put yourself into another’s place, into another’s feelings and how another, with his background and history, experiences his situation” (Booth 2012). In addition, we should say that this understanding should guide your actions.

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There are many big thinkers writing about empathy and amongst those most used quotes is “do to others as you would have them do to you” Matthew 7:12/Luke 6:31. This is also called the golden rule. But the one I like the best is George Bernard Shaw’s “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.” Empathy is about discovering those tastes; this is the platinum rule: “Do unto others as they would have them done unto them.”

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Mimicry

A striking characteristic of human social interactions is nonconscious mimicry; people have a tendency to, and yet are unaware of, copying each other’s posture, mannerisms (verbal, facial, emotional) and behaviours. Yawning and laughing are typical spontaneous mimicries or imitations. Neuroscientists have found that mirror neurons are responsible for this human mimicry. Neuroscientist Marco Lacoboni (UCLA) has argued that mirror neuron systems in our brains help us to understand the actions and intentions of other people.

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“In addition, Lacoboni has argued that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy.”

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“Our mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking,” explains Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, an Italian neurophysiologist who works at the University of Parma. It is natural to have curiosity about strangers and concern for others, we are born with the capacity for empathy and it develops along with the development of our morality.  

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In 2016 The Bergen Academy of Art and Design invited Patricia Moore, known as ‘the Mother of Empathy’ for a talk and workshop for students. At the age of 26, Moore began an unprecedented immersive design experiment: she dressed up as an elderly woman wearing her grandmother’s clothes, uncomfortable shoes that she had difficulty walking in, plugs in her ears and thick glasses to distort her hearing and vision. She travelled to 116 cities in the United States and Canada, over a three year period, to study the lifestyle of elders. Her experience of ‘being an 80-year-old woman’ led her to later develop products such as the OXO Smart-Grip potato peelers that lay comfortably in the hands of both children and their grandparents. Moore has said: “Empathy is a constant awareness of the fact that your concerns are not everyone’s concerns and that your needs are not everyone’s needs... empathy is an ever-evolving way of living as fully as possible, because it’s ... pushing you into new experiences that you might not expect or appreciate until you’re given the opportunity.” 

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The Pictogram-me project involved contacting sales people of a street magazine, who told us about some of the offensive situations they experienced when they tried to sell the magazine in public areas. People who swore at them, or even spat at them and pushed them. But many described the most tiring situation as their invisibility; most passers-by ignored them as if they were not there. This feeling of nothingness, no value and non-existence was by far the most hurtful; their feeling of social division was amplified by this behaviour from people around them.  As one of them said:

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“You don’t have to stop and buy a magazine or even say hello, but I would really like you to nod, smile or look back at me, just to recognize my existence.”

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Distance and denial  

When tragedies occur, like child soldiers fighting and dying in the Congo, earthquakes in Papua New Guinea or starvation in Nigeria, then the great physical distance between us helps us to repress the disturbing information, we are able to turn a blind eye. But, ignoring a street magazine seller is also repressive and an unfortunate attitude towards a person who is actively trying to improve their situation, and they are here with us in our town. How is it possible for us to ignore our fellows, people in challenging situations? Is it because many of us enjoy privileged lifestyles, living in a time preoccupied with ‘introspection’ where the dominant norm is to pursue our personal desires, self-interest and materiality, that we have developed the ability to repress, to create distance and deny our ‘natural’ compassion for people with challenges? “Human beings are particularly skilled at protecting themselves by inventing convenient reasons why they need not take action to relieve the suffering of others.” (Krznaric, 2014). Protecting ourselves in our social structures for the advantaged, we let and expect the social welfare system to take responsibility for and to look after (make them disappear?) those people who have challenges or are in a ‘less advantaged’ social structure.  

 

We are more likely to have empathy for somebody if we believe that they are not responsible themselves for their own misfortune, as in physical challenges such as age and illness, whilst incarceration, substance misuse and other assertedly self-inflicted challenges, if possible, are regarded with less compassion.  

