For Design’s Sake, Please Vote

In this piece, a designer and a lifestyle medicine expert discuss the role of empathy in design and in our lives. Through reflection and discussion, they reveal the shortcomings of empathy—and the power of compassion.

In 1992, we established a new breed of consultancy that brought a unique kind of thinking to design and technology. We called it Cooper. It was daring back then to think about the user first, and it required a lot of new tools and approaches for humanizing technology. We realized that in order to thrive we needed a deeply empathetic viewpoint throughout a product’s or service’s life cycle. We invented personas and other design thinking tools to help us deeply understand human behaviors, goals, and motivations. The key to our success was, and continues to be, in hiring a diverse group of very smart people with a variety of interests, backgrounds, and perspectives who care about the impact technology is having on our world. Diversity in thinking grounded by deep empathy for our users converged, creating a new practice that has become key to success for countless organizations.

As I reflect on what makes our company thrive I can’t help but apply it to this year’s Presidential Election. What happens to a country that loses diversity and empathy? Anti-empathetic, de-humanizing statements are detrimental to our society. A reduction in diversity means we lose the power of collective thought, we sacrifice finding the best solutions, we lose hope for creating and designing a better future for our world. What would happen if our product and service research only encompassed white straight males over 40 years old? Now apply that impact to our great nation. Ouch.

As designers, we feed our empathy engines by purposefully exposing ourselves to end users of the products and services we design. We remain vigilant for signs of self-referential thinking to make sure we are designing for the right people, not for ourselves or people like us. 

When we interview potential new designers to our practice, we listen for evidence of their obsession to design for the other, not for the self. And listen for the same in politicians: an obsession with serving the electorate, ALL of the electorate, not just their party or special interests. To be fair, politicians have a difficult design challenge indeed in that they are crafting legislation that should benefit all of us. So much greater, then, is their responsibility to feed their own empathy engines by exposing themselves to the full breadth of experience in their constituency, ideally through meeting directly with constituents or by surrounding themselves with advisors who are capable of representing their needs.

So when we consider this election, do we see any signs of self-referential design?

Thanks to WikiLeaks we have an example from a paid speech Clinton gave:

“And now, obviously, I’m kind of far removed because the life I’ve lived and the economic, you know, fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy, but I haven’t forgotten it.”

Source: Wikileaks

Tony Carrk fretted that this quote amounted to Clinton admitting “she’s out of touch.” But of course she’s out of touch! Do we want leaders who pretend they understand the struggles of average people, or ones who acknowledge they are far removed and work to bridge that gap?

By contrast, consider Trump reflecting on how he got his start in business:

“It has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.”

Source: CNN

A million dollars in 1975 (the year Trump said he received this small loan) is worth $4.5M today. It may be true that Trump considers $4.5M to be a small amount of money, but how many Americans could say the same? For context, consider that the median income in the US is about $52,000. 

Choosing a president is not the same as hiring a designer. If it were, I certainly know who would win points for recognizing they are designing not for the self but for the other.

A word for the rest of us: whatever the outcome of the election, roughly half of your fellow citizens will be disappointed, some bitterly so. While we can hope the winner cultivates empathy for all of us and governs accordingly, it’s a good time for all of us to work harder to empathize with those who are on the opposite side politically. 

Diversity of perspective makes for stronger products, stronger companies, and a stronger nation. Diversity is another layer of empathy, another way to understand ourselves, and a way to improve our world. This election has the potential to reverse much of the progress we have made in building an inclusive, diverse, empathetic society.

For the sake of the design industry, and our society, please vote.

Sue Cooper

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