Empathy, a Shift in Design Theory

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The full report of the Design Academy Eindhoven’s 2011-2012 school year opening symposium entitled “Our Way”. A Series of lectures, interactive workshops, and food design based on a new theme in design, Empathy.

Text of Empathy, a Shift in Design Theory


  • The full report of the Design Academy Eindhovens 2011-2012 school year opening symposium entitled Our Way. A Series of lectures, interactive workshops, and food design based on a new theme in design, Empathy.

  • If design embodies the materialization of our world, there must be so-cio-political meaning Rick Poynor

    Can designers and students take on the renewed belief in collabo-ration and compassion or has it always exists as a basic human trait? The Design Academys 2011-2012 academic year opened on Wednesday Sep-tember 7th with the Our Way symposium. A series of lectures and work-shops focused on this theme and brought together a gamut of musicians, scientists, design thinkers, journalists, educators and critics. Each of which discussed their different and sometimes clashing views on the cur-rent and future implications of empathy within this creative domain.

    The symposium officially opened with a spontaneous concert conduct-ed by Merlijn Twaalfhoven and preformed by the entire student body and faculty in attendance. The empathic value certainly played off of the mixed levels of skills working together in an almost harmonious musical expression. Tracy Metz, editor for the NRC Handelsblad and guest profes-sor at Harvards Graduate School of Design, continued by introducing the theme and program for the rest of the day.

    Next, arriving on stage was the academys newly formed management team, comprised of Annemieke Eggenkamp and Igor van Hooff as the board of direction with Ilse Crawford and Walter Amerika as their advisors. Eggenkamp: We are still in the fluxes of change, what do we want to be known for as a school? Coming back to the theme she addressed the stu-dent body, Its about the individual but society is asking to collabo-rate. Van Hooff promised that therell be lockers before Christmas. Crawford continued by stating that empathy is a delicate dance, nobody has a monopoly on being right. She talked about listening to others and the importance of individual vision but that clarity is necessary for the larger context of people who dont understand design. The preacher needs a sermon. Last but not least, Amerika was clear and concise, Em-pathy means success, creativity combined with empathy is success, and without empathy designers will not succeed.

    Getting the background --the practical, and socio-scientific defi-nition for this somewhat hard to grasp notion, Roos Vonk, Professor of Social Psychology at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, began her lec-ture entitled The Social Animal, by Involving the audience in a per-haps generic test to see how we are influenced by those around us. She proved that as much as we like to think of ourselves as, being alone in a crowd of sheep, we are constantly effected by our surroundings. Ac-cording to Vonk empathy is seeing your own behavior through others eyes and their multiple perspectives. Individualism is still important as she mentioned a quote from T.S. Eliots Alice in Wonderland, if you dont know where youre going, any road will take you there. She al-ludes to the fact that revealing oneself is not about being intention-ally different. Tracy Metz synthesized Vonks message quite well, There are two poles, courage and collaboration.

  • Two more lectures followed, each providing a change in perspec-tives. Though difficult in even coming close to their professed anti-em-pathic mantra, Lernert and Sander presented a few of their video pieces based on the idea of Designing Dialogue. Perhaps they were anti-empathic in their display of ego though the film clip looking at how artists at-tempt to explain their work to their parents was a well-conceived idea, actually much more related to the idea of plain and simple empathy. Social design put into self-improving practice was shown in the third lecture given by Bas Raijmakers, the creative director of STBY (Design Strategies Through Empathy) and Marianne Guldbrandsen from the British Design Council. Working in a team of mix qualification is the future and designers are crucial members within these collaborations. They can be-come catalyst even as ethnographic researchers.

    After a few hours of mental nourishment, the audience needed some physical nourishment as lunch was served. This was no ordinary lunch as the crowd of what appeared to be a massif student body and faculty, the amount of people you never see in the academy at any other point in the school year, pushed through to the next room. the Andre Amaro Collective provided burritos, chiseled chocolate formed into religious artifacts, and Dutch herring . Maarten Kolk and Guus Kusters designed the visual identity of the space. Though the crowd was large, this was an opportu-nity to reconnect and discuss the morning lectures.

    The workshops began with the sound of a bell. Each person in at-tendance received a screen printed colored newspaper in accordance with a certain table on which one of the ten workshops took place. Bringing a randomly selected group of students, who might or might not have known each other before. Certainly bridging the gap between different years.

    Merlijn Twaalfhoven hosted a workshop entitled EnJOINg the music in which he talked about the collaborative nature between musicians and the world of theater. How interactions between these seemingly linked creative domains are not always so evident. How does an orchestra that is accustomed to a much quicker process of learning music play off of a group of dancers who require a lot more time to develop and rehearse a short piece, a three act play, or even a full opera. This interesting example led the workshop into an interactive spontaneous musical experi-ment. Everyone was given a music stick, they were first asked to use them in making random sound however they felt, then they were asked to play off of each other, and eventually a blind concert was created with no lack of harmony and silent notes pulsating in and out. Music is un-doubtedly collaborative and in turn empathic. Another workshop discussed how empathy is crucial in the need for social interaction to catch up with the rapid developments in web technology. On the otherside of the room, a Fischli and Weiss falling dominos like contraption was put into action and analyzed as a group effort. They concluded that, it was hard to start. Many other discussions and hands-on workshops filled the af-ternoon.

  • The day ended with an enlightened explosion of clarity and sparked discussion thanks to the lecture given by Rick Poynor, a British jour-nalist focusing on design and art culture, entitled Redesigning Design, The Future of Empathic Design. Certainly setting the tone on how de-sign is thought about within this Academy and how a major shift is un-avoidable. Design Thinking, is for Poynor a term marketed by busi-ness rather then the design community. The criticism that existed twenty years ago within this creative domain has moved away from the designer and his work and is now based on commercialized buzzwords such as em-pathy. Though many of these one-liners begin with substance, they are transformed and misinterpreted. In essence Poynor made an appeal to the student body by asking them to return to the fundamentals of design, working for a greater good and using the right tools to solve urgent is-sues. In the same way, it must be possible to push the notions of design theory further and begin to consider philosophy and the social sciences as vital aspects within the creative process. In response, the questions piled up but the ultimate one that still needs to be answered is how we can change and adapt within the next year, decade, and so on? There must be a fine balance between deep theory and skilled materialization while dealing with the global issues ahead. Are you an empathic designer?