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Three kinds of Empathy 

In his book Empathy: A Social Psychological Approach, Psychologist Mark Davis (1996) has suggested that there are three important types of empathy: Perspective taking (Cognitive Empathy), Empathic Concern and Personal Distress (two kinds of empathy that other researchers call Affected Empathy). Perspective taking is when you are good at putting yourself into another’s shoes, to better understand where someone is coming from. But, it's not what we typically think of as empathy that is Empathic Concern, the ability to recognize another’s feelings, feel in tune with that emotional state, and, if it is a distressful emotion, show appropriate concern. Whereas Personal Distress is feeling another’s emotions and may lead to empathic overarousal. 

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We unexpectedly experienced empathic overarousal with a BA 3 course in 2012. In the course we endeavoured to give the students as many tools as possible to encourage empathy, through workshops including theory and practice: body movement/dance, anthropology, methodology and an introduction to designing with and for the theme group. The course was comprehensive and successful in creating empathy, a lot of empathy! The students’ insight into the situation of the challenged groups, and the empathy created with and for them, made it very difficult for the students to work visually. Surprisingly, their designer’s social consciousness became a burden of social responsibility rather than inspirational insight; their empathy killed their creativity.  

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The great degree of empathy encouraged in the Pictogram-me project also seemed to have a negative impact on the student’s ability to find “flow”. Professor in psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has studied flow, and describes flow as a sense of effortless action (Csikszentmihalyi, 1971, p.29). To be in flow also means to lose the focus on ‘the others’ and a too high degree of empathy and their good intentions, led our students to be too self-critical and judgemental towards their expected result. We have received feedback from other designers that they also recognise this conflict between involving users and finding flow, and this is an area that we find most interesting for further investigation. 

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In several BA courses over the years we have invited homeless people, street magazine sellers and former drug addicts to contribute to the project and to act as co-designers. We experienced that some of the homeless we visited, over a period of two weeks, looked forward to our visits. One gentleman started showering because he wanted to be more ‘presentable’ for us and another said he had never looked forward to talking so much. But what happened to them after our research time was over? “We received so much from them, in return we had shown our interest and concern only to totally disappear after the project time of two weeks. This impelled us to change our focus in the project from creating visual tools to help us designers to collect stories, to developing visual tools with the help of our theme groups as co-creators to tell and communicate their stories, tools to keep the stories, use them or change them. Not only designing for empathy but also with empathy. 

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Collective empathy 

The idea of collective empathy is especially relevant today because it counterbalances the highly individualistic focus of our modern self-help culture.

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“Empathy is, in fact, an ideal that has the power both to transform our own lives and to bring about fundamental social change,”

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Author and social thinker, Jeremy Rifkin, asks:"Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?" in his TED-talk on empathic civilizations (Rifkin, 2010)

he discusses how a collective empathic civilization could counter challenges such as global warming. And how we could stretch our sensibility and solidarity to an extended family in an empathic and collective civilization. 

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A strong experience of collective empathy during the Pictogram-me project was from the Røst ‘User’ conference in Bergen 2016 with over 500 participants. The empathy for each other’s situation was shown through unlimited support and encouragement to their fellows, whether they were represented by others or making presentations themselves. They were welcome to share their challenges, challenges they had overcome and challenges they were still facing. This empathy was created because they had shared the same shoes.  

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Our contribution to the participants of the conference and users in Bergen was the testing and presentation of the PictoTheatre, created with feedback and prototype development from different potential users. The PictoTheatre is a tool using cut-out pictogram figures and a ‘scene’ with a ‘stage’ and backdrop. This simple tool enables you to tell your stories more easily, using pictograms can help breach the barrier of language. As pictograms are neutral, and traditionally impersonal, it also makes it easier for our theme representatives to tell us stories whilst remaining anonymous. “For the first time I felt I was able to explain to my mother how a specific situation in my childhood affected me. It’s not that easy when you only have words. Now I feel I’m ready to move on,” reported one of our participants. If you photograph/record these pictographic stories, you can more easily share them and help create empathy with people who have not been in exactly the same shoes, for example your family and friends, and in meetings with doctors and helpers you can re-show your story, not having to repeat the same story verbally whenever you get a new helper.

