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Design for EMPATHY?


At the very beginning of the development of industrial design, people began to focus more on the well-being of their own lives. Nowadays, it seems that the design field has encountered some new challenges, not only about new user demands.

From the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century when designers paid more attention to the mechanical design, to The Arts and Crafts Movement when functionality and practicality were the most persuit, and even to the modernist design revolution, the trend of “Form follows function” and “Less is more”, has been growing in a spiral.

Emotional values

Eventually, in the 1980s, with the arrival of “The Affluent Society” and “Postmodernism”, people began to feel bored with monotonous design and wanted to get more value, beyond function, from their products .

Such as, Emotional Values.

As a result, the other group of designers teared up in order to bring products and people closer together.

In the beginning, designers wanted to make our products more and more accessible to use, hoping users could “indulge” in a “practical and useful” experience.

However, with the higher variety of products and features, customers couldn't help but sigh:

"I mean... have you ever though about that...we don't really need such a saturated-functional product? 😅"

“What do you really need? 🤔"

"May our oppressed and battered mental health gain more concern? 😖"

Emotional Design

After that, another type of design became popular: Emotional Design.

"Emotional design is design that aims to capture the user's attention and induce an emotional response in order to increase the likelihood of performing a specific behaviour.
In layman's terms, it is design that stimulates the user in some way that causes an emotional swing.
Through the functionality of the product, certain actions of the product or a certain temperament of the product itself, emotional arousal and recognition is generated, which ultimately leads to a certain perception of the product and a unique positioning in the user's mind."

(From The Design of Everyday Things III)

We could set a new direction.

Design for Human Mental Health

Designers are focusing on human mental health, hoping to use products to relieve stress and soothe negative emotions in people's lives.

For example,the Emotional First Aid Kit designed by Rui Sun are intended to provide comfort in times of mental distress, demonstrating that emotional well-being is just as important as physical condition.

"In spite of culture, background, wealth – everybody suffers the same emotional ups and downs of life," said the designer. "

What if we treated emotional health equally to psychical health? This kit is designed for very different emotional scenarios."

Each of the five products developed by Sun are intended to provide a different comfort.

The Purple Breathing Mask emits calming scents when the user inhales, allowing them to think clearly in intense situations.

The Indigo Third Eyeglasses have three lenses to remind the user to use their "third eye" and look at things from a different perspective, while the Blue Stress Buster is a portable speaker that visualises sound with blue ink.

Should the user get involved in an argument, the Green Meditating Stethoscope helps them tune into their breath and meditate, and a Yellow Confidence Booster is a super-light padded jacket that helps people who "lack the confidence to solve dilemmas or address a situation".

But it seems... our dear customers, didn't quite get the point?

Somewhat useful, but entirely not.😒

What are the deficiencies?

Are target users motivated to buy and use those products that are 'just' designed to relieve their stress and care for their mental health?

Is it possible to express a first-person perspective of mindfulness and empathy in our products, rather than a third-person perspective of caring?

Based on this, someone proposed that: "We don't design to care, but to visualise what is in your mind."

In other words, the alternative path of emotional design is - to use industrial design to express the designer's values through the practical functions of the product, and to resonate with the user, so as to increase the emotional value of the product while ensuiring its functionality.

We can call it "Empathy Design".

The theoretical narrative maybe difficult to understand, but now more designers and enterprises devote themselves to it.

Studio Nick Verstand has created an immersive audiovisual installation that reinterprets people's emotions as pulsing light compositions.

During this year's Dutch Design Week, visitors to the Aura installation were equipped with multiple biosensors that register brainwaves, heart-rate variability, and galvanic skin response.

As they sat or laid down on cushions on the floor, a musical composition played out in the background, triggering emotional responses.

The visitors' emotional "data" was then analysed and metamorphosed into different forms, colours and intensities of light that were beamed down onto them from above.

Surrounding the visitors like a curtain, the light made each person's emotional responses visible to others.

His intention was to further explore light as a medium – an idea that was pioneered by artists such as James Turrell, Anthony McCall and Olafur Eliasson.

"It explores how this perceptual process influences the understanding of ourselves and of each other. The installation symbolises the materialisation of internal metaphysical space into external physical space,"

He explained.

The "Empathy Design" also allows designers to use more artistic thinking and imagination to convey the their own personal values, giving more uniqueness to the product. To go a step futher, it is also a significant way to gain more dedicated customers for a design brand.

Ini Archibong presented the second instalment of his Below the Heavens furniture for during Milan design week. In this interview, the designer says his aim is make objects that help you "escape your mundane reality".

Archibong debuted the first half of the 22-piece collection in 2018. Designed to reference elements of both heaven and earth, it features lights that evoke cloud formations and a table that references the sun rising up from the horizon.

The second series, unveiled at Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan this month, continues this theme, with tables that look like groups of rocks and a sofa that references flowers.

"I really can't make anything until I have some kind of visceral impetus, something pushing me, and something that I want to express and translate to people," explained the designer.

"Below the Heavens is a collection of pieces that allow you to escape your mundane reality while you're still here on earth, in your home," he told Dezeen.

All the pieces draw on Archibong's interest in mythology and spirituality. The designer believes his work can have an intangible, almost spiritual effect on the spaces it occupies.

Since then, more and more designers are willing to construct their own worldview in their products and expect to empathise with users. The "Z era" has brought about a reshuffling of demand and an upgrade in consumption, and the design community is keenly aware of new desire of users - feel more "about me". How can designers face this new opportunity?

It is time to go further.

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