What does empathy mean to you? I’ve never had a detailed description of the word until this week. Dr. Armstrong explained it by comparing similar words with the example of walking by a lake and seeing someone drowning. If you had sympathy for that person, you would simply sit on the bank and cry for them because it makes you sad to see. Compassion for that person would cause you to try and save them. But if you had empathy for that person, you would jump in the water and start drowning with them to see how they feel. Shocking as this definition was to me, it really grasped the concept of empathy and putting yourself in another’s shoes. This is especially useful in researching sustainability design innovations.
In an Empathic Design article we read this week, Georg Simmel talked about the production of goods that are currently designed for a large number of individuals, which takes away the differentiation of taste. Making money is the number one motivator in producing goods today, therefore, producing goods that are acceptable by the masses is much cheaper than the production costs of taking individual custom wants and needs. However, I believe that the happier people are with a product or a concept, the more money they are likely to spend to have it.
In class, we participated in a body storming technique. Each group was placed in a different classroom setting; a secluded table with chairs, two tables connected, one group in a picnic environment on the ground, and another group standing at a table facing a seated group. We were required to build a structure using provided materials and then assess our physical comfort levels. The distraction of the assignment kept us from thinking about the experiment in order to answer honestly what we liked best for a classroom environment. It was interesting to hear the similarities in answers compared to what we currently have in our classrooms. College classrooms are designed with bolted down seats and attached desks facing the front of the room, but that is not always helpful. When we work together in groups, it is hard to have a discussion when looking down the rows to each other instead of having the option to move around a table and face each other. Classrooms should be designed for the types of classes that will be using them, not just another lecture hall. I would be interested in seeing some real research go into this all over campus so that we could actually start changing our classrooms. We pay a lot of money to get a college degree, so why shouldn’t we have a say in the best methods to learn? Changing the design of classrooms on campus would encourage more students to show up. A lot of the reason for students not wanting to go to class is the thought of just sitting there staring at a PowerPoint and a professor for an hour, when sleeping in sounds so much better. Taking the boring out of our classroom designs would also encourage teachers to implement more discussions and in class activities/teamwork, which in my opinion is too rare in college classes.
Another article we read this week gave some examples of using empathy in fashion design. The focus was the metabolism of a wardrobe. This is understanding the lifetime of a garment where certain product characteristics are valued differently among individuals. Some characteristics cause a short-term emotional quality to one person, while others cause a long-lasting physical quality, which can result in recirculation and extended use. A design idea like natural dyes and layering in a garment to make the colors fade over time, revealing new patterns, is a hard concept to implement into the industry. Like I said, making money is the goal of the apparel industry, and selling a product designed to last a long time would cut into the profits of any company. It would be satisfying to the customer because they are saving money over time, but I think the better approach to sustainable design in apparel is to produce garments that are biodegradable or recyclable. This not only keeps the profits coming in for those companies in it for the wealth, but also helps the environment by not taking away more than we need to.
I learned a lot about empathy this week and how important it is in order to actually start designing products focused on sustainability. Once you fully understand the need for the environment and the need of your consumer, you can begin your design process. And all it takes is for someone to step forward and follow through on an idea. For instance, someone said in class, we could open the blinds and use the natural light coming through instead of our classroom lights, but no one actually opened them. It was just an idea spoken until Dr. Armstrong physically opened them. So if we speak up for our own ideas, listen to others, understand what their true needs are, and follow through on a project like this, we can begin change.