The relationship between empathy and design

Ten years ago, in a project interview, I was asked a question by Rob, CEO of a large healthcare organization: “How can design improve empathy in our organization?”

The question has stayed with me, and continues to profoundly shape my work as a designer committed to health and wellness in the built environment. I reflect on the question often, imagining and exploring potential responses—which can and do vary greatly. Ten years ago, I did my best to respond based on work I’d done with Planetree, and our team was fortunate to be awarded the project. In truth however, my reply that day and work on the project was just the beginning of my immersion into this significant topic.

Empathy, is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. The quality of empathy in our relationships allow us to form foundations of trust, and foster greater collaboration, problem solving, and communication. It is positively related to job performance, and has been noted as one of the most essential attributes of successful leadership. Empathy guides our behavior, health, and happiness, and has relevance in every building type—from homes, to schools, to hospitals, to our workplace environments. Fortunately, empathy is not exclusively an innate trait; we can learn to expand and grow our own potential capacity to care for ourselves and others.

If we however, are rushing and multi-tasking, it is difficult to find empathy. If we are self-absorbed and isolated, it is difficult to empathize. If we aren’t fully present and listening, it is difficult to be empathetic. When we are negatively influenced by uncomfortable, cold, and sterile environments, the stress response of our bodies is activated, and it becomes even more difficult to recognize or foster empathy. The question then becomes, how do we create spaces that promote slowing down, focus, reflection, presence, and intimate conversations? How do we design in ways in which we can feel secure, calm, and able to expand our awareness and ability to connect? As designers, our response should be to create environments that are naturally welcoming and shaped for deep listening—inviting curiosity, observation, and connection.

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. Biophilic design can be expressed in many ways. It can take shape as an outdoor garden space within the workplace, offering wild, native vegetation where a tête-à-tête can occur alongside the welcoming surprise visit of a butterfly or song bird. It can unfold as a casual interior space, designed for quiet, personal reflection and relaxation, or comforting conversation.

These types of environments, often provide us prospect and refuge, and are shown to induce a physiological sense of calm and respite—the perfect breeding ground for empathy. As such, we must design with empathy at the forefront of any project, creating inspirational and uplifting spaces that reconnect visitors with their senses and invite occupants to be truly present.

After all, as the Dali Lama says, “Empathy is the most precious human quality.” What a gift and responsibility we as designers have, to cultivate and nurture this extraordinary human trait.