An Introduction to Empathic Design

To be truly successful with our designs, it’s important to create spaces that aren’t just about form and function, but also about feeling. We can’t only rely on beauty to elicit that “right” feeling.

When elevating your design above the ordinary, seek first to understand what people will do within the space and then design for that total experience, from the practical matters to the mood you’d like to evoke.

Let’s take a conference room as an example. You can answer the question of function by finding a table, chairs, and artwork for the space. And you can solve form by the stylistic elements you add. 

But to answer the question of feeling, try to dig deeper. Consider who will work within the space and identify what they need to feel connected to the space and grounded. 

Gone are the days of designing soulless, sterile environments that were intended to be inoffensive and accommodating to the people who used those spaces. In actuality, cold, generic, one-size-fits-all designs can cause people to feel a low level of stress simply because they can’t relax in the space. For most applications, cold design isn’t universal, instead it’s uninviting and lonely.

With the rise of neurological-processing disorders, it’s important to change the way we approach design, especially in work spaces, schools, and many other public spaces.

This is why design has trended toward empathy. Empathetic design requires designers to create spaces that are welcoming and reassuring. It goes beyond simply impressing the eye. It comforts the soul and makes people feel “human.”

It’s important to challenge the way that we’ve always tackled design. We commonly see empathetic design more frequently in personal spaces, like homes, but it’s equally important that we incorporate these same principles into public spaces as well. Humans don’t just “live” at home. They also “live” at work or at the doctor’s office or at the salon or the grocery store. All of these public spaces require empathetic design because they’re catering to humans.

In this article on empathetic design, Kathleen Lemaster shares, “Because we spend nearly 90 percent of our lives indoors, people-focused design is a must… Spaces that put human needs at the forefront add meaning and depth, and satisfy the subconscious.”

So, without further ado, let’s discuss how to use empathy to improve your design.

What is Empathy in Design?

Before diving into how, let’s first define what. What is empathetic design?

Empathetic design is to design with a laser-focus on the end user. 

As part of the design process, you assume the end user’s perspective and see things from their viewpoint. You understand what they want to feel in the space, and what challenges they may have prior to coming into that space. 

As JD Eksteen shares in this article on design empathy, “We are designing and creating spaces that need to speak to the end user, where the space influences and changes the user as well as the other way round.”

Empathetic design can accommodate the end user and elevate their experience in a substantive way. To truly influence the user, we can’t design simply to impress or satisfy the superficial. Design considers the user’s emotional and mental health as well.

Let’s explore how to create empathetic design.

Use biophilic design elements in your space. 

Biophilic design means creating intentional connections back to nature.

As Sonja Bochart observes in this article on the relationship between empathy and design, “What these environments for empathy share—regardless of building type—is a connection to elements and patterns found in nature as Biophilia; or our biological, innate affinity to life and living systems.”

Most empathetic designs include natural elements, such as organic shapes and environmental features. Biophilic design also uses natural light in unique ways. 

Light-filled atriums, rooftop gardens, and living walls are all examples of biophilic design. Think of ways that you can include natural elements into your designs for public spaces.

Think of how your space “sounds.”

As designers, we often overlook the impact of acoustics on a space. “Acoustics is huge,” shares A.J. Paron-Wildes in this interview on design empathy for Metropolis Mag. “It tends to be the number-one complaint in an organization or company after they move to a new space, so we need to make this a priority.”

So how do you design for acoustics in a space?

  • Incorporate sound-absorbing materials, such as curtains, carpets, fabric panels, and acoustic foam, into your designs.
  • Make use of acoustical steel decks, which can be used as a sound-absorbing ceiling (plus, it’s energy-efficient and sound-absorbing).
  • Use a sound masking system that produces a low level, ambient noise that’s meant to reduce noise distractions while also masking human speech. It improves speech  privacy and can be a good addition to every type of office where privacy is important, especially as medical offices.

Use your design to encourage healing.

If you’re designing a therapeutic space, such as a medical waiting room or a long-term healthcare facility, consider how your design will address and soothe the end user.

If we acknowledge that design has the power to inspire, we must also acknowledge that design has the power to mend and even heal. You can use your design to create safe spaces for your end users that facilitate and may even activate the healing process.

For example, you can make use of negative spaces in your design to introduce calmness. You can arrange furniture to reduce the feeling of being crowded and overwhelmed. And you can create designated “quiet” zones where end users feel protected.

Additionally, when designing for trauma, consider lighting and color choices because this will hugely impact how your end users feel in a space. Cool colors tend to be more calming and stress-reducing. 

Design for everyone in the workplace.

Empathetic Design

Empathetic design considers how everyone will feel within a space, so it’s important to design with the team dynamic in mind. 

Consider how the team you’re designing for naturally works together, and what they need from a design to feel connected with each other. Ultimately, no one in the team wants to feel marginalized or not a part of the group experience, which can happen when offices are poorly designed and primarily based on the individual experience. 

When designing empathetically for team environments, also consider how your end users want to communicate with each other, and how frequently they will need to do so. And calculate how large the groups are that need to meet together, and if they can do it simultaneously or one at a time. 

When an organization wants to incorporate their culture into the design, they often ask designers to create “hang out zones.” But instead of adding “fun” and over-the-top elements to a design, approach this task empathetically. Think of how the end user will actually engage with this space on a day to day basis. 

So many “hang out zones” are never used because they’re simply fun to look at but are not aligned with the experience that the end user wants to have during their work day. After all, who really wants to nap or hang out while the boss is around?

Identify how the end users will want to “hang out” in that space. What will they do while hanging out? Work alone or in groups? Eat? Socialize? Take a break?

Design to create a good vibe but remember that unless they’re very young, most end users will appreciate a more elevated space with a calm, natural aesthetic.

Final Thoughts

As an interior designer, you play a huge role in how people will feel and function within your space. The stylistic choices you make in a space can directly impact the mental health of others, including their productivity and mood. By incorporating empathetic design principles into your interior spaces, you can create a lasting positive impact.