By Charles James, Director of the D!Lab

One of the earliest evolutionary feelings that led to action for humans was empathy. The human ability to internalize and react to the feelings of others was transformational. At The D!Lab, we believe empathic design is one of the strongest elements of the design process. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, which in turn is not the same as compassion. Students need the exposure to and experience with different people and perspectives in order to move beyond the narrow bandwidth of sympathy so that they can experience empathy.

The D!Lab’s newest visual – The D!Lab Scale of Thinking, Understanding, and Engagement – insightfully juxtaposes feelings, reactions, and actions. In the center, we consider some feelings that humans possess. Notice the primacy of compassion and empathy as feelings. While compassion is a generalized feeling, empathy is a deeply personal one. The powerful duo of compassion and empathy produces action. In schools and classrooms, our goal should be to shrink the empathy deficit of our students. To do this, students must experience the world by hearing what is hard to hear, seeing what is hard to see, and then doing what seems hard to do. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, “Everything seems hard until it’s designed.”

Design is an art form matched with precise math and governed by the principles of science that collectively guides the eyes, hands, and hearts of students. The design process allows young people to fiercely imagine the future. The process is as valuable as the product. While the design-thinking methods we employ are revelatory and important, the motive to create and to solve problems on behalf of others is even more powerful. We call this empathic or human-centered design.

It is easy to view design thinking as merely a technology-driven approach to problem-solving. It is not. Removed from the machine-dominated enterprise of making, design thinking has a greater purpose. We want our students to be architects of a better future for everyone. We want student design to be human-centered, eco-friendly, and applied to achieve justice, equity, and belonging for all.

The empathic design process provides a map for progress, but the compass that guides our models and maps for the future are born deep within us. Human-centered design confronts one’s personal ideals and magnifies them through the reality of another’s life and circumstances.

Empathic design is all about improving the conditions that frame our daily experience as well as the experience and circumstances of others. Design thinking is an intrinsically humanistic discipline tethered to the very core of our existence – our beliefs. Notice the framework for reactions on the left side of the image; this modified Riddle Scale (Riddle, 1974) highlights the progression of reactions from repulsion to belonging. As a person moves up the hierarchy of feelings, so too do we move up the hierarchy of reactions. As our reactions and feelings change, so too do our actions. We move from the personal work of immersing and engaging with others, to ultimately acting and advocating through the inventions, processes, environments, and policies we design.

Design thinking is not clever enough to change indifference or worse yet, ignorance, but soulful creativity and innovation can frame the dimensions and outcomes of our future. Empathic design thinking matters in education because people matter. Empathic design sparks deeply personal aspects of beliefs and reactions while expanding academic connections, leveraging skills, engaging with others – all in the pursuit of fulfilling humanity’s need to belong.