The Making of the Empathy Collective!

Posted on July 1, 2011


In the train to Lancaster University for the Design PhD Imagination Conference, Paula and I had a great chat about empathy, and realised that what most of us are trying to do, is to unfold potentials. Following up from a conversation we had during a great lecture at Kingston University with Paul Micklethwaite, we feel that, while design is generally defined as a problem-solving process, it’s not really constructive to restrict it to this negative definition. Especially when, in fact, designers have mostly been problem-seekers, or even problem-inventors:

“Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered shoe horns and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people.” (Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1984)

The “problems” that these gadgets (or in fact, most contemporary innovations) are supposed to solve have been “designed” or “socially constructed”: they are only problems because society has defined them as a problems.

We prefer to see design as an opportunity-seeking process, and designers as resourceful activists, who see potential to effect positive change in whatever they have at their disposal.

One thing we have learnt from the course is that designing for sustainable development or social change requires to open the design process to end users, to put people at the centre, and to empower individuals and communities to take ownership of change. At the heart of all this is engagement. And as Paula said so well, meaningful engagement needs empathetic approches. Not only designers need to empathise with people to discover their true needs, but they also need to provoke empathy, to help people empathise with the cause and take action.

This is why we got really excited about forming the Empathy Collective, an agency of creative individuals passionate about listening to people and unfolding their potentials. We believe everyone has something to offer, and that this is what society needs to value. We need to move from a problem-based perception of the world to an asset-based one.

To put this into practice, we have a little project, in which we’d like people to participate. We believe everyone is an expert in a particular area. Everyone is “Director” of something. You might have a really communicative laugh. In this case, you deserve the title of Director of Laughter. Or you might be particularly organised. Then you could be the Director of Boxes, if you wanted to.

So, let us know what you are good at, send us a picture demonstrating it, and we will send you your Director certificate!


By Fan Sissoko