Empathy In Practice: How Design Can Enable Much Needed Change

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A group of designers took to the virtual stage with NeoCon to explore the role of design in today’s rapidly changing world.
  • A group of designers took to the virtual stage with NeoCon to explore the role of design in today’s rapidly changing world. 
  • Design plays a powerful role in creating solutions for many of the social and environmental issues we find ourselves collectively facing in the 21st Century. 
  • In this event, we learn how practitioners are using design as a tool to enable much needed change. 

This article was originally published on Work Design Magazine. 

The designers of NeoCon’s recent virtual program aren’t waiting around for change to happen, they are using design as a tool to enable much needed change. 

Design is about everything we interact with, and for interior design, it’s about combining beauty and function to enhance how users experience a space. 

But conscientious designers are recognizing they have a larger role to play. 

Design has become vital to thinking, to process, to solutions, and to action on so many social and environmental issues we find ourselves collectively facing in the 21st Century. This group of optimistic designers are taking their skills and talents to the next level by channeling design for real purpose. These practitioners aren’t waiting around for change to happen, they are using design as a tool to enable much needed change. 

The presentation featured Verda Alexander, Founder and Artist in Residence, Studio O+AKia Weatherspoon, NCIDQ, ASID, President + Design Advocate, Determined by Design; and Maya Bird-Murphy, Founder and Executive Director, Chicago Mobile Makers, and was moderated by Jennifer Busch, Director, Client Partnerships, Eventscape

The thought-provoking conversation among Jennifer, Verda, Kia, and Maya not only engaged the attendees, but prompted more questions than could be answered in the time allotted. We have selected a few with the panels responses plus a few of our own. 

Starting with moderator, Jennifer Busch we wanted to have a bit of background information: 

What was the inspiration to have this conversation in the context of the NeoCon community? 
 

Jennifer: In the past several years – and especially during this past year—we have seen so much social, cultural and political upheaval related to the inequities suffered by marginalized and disenfranchised populations. I think the design profession has an important role to play in creating a more just and equitable society. There are many social challenges that can be addressed, at least in part, by the application of good design. Why shouldn’t everyone have the benefit of inspiring space in which to live, work, learn, play? We know that design can elevate the spirit, convey a sense of value, and promote physical and psychological well-being, and these benefits of good design should be a basic right for everyone, not just an entitled few. The three remarkable women I gathered for this dialog are all tackling that challenge in their own way and creating real opportunity for design to take a leading role in the quest for social change and equity. 

The design profession is evolving to meet the needs of today, what do you think are the most critical issues that need to be addressed, and if you have any suggestions as to how to address them? 
 

Jennifer: The most critical issue that needs to be addressed is doing our part as an industry to expose marginalized communities to the benefits of good design that promotes safety, wellness, security, access… all the important things that ultimately lead to self-actualization. This could be through advocacy, community activism, education, philanthropy in the form of pro-bono work. But mostly it should be through practicing empathy at all times. We need to work toward a business model where profitability and empathy/equity/environmental and human sustainability are not mutually exclusive concepts. 

What recommendations do the panelists have for architects and designers that are interested in starting firms and/or offering services in their current work that are focused on accessible, equitable design? How do you establish and build relationships with potential community partners? 
 

Kia: Do not assume that you need to approach this kind of work any different than you would a market rate or luxury project. Articulate your value add as a service provider and lead with bringing value, exceptionalism, and beauty to the work. It is not about seeing this type of work or these particular market segments as disenfranchised or low-income communities but to see it as the work we are supposed to be doing. 

Maya: Reach out to community partners and have meetings with them. Come with an ask that’s beneficial to both companies. Bring real contracts/money to the table. 

At Capital Vista affordable housing with amenities thoughtfully designed for the resident community (image: Work Design Magazine). 

How do we begin to have conversations, both internally and externally, to start to re-prioritize our intent as designers toward empathy, equity, and real sustainable practices? 
 

Maya: Start having conversations! Even if you feel clumsy or don’t know exactly what to say, create space for conversations. Re-visit your organization’s mission, vision, and values. Create action steps and deadline and make sure there’s someone who can hold you accountable. 

Kia: It’s about listening and research. It’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s a choice, making a choice to do this kind of work. 

The food truck and the USPS van were such key moments of unique design thinking. What could we consider as a next step to educate our community? Is there a way to turn those trucks into educational vehicles? 
 

Verda: Well as it turns out the Food for Thought truck is going to be making a trip to Chicago very soon to join the fleet of Chicago Mobile Makers, I’m really excited to see Maya expand the efforts of her organization . And I yeah anything – trucks- mobile anything – getting our design out there is paramount. What’s great about trucks is that they can go to communities. That’s what I found appealing about the Food for Thought Truck project from the get-go – the idea that we could go out into the world, rather than have communities come to us. 

