Effective design solutions address the needs of the audience for whom the design has been created. Thus, to design for audience requirements, design processes often begin with empathy. This perspective highlights the need to teach undergraduate art and design education students to begin process planning for designs with empathy. Students need to develop the capacity to understand others as integral for meaningful design, however, multiple studies document declining empathy in undergraduate students. These factors inspired a study of how to teach students to design empathically. This paper includes reflections on the initial development of an empathic design curriculum and ongoing revisions that have resulted in increased student understanding of both empathy and empathic design. Based on the belief that empathic awareness allows designers to understand others and therefore to consider problems from different perspectives, both the IDEO and Stanford d. school design thinking processes begin design problem solving with empathy. Understanding the process of design from this perspective, sparked personal interest in teaching students to be empathic designers because developing empathy has value throughout life. I teach undergraduate design classes to art education students and believe that empathy not only has the capacity to result in more effective design solutions but also that empathy development can help students as they tackle issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. This inspired me to investigate how to teach empathy effectively in art and design education. I was further convinced that this was a valuable endeavor when my preliminary investigations revealed that empathy is a changeable trait that can be developed and taught. In 2011, Coplan said that empathy was a complex and imaginative process that allows a person to replicate the psychological states of another. While truly understanding the psychological state of another person may not be entirely possible, it is certainly worth trying to do so in a world where considering the lives and experiences of others requires understanding for appropriate change to happen. Initial classes on designing empathically have revealed that while students are quickly able to learn simple definitions of empathy they are not as adept at internalizing what it means to consider the experience of others in their designs. They consistently wrote empathic statements from their own perspectives and premised their design solutions on personal interpretations. A change occurs, however, once students realize that truly understanding the audience for whom they are designing provides them with insights into original and successful solutions. Not only do they become more able to think empathically but they also grow increasingly more confident in their ability to experiment widely when they are generating ideas, which results in more nuanced art and design work. As successive classes have worked with this developing curriculum, it has been revised and refined. The current structure allows time for authentic practice and repeated iterations so that students build on their growing understanding as the class progresses. In addition to an increasing comprehension of the best ways to introduce the concept of empathy, the value of exemplars and frequent opportunities for revision has become notably apparent. The benefits of this focus have been demonstrated by increasingly empathic student interactions with each other during the past years of pandemic stress.

Author: Michelle Wiebe

Published in: Canada International Conference on Education, 2022

  • Date of Conference: 21-23 June, 2022
  • DOI: 10.20533/CICE.2022.0033
  • Electronic ISBN: 978-1-913572-49-5
  • Conference Location: Virtual (Mississauga, Canada)