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Although our pictograms are impersonal their neutrality has been proved to be their strength as an alternative to using more ‘realistic’ illustrations, which can be emotionally loaded. A pictogram can be used to tell stories rather than telling a story itself, it can represent reality yet avoids narrative conflicts and personal traumas. Our theme group participants have shown a surprising affinity towards pictograms; they are so recognizable from signage and interfaces that surround us daily, that their familiarity is reassuring. We have endeavoured to use an established and standardized visual language, so in choosing the pictograms for the PictoTheatre we have ‘borrowed’ and simplified pictograms from road signage and transport companies, Isotype and DOT and smartphones to ensure that they are as familiar as possible. Pictograms are our helpers presenting information, directing or warning us, their presence is to help and guide us. They are designed for maximum familiarity, to convey information not emotion, therefore the Pictogram‘s neutrality is empathic. 

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Conclusion 

In addition to the PictoTheatre we have created a Pictogram-me font, based on figures from the PictoTheatre, you can type your stories with pictograms and it is possible to add more figures. We also see the potential of a PictoBooth that will use pictogram generation from movement and physical sensors to see and feel your daily form. We have published Web-, Instagram and Facebook sites for interaction with the public for personal drawings and downloadable pictograms.  

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Here in Norway, where we have a population of around 5,2 million people, there are many of us who have very serious challenges and some of us with more common challenges According to www.ssb.no we are: 18,2 % immigrants and norwegian-born to immigrant parents, 5.3 % unemployed, 14 % 67 years of age or more, 10,5 % registered with disability, 10 % smokers and 30 % overweight or obese, these are amongst other challenges (Statistics Norway, 2020). Whether we define ourselves as having a challenge or no,t we are still members of a society with many challenges and in the development of the PictoTheatre project it is our hope to continue to promote a little empathy for us all. “Empathy is also the ability to understand and respect your own thoughts and feelings.” (Olivia Xiaoou Ji MAD1, Bergen 2020) 

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References: 

Batesen, M. C. (2010). Composing a further life. New York, USA: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Bernard Shaw, G. (1903). Man and Superman. Cambridge, USA: University of Massachusetts Press

Blakeslee, S. (2006). Cells That Read Minds.The New York Times [online]Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/science/cells-that-read-minds.html?_r=0 [accessed 05.10.2016]

Booth, A. (2012). Pictogram-me – A visualization of a difficult life. Project description, Research Catalogue Available at: https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/157238/157386

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The Psychology of Engagement with everyday Life. New York, USA: Basic Books, p. 29.

Davis, M. H. (1996). Empathy: A Social Psychological Approach. Boulder, USA: Westview Press

Davis, Ray A. (2010). The Power to be You: 417 Daily Thoughts and Affirmations for Personal Empowerment. Framingham, USA: Posidigm Press

Krznaric, R. (2014). Empathy: Why it matters, and how to get it. New York, USA: Penguin Random House, p. 46.

Riggio, R. E. (2011). Are You Empathic? 3 Types of Empathy and What They Mean. Psychology Today [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201108/are-you-empathic-3-types-empathy-and-what-they-mean [accessed 02.11.2016]

Rifkin, J. (2010). The empathic civilization. TED conferences [video] Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/jeremy_rifkin_on_the_empathic_civilization [accessed 09.11.2016]

Rizzolaatti, G. (2011). Mirror Neurons. Gocognitive [online]Available at: http://www.gocognitive.net/interviews/giacomo-rizzolatti-mirror-neurons [accessed 05.10.2016]

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