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But there are other ways too, and you know Zoom works pretty well. I just did a workshop with graphic design firm, Civilization for a group of teens in Seattle. I did it from here, from San Francisco and it was great. Maybe not quite as great as in person but it still worked well. Lots of options, but absolutely I think getting design out there and getting people to understand what design can do, to get people comfortable around design language so they can ask questions is absolutely key. 

I read somewhere that designers now comprise 5% of those out there innovating around solutions that are going to help transition our economy and society to a viable one. We need more! Designers are going to be absolute pivotal enablers in creating the circular economy that we need to help solve for climate change and the multitude of crises we face as a society. It all starts with design. 

Studio O+A Food For Thought truck in action (image: Work Design Magazine). 

Maya: The trucks are educational vehicles. The Chicago Mobile Makers truck brings design-thinking and problem-solving workshops, power and digital fabrication tools to communities that may not have access. The truck is making design education accessible. 

I was also that student designing “social” spaces back in school. I’d love your advice on how to communicate to the principals of a large design firm how this shift can happen, practically. (i.e., where the money comes from) Would you say partnering with non-profit developers is a key piece? 

Maya: You have to figure out if it’s worth it to try to change a large, established company. If it is worth it, organize with colleagues that feel the same as you. The collective voice holds more power. If your large company won’t change, look elsewhere! You spend almost your entire life working – work for a company that supports you, has values, and authentically strives to be better. 

The design world focuses on the projects that are geared to the higher end projects, mainstream, high visibility, considerable budgets etc. Where is the intersection of providing great design at all levels? Creating awareness of the value of providing design services across the spectrum of design projects? 
 

Maya: This field needs an overhaul. We shouldn’t have to explain to design professionals that great design should be at all levels. Because of the market, social/humanitarian projects don’t make money and are not valued. This starts in school where thousands of young people are taught not to value social/humanitarian projects. Very few of those kids make the conscious choice to stray off the traditional path and the status quo continues. 

Design has largely turned its back on the world’s most pressing and life-threatening issues. If we were all taught that it was our duty to address them, I believe our lives would be already different. Obviously, this is a much larger issue that touches every other field. But I think many things would be different if young people were thought to be advocates and care about things. 

Bringing design to the community is a positive step that can broaden engagement between designers and the communities they work in. (image: Work Design Magazine)

Maybe the concept of the term pro Bono could be unsegregated and instead included into a continuum of projects with varying degrees of profitability? 
 

Verda: Right now, we are working on two pro bono projects at O+A, I’m excited for one, it’s an organization that employs reformed long-term offenders to apply their unique experience of healing to distressed urban communities that need healing themselves. 

Urban Alchemy is our neighbor on 6ht street and Market in SF, and they are moving into a brand-new office space. 

I obviously don’t need to say a lot about how rewarding it is to work with organizations like this. I also do have to admit that it can be challenging to keep this project and those like it a priority. I’ve been thinking a lot about what Kia said about why do we always think oh this is a nonprofit or an affordable housing project. Let’s see what we have back at the warehouse… 

What is interesting though is that we learn so much from all of these projects. It’s not only that they are rewarding, but we are also working with these incredible people doing amazing things and they are excited to be working with us – they are open and engaged and want us to be true partners with them. But also because of the challenges – we must often find solutions that are atypical, we have to get creative to find ways to get more value and elevate the experience without the added cost. 

We always end up innovating and having the most creative projects with these clients and that’s one of the reasons we do value and make space for them. It also ties to what I’m working on at my firm right now, climate initiatives that we call our Eco Playbook. We’re trying to reimagine our design process to be thinking not just about those in need today but those tomorrow. And the way we’re designing, we’re not thinking about tomorrow, we’re just thinking about our clients today. 

Our industry is incredibly wasteful. In one of the chapters of the Eco Playbook we discuss designing for minimal waste design, for frugality and economy. We need to really be thinking about how we can do more with less. Buckminster Fuller and the Eames advocated for this back in the day, and we need to come back to this as a primary cornerstone of the way we practice. 

Can you give an example of a design project that addressed the issues raised in the conversation and talk about how the engagement with the client came about? 
 

Maya: We just finished a project where we acted as the Community Engagement Consultant. I don’t think design and architecture firms ask people/communities what they want very often. Everyone on the design team was bracing for community members to give us a hard time, but we showed up and just LISTENED. We talked to multiple youth and adult groups from around the neighborhood and ended up doing 10 virtual engagement sessions over 2 months. The input of the community members was implemented in the design. It’s important that the community feels heard and that there’s an authentic effort to incorporate their thoughts. 

We hope this dynamic conversation continues among our readers. It will be interesting to see how the concepts presented by this panel will manifest as the design community as a whole re-thinks and re-imagines what we can do to encourage empathy and accessibility for great design across all practice areas and constituencies. 

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