Empathy in Creativity and Design Thinking

Empathy in Creativity and Design Thinking

Philosophy December 12, 2012 / By Ben Weinlick
Empathy in Creativity and Design Thinking

How empathy is leading the way in creative fields

Originally posted on Think Jar Collective

The new RSA animate video, The Power of Outrospection is quite thought provoking and has gotten me  thinking about all kinds of links between empathy and creativity.

In the video, philosopher Roman Krznaric explores the idea that we live in a time that demands more empathic adventurers in all aspects of life.  Empathy not just so we act better towards others, but also because it helps us create better innovations, services and quality of life.  I was struck by the video because I think there is something in the zeitgeist these days that highlights the importance of empathy for creating.

empathy [ˈɛmpəθɪ] : The power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings

Empathy in Marketing

In the advertising world for instance, there is a lot  of talk about finding “the story”, because stories help us relate and empathize.


Empathy in Design

In realm of design, design-thinking is rooted in empathy, where you try to see from the perspective of a user of a given design or product.  There is a lot more to design thinking than that, but in a nutshell it is about human centered design where empathy is king.

Empathy in Human Services

In the social services field I’ve been striving to lead new thinking in, there is also a focus on empathy when designing quality support services.  For example, in the old days of social services, an institution or bunch of “experts” would often end up designing irrelevant services because the service model was not based on what the client needed and wanted but on what the system needed. In other words, there was a lack of empathy for the individual needs and wishes of the client. Nowadays, the best social service designers, are much like design thinkers; empathizing, inquiring more, testing ideas and always wondering if a proposed service is truly relevant to the person that uses the service.

Empathy in Creative Fields

One last example I have for this whole empathy thing being a big deal for creativity and innovation is something Greg Saunier of the band Deerhoof said in an interview I did with him a while back.  In the interview Greg was debunking the idea that the best creative ideas arise from an artist in isolation from others, and  stressed how important  it was for his creativity to try to see from the perspective of other people.  Greg said,

“Even when I am in isolation by myself working on a song or mix, I still have a kind of cast of imaginary characters in my mind that are somewhat based on real people that I’ve known over the years. I try to hear through their ears. I ask myself things like, What would a 5 year old think of this? What would a 70 year old think? What would someone who only listens to top 40? or someone who only listens to noise?  A lot of times that’s a creative thing for me to do.

Of course we also have the good fortune of being a band that goes on tour, so at a certain point I don’t have to imagine a listener. The listener is there. And it’s not about doing what others want, because surprise is key.  It’s not about doing what someone thinks they want, it’s about listening to their reaction, trying to sense it and then find a thrill in an unexpected place (laughing). Like find their ticklish spot and attack it when they least expect it.”

So, check out the video below, look more into  design thinking  and engage empathy in all areas of life and work. We already know empathy makes relationships rich, but more and more it is becoming recognized as a relevant lens to look through to help us be creative and get to better quality solutions in whatever domain we work in.



By  Ben Weinlick of Think Jar Collective


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