Design Thinking & Compassion: A Perfect Pairing

We recently shared a conversation between designer Shahrzad and lifestyle medicine expert Parneet about the secret power of compassion.  

In this piece, they share how integrating compassion into the design process can support a more successful practice of design.

The Key Similarities 

There are many similarities between design-thinking and compassion, which makes them a natural fit. 

Parneet Pal: Both start with empathy for the user/the other, along with a sense of optimism and a bias towards action – a desire to engage our efforts in such a way that we solve problems, remove obstacles and reduce suffering (for users; for those we see who are in pain). 

Iteration and prototyping is fundamental to design. Similarly, all contemplative or meditative practices, including compassion – whether done formally sitting on a cushion or exercised through our thought, word and action – are by nature, iterative. To go from novice to experienced, we need to navigate the inevitable and innumerable moments of doubt, failure, boredom and frustration that show up. In fact, these are indispensable opportunities to hone our self-compassion: pause, breathe, acknowledge the difficult emotion, realize we’re not alone in feeling this way and then offer ourselves some kindness. What happened that threw us off our path? How might we design a more successful practice with that insight?

Designing is a team effort from concept to finished product, with numerous stakeholders in the mix. From an evolutionary standpoint, our capacity for compassion grew out of the need for a mother to bond with her offspring, for members of a tribe to connect and protect each other. This has been described as “survival of the kindest” rather than the “survival of the fittest” – the latter being mistakenly ascribed to Charles Darwin (he was a champion of sympathy and kindness, rather than competition). In the 21st century, this translates to the advantage that compassionate cultures and communities have – the power and spirit of collaboration and interconnectedness, rather than competition and social isolation.

The Opportunities for Design Process

Looking across the design process, there are key areas where compassion can augment design. 

1. Empathy for user stage:

If designers were taught the nuances and differences between empathy and compassion, and trained in this skill – to recognize when they were being overwhelmed/distressed by their empathy and then to switch to compassion – it could potentially go a long way in preventing fatigue, cynicism, and burnout.

So from a purely self-care perspective, building a designer’s capacity for compassion might mean more engaged and energized design. And hopefully longevity in their careers!

2. Iterating, prototyping and testing stage: 

Since building the skill of compassion literally turns on the physiology of calm, courage and confidence in the brain – this could be beneficial when designers encounter confusion, doubt, failure and frustration during prototyping; to not give up, and have faith in their design and in the process itself. 

3. Broader, societal and ethical perspective:

As we build our capacity for compassion, it is inevitable that the focus shifts from ourselves to others. Within the design process – this might mean a shift from a narrower focus on just the user – to all the stakeholders involved; and then from there to the ramifications or consequences that the design might have for society or humanity in general. Is my design a force for good in the world? If not, how might I leverage my curiosity and creativity to enable that?

Design Process + Compassion Sequence

By Shahrzad Samadzadeh

The Opportunities for Design Culture 

Compassion can integrate into what we already do, but it can also be a beneficial additional step. 

Parneet Pal: Beyond the design process itself, I see a place for designers to create a compassionate culture in their own workplace – and by extension for the design community.

The organizational research literature finds a myriad of benefits of being part of a compassionate work culture, where the norm is one of kindness and helping others:

  • It shapes the meaning we give to ourselves at work – feeling more capable and authentic
  • It hones our relationships by creating a sense of psychological safety, trust and high quality connections with colleagues
  • It makes it more likely that we subscribe to and are proud of the values that our organization stands for
  • The company benefits by having a reputation for attracting great talent and being a place where people want to stay because they get to do high quality work, showing up as their best selves

On a very practical level, such workplaces have a social architecture that includes:

1. Leadership and values that align with the idea of a shared humanity and the notion of giving as good

2. Strong connections and networks within the culture

3. Established routines or ways of getting things done that can be improvised when needed within the context of giving:

  • Acknowledging/celebrating: employee milestones, contributions 
  • Addressing conflicts: communicating and solving in a timely and direct manner
  • Bounded play: expressions of fun with focus at work
  • Collective decision making: making it more inclusive
  • Helping: monitoring needs and being proactive with help

This kind of social architecture is then able to respond to difficult situations by unlocking its resources more efficiently: social support, emotional support, material/financial support, task and time flexibility – all done at a speed, scale and level of customization that makes the individual and company come out of adversity with renewed resilience.

The Takeaways

We’ve given you an overview of how compassion overlaps with, can augment, and can add to design. Now what?

Shahrzad Samadzadeh: I tend to practical and strategic action. Compassion is powerful and central to the practice of design. What can we do with our knowledge of compassion?

For practitioners of design:

  • Exercise care when engaging with empathy and compassion. Don’t forget to turn those skills inward, both to your organization—and to yourself!
  • Choose the right tools from your toolbox. This means not just design tools or methods, but also emotional tools from your empathy and compassion toolbox. 
  • Recognize your own power. You can go deep into human needs, and you can use that insight to inform outputs that have enormous ripple effects in the world. Use your power for good!

For design leaders:

  • There are many words out in the world about building design culture, the importance of design culture, etc. You are likely already doing work to distribute design thinking throughout your organization. Keep it up!
  • As you share design throughout your workplace, your organization, and your community, don’t forget about compassion. It overlaps with design, but also has unique qualities. When cultivated as a corporate value, compassion can yield outsized benefits. 

What else have you achieved with compassion? What do you hope to achieve? We’d love to hear from you! Reach to us on twitter @Parneet_Pal and @ShahrSays.

Parneet Pal

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