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Empathy Trumps Bravado: the Role of Emotion in Design

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 04/10/2017 | 8 Minute Read

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By: Lisa Maltby

Whether we are designing for a product, a service or an advertising campaign, we all want solutions that fulfill a purpose; designs that sell products or have great influence. The problem is that although we care about the end result of the designs we create, we still have set ideas in our heads about how to get there. Sure, we might say we want an influential product design, but what does that actually mean? And more than that, what does empathy have anything to do with how we get there?

Many follow the notion that the path to greater success is to remove emotion from the work process, but what if I told you that I have found the most success in my work by being more sensitive: developing listening skills and connecting emotionally? These traits are often seen as weaker in the creative industry, with design teams favouring those who boldly shout out ideas over those who prefer thoughtful consideration. With the creative industry at 62.8% male, masculinity has had a more dominant influence on the brands and advertisements we see day-to-day. But as much as we'd like to say that it is simply a matter of getting a more equal balance of males and females in the creative industry, we would be avoiding the challenges that come with that. We're fooled if we think our gender doesn't influence the designs we produce and the way we produce them. How we come up with ideas depends entirely on our existing values and how we work with others. The next generation are proving to be less defined by gender—they want authentic brands with an authentic voice, but authentic voices come from authentic ears. Empathy trumps bravado.

Fear not, if you visit the studio of an empathetic designer I’m pretty sure you will not enter some form of design therapy—as much as the world needs therapists, the job of a designer is not to help those with an addiction to Comic Sans, it is to help uncover the best visual solutions that connect with their clients and their consumers. Empathy is a learnt skill that benefits us regardless of gender; it is all about creating a value of connection—one that transcends into good design. Contrary to what others may have you believe about leaving all emotion at home, I would like to suggest that perhaps the creative industry needs to do exactly the opposite. No, I'm not talking about irrational emotion, but well-considered sensitivity. Good design involves emotion. Do consumers connect with your brand? Do they feel empowered? Does it make them laugh? Does it make them cry or angry, even? The power of empathy in advertising has a huge role in influencing consumers.

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I recently worked with a client who, on first meeting, was entirely different to me—a male professional who had a background in traditional engineering and manufacturing. My task was to create a brand for the coffee company he had gone on to establish, but his story was very much at the heart of why he now made coffee. My client had two strands to the business—not only making coffee, but fixing coffee machines as well. He had found a link between industry and coffee making and this was his unique selling point. His aspirations for the company included offering training and providing practical advice.

I found several methods useful in order to use empathy to make the design project a success:


I used the first meeting as a listening exercise and asked my client about his expectations for the project, his background, his competition, and general aspects about his company as well as him as a person. The agenda for the meeting was not just about design, it was about a strategy moving forward. I said very little and facilitated the conversation to gain more information in order to go away from the meeting with a basis to build ideas from. My client’s background in engineering inspired me to research traditional icons and shapes used in industry, one of which being the final diamond shape used in the logo.

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Picking up on subtleties

It’s amazing what someone can give away about themselves when you first meet them, not only through what they say but through their actions. For example, my client took the four flights of stairs instead of getting the elevator which gave me signals that the company had a hard work ethic at it’s core. This in part contributed to the conclusion that the name ‘Worker Coffee’ was a fitting one for the brand name. The client also refused my feeble offering of instant coffee, opting only to drink specialist coffee—this was a client who sought after quality and therefore the brand needed to reflect this. Of course picking up on subtleties is easier when you’re meeting one representative of a company, but pick up on a company ethos through the people you come into contact with and the way they interact with you, as well as the things they say.

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Understanding the client's point of view

I tried to think like my client. How did he go about selling the coffee? How did he market it? What did his day to day work look like? With two parts to his business—fixing coffee machines as well as selling coffee—his business was both relational and practical. He wanted to take the company to the next level, so the brand needed to be current yet have a nod back to the past. By having empathy with my client I was able to see things differently and think about the solution to the brand in more practical ways. As well as considering the usual brand collateral, I wanted to create an icon that had the potential of being engraved on metal, burnt onto wood or using other traditional manufacturing methods.

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Using intuition

Many people will tell you intuition is an unwise way to make decisions, but coupled with a good grounding in information, gut instinct can help to ask the right questions. For example, I felt it important to create mood boards in a slightly different way to previous clients, showing how my client’s aspirational brands and competitors differed in terms of tone of voice. This revealed that some of the initial requirements weren’t feasible—having a brand that was quirky and fun, for example, meant his other preferences for coming across as premium and educated may have been jeopardised. By creating incredibly specific mood boards I was able to clearly show the contradictions and establish a direction without spending time creating several designs that weren’t on the right lines.

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There have been a lot of studies in recent years surrounding the effectiveness of emotional intelligence, placing it above IQ for cultivating success. Emotional intelligence is based on—you guessed it—emotions. Do you show empathy towards those you work alongside? Are you positive? The chances are that the way you are with your co-workers will transcend into the way you are with your clients and your projects too. How do you deal with criticism, for example? Neither extreme of flying off the handle nor showing a blatant disregard for criticism are overly helpful. What if instead we found a place where we used sensitivity to its full advantage to bring positivity out of otherwise confrontational situations? This is the place where ideas are born; the place where the opportunity exists to develop listening skills, and yes, the place where good boundaries and assertiveness are needed. In the past, emotional intelligence has been regarded as something feminine, but as companies are seeing the effectiveness of training both male and females in EQ, those stereotypes are disintegrating.

Empathy is about uncovering ways of seeing things from someone else's point of view and this starts with those you work with, your influencers, your clients and ultimately their consumers. Evidence shows that a more diverse work force produces better financial rewards in the longer term. With a more diverse team comes more opportunity to develop empathy—there is a better environment to challenge norms, push boundaries and there is greater possibility of connecting with a broader range of people groups. We need to be creators who incorporate sensitivity and empathy into the heart of the creative process. We need to stop trying to conform to previous ways of working if we have hope of creating truly dynamic work and if we want to craft work with authenticity that truly connects with our audiences effectively.

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Lisa MaltbyLisa is a designer from the UK specialising in illustration and hand drawn lettering. She has worked for a variety of clients both within creative agencies and independently and has work featured on design blogs worldwide, including Design Taxi and Creative Boom. Her passion for the creative industry has inspired her to encourage the creative community, regularly writing articles and giving inspirational talks. Lisa is also passionate about food and drink, from trying out new dishes to collecting quirky illustrated packaging.