I recently came across Chandan Gomes’ amazingly poignant work “A World of Dew” at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. In a few words and images, he conjured the heartbreak of the death of a child and the legacy she leaves through her crude but evocative crayon drawings. Apparently, he had gone to photographically record a children’s hospital, but when he saw the drawings on the wall, he traced the brief life of the young artist, and invoked her story in such a way that I, unconnected to either the artist or the protagonist, felt as if I had known them both for many years and was intimately a part of the story. This is fundamental to great art; the interconnectedness of emotions, especially when reacting to a visual narrative, where an artist has the potential to transcend the unfamiliar and touch a chord with enough strangers for it to be not just a random connection but a deliberate bond. Emotional honesty begets emotional response.
This has always been true about art, but over the last few decades this has also become increasingly true about design. Empathy, or “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another” (Merriam Webster dictionary) has become central to the design thinking process and human centered design. Human centered design, as its name suggests, is design that puts people at the heart of the process, rather than aesthetics or artfulness. Empathic research, which is now integral for a designer, is about being concerned with how a person feels and responds, and what motivates him or her, rather than the demographics of where s/he lives and how much moneys/he makes. Empathy, or the empathic approach enables designers to transcend any pre-conceived notions they might have and actually experience the life of the people they design for, so that they can also address what is felt but may not be stated.
At the Pune Design Festival this month, Ashoke Chatterjee, former Executive Director at the National Institute of Design, said “Design is the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes.” He went on to speak about the need for a values based foundation for design students, with an emphasis on empathy and intuition.
Why is this such a strong theme for the world at large, and particularly so for India, and why should designers, and specifically, design educators care? With the proliferation of products, technology, visual messaging and media, people have choices, responses, reactions and views about their experiences. Defining these in traditional ways meant dipping into the user-world and making quick judgments which translated into a design to be tested. Through the empathic approach, the designer has to become the user and connect in the experience at the level of feeling, rather than detached observation.
There is nothing in our education system that prepares us for this; in fact, in India, secondary education is so oriented towards dry disassociation, that students emerge from school full of facts, but with almost no self-awareness or consciousness of people and cultures outside their own. Therefore, in the first years of design education, it is critical to bring back the heart; and develop in students the ability to empathize and get into the skin of the diversity of the world around them, to enable them to become responsive, empathetic designers in the future.
Dean – Sushant School of Design, Ansal University