Screen Shot 2019-03-08 at 3.50.16 PM.png

Can the Design Process Teach Empathy?

Building empathy with the user, or Human Centered Design, first popularized by IDEO is now widely viewed as a critical component for products and businesses alike. But what Is empathy? Sometimes we hear a word so often it can lose its meaning. There’s a great animated short on the difference between empathy vs. sympathy by Dr. Brene Brown. She defines empathy as feeling with people. I think at the heart of it empathy is a form of seeking - seeking out the familiarity with the ‘other’. If I can understand what the ‘other’ is feeling I can actively seek out that same feeling in myself. Is that person sad? I remember feeling sad once. Is that person angry? I remember one time I was so angry I yelled out my car window! How about you? If I can make a connection between the other person’s emotion, and a memory of my own, we are in it together. We are feeling together. 

Empathy is a word of action, it is like a running towards, not a sitting by. Just like running - empathy is tiring. I don’t want to get up early and go for a run. I don’t want to move towards you, but that is ok. The expectation should be that empathy is a struggle - a process we can learn together.

Can the design help facilitate cognitive thinking, and guide students towards connection? Empathy requires imagination, and creativity. Another reason arts education is so important in schools, and the addition of ‘A’ in ‘S.T.E.M’ is crucial. In this five part residency I transform the classroom into an Innovation lab, and ask the students to begin thinking like designers. Each session focuses on steps in the Design Process guiding the class towards deeper inquiry and learning. In the end the goal is not the final design results but rather the discovery, the thinking, and the connecting.

Day 1: The Design Process

In the first session we breakdown the differences between Art and Design, and learn the importance of teamwork in problem solving. The students learn the various roles in a design team, watch a great video on Google X’s ‘Design Kitchen’ and the way prototypes help designers, “build fast, and break stuff.” Each student receives a Design Journal to keep their ideas, sketches, and discoveries throughout the residency.

The Design Process:

  • Defining the Problem

  • Empathy Map

  • Ideation & Sketch

  • Prototype Building

  • Test

  • Re-Design

Day 2: Our Design Challenge

A local pet store has hired us! The owner wants to sell a new toy for lonely pets left at home. How can we engage our user?

Empathy Building

Using design principles, namely the UX tool of empathy mapping and persona building, the students begin the process of identifying with ‘other’. I show the class a stuffed animal dog named "Sadie," throughout our time together Sadie will be our user. In table groups students focus on the dog's lonely feelings to begin the early steps of perspective taking. The students discuss with their peers a time when they also felt lonely, and if someone in their life shared the gift of empathy.

Day 3: Ideation & Sketches

The students learn the essential stage in the design process: Ideation. We start out small, and let word association build to bigger ideas. Ideation is a great way to problem solve, in design, but also in life. From the ideation stage, the students are then prompted to begin sketching out their ideas.

Day 4-5: Prototype Building! Test, Revise, Present

On the last couple days of the residency, we build! It is so fun to watch the students’ ideas start to take shape. Before I arrive on the first day I ask the students (i.e. the parents) to save recycled materials, and bring them in for us to use. The recycled paper materials are great for prototype building. The materials help reinforce the idea that these are just tests, not sacred objects. We are thinking through the making, we want to build fast and break stuff! We are designers after all!


“I had the pleasure of hosting Sarah Shoemaker's Teaching Artist Residency this winter called Innovation Lab. I couldn't recommend Sarah and her residency enough. She proved to be extremely professional, compassionate, and knowledgeable about her craft and teaching. She was able to build excitement around inquiry with the students in a relatively short time as well as build relationships and trust with some of my more challenging students. It was a complete joy working with her!”

Mrs. Jennifer Finke, 4th Grade Teacher, Vestal Elementary School