Illustration by Daniela Olejníková

In Mark Twain’s The Prince and the the Pauper, two boys—the soon to be King of England and the son of a beggar and thief—switch clothes and swap lives. In the end, the experience, which put the young prince in rags, made him a more just ruler because he better understood the daily lives of his subjects. Likewise, designers often go to great lengths to walk a mile in the shoes of their consumers—but despite what most companies would have you believe, the goal isn’t always to create a better product.

At its best, empathy is a tool to break down prejudices and increase understanding in micro-relationships, creating large-scale, positive social change. At its worst, it’s a buzzword businesses use to mask their true motives. 

In 1979, industrial designer Patricia Moore conducted her well-known Elder Empathic Experience to better understand what it was like for older people to use common household products. In order to design something her 86-year old grandmother could operate comfortably, Moore went method, wearing uneven shoes to make walking difficult, fogging her glasses, and binding her hands to simulate arthritis. She found that it was impossible, for example, to use a typical can opener or vegetable peeler. As part of the team working on product design for OXO, Moore helped create the company’s innovative Good Grips line of kitchen tools, with thick, rubber handles that are easy to grip, spin, and turn. It’s one of the company’s most successful product lines, and it all started with a deeply empathetic design process.

Understanding your customer’s needs and desires in order to create products they’ll love and want to buy is nothing new. In fact, you could call it the gold standard of business. Which makes me wonder: is all the fuss lately about empathic design simply feel-good verbal packaging for age-old business practices? Has empathy gone from being a design process to a sales pitch?

Roman Krznaric of The School of Life in London and founder of the world’s first digital Empathy Library calls this “empathy marketing.” When businesses use empathy, he argues, they’re only “stepping into someone else’s shoes to sell them another pair.”

Take design thinking, another great buzzword of our age, which is “rooted in empathy, where you try to see from the perspective of a user of a given design or product… In a nutshell it’s about human centered-design where empathy is king.” 

IDEO has even created an entire methodology around empathic design, but it can still be difficult to define it. “Most significantly,” says IDEO, “empathic design was identified as a way to uncover people’s unspoken latent needs and then address them through design. By responding to real, but unexpressed and unmet needs, design empathy promised to bring financial reward.” It breaks down like this:

  1. Designers use empathy to create better products.
  2. Businesses want to sell better products.
  3. Ergo, businesses want design—and as John Maeda pronounced at SXSW, they’re willing to pay for it.

Empathic design might be about compassion, but it’s also about expanding business. Creating products that meet real consumer needs only gets you halfway there. You then need to sell those products, of course, and as consumers look towards corporations to be more compassionate, corporations are meeting that need by retooling their marketing to appear more “human.” In the best-case scenario, designers use empathy as a tool in their design process and the company then touts that empathy as a product attribute in its sales pitch. The problem comes when marketing is the only place empathy is used. The result? For my part, I’d rather assume all empathy marketing is a sham than unwittingly buy into false advertising.

Maybe that’s a cynical point of view. Maybe this really is part of a larger trend toward more compassionate companies that make it their business to leave the world a better place. It’s just hard to see it yet.

We’ve talked a lot about empathic design in theory—but how is it put into practice? We recently heard from Piera Gelardi, AIGA NY board member and co-founder and creative director of Refinery29, and her brother Pepin Gelardi, partner of product design and engineering consultancy Tomorrow Lab, on the opening night of Sub Rosa’s “Applied Empathy” speaker series.

Within a business itself, empathy can be used to improve the day-to-day work environment and to foster collaboration. “So much of creativity is letting your guard down—being able to throw crazy shit out there and brainstorm,” said Piera.

Mess up, learn from the process, and move on. As a leader, if you’re not okay with small failures, your employees won’t experiment.

Empathy is about understanding how other people feel, according to Piera, “Being creative is finding out what different people think.” It can be as simple as making an effort to get out of your office every day and interact with people. When you try new things and bring those experiences back to your work, the effects may be hard to quantify over time, but they underlie every new connection you make. 

But when it comes to running an empathetic business, at some point you have to think in terms of the bottom line. When does qualitative thinking play a role? According to IDEO, “as designers, we find that empathy helps businesses create and measure success in new ways. After all, the broadest definition of design is that it transforms current situations into preferred ones. When these preferred situations align with the goals of multiple stakeholders, everyone benefits. This is the promise of human-centered and empathic design.”

Can you really strike a balance between using empathy to design a legitimately better product, and using empathy to increase your profit margins without sounding insincere? Ironically, my ability to empathize with a business’ need to drive sales—on empathically designed goods or not—only reveals how shallow the word has become. And if they could really empathize with me, they’d find another, more honest way to sell me their product.