The Rise of Inclusive, Empathetic Designers: How Creativity Strives with People in Mind

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Empathy is not usually a quality associated with creative pursuits. An artist rarely considers the gallery-visiting public when creating a masterpiece. A film made for a specific ‘target audience’ is considered commercial and therefore compromised. Novelists are described as having a book ‘inside them’ that must come out, rather writing from the perspective of readers on the outside. And yet design, sitting as it does on the cusp of creativity and commerce, is entirely predicated on the needs of its end users. A sense of empathy is crucial for good design—and really good design is entirely reliant on it.

The connection between the users and the world: Isle Crawford

Ilse Crawford, the founding editor of British Elle Decoration, Head of the Department of Man and Wellbeing at the Eindhoven Design Academy, and founder of interior design studio Studio Ilse, is one of the most influential designers of her generation—and her entire approach is built around empathy. “I think first about the person and the physical connection between that person and the world,” she says. “Whatever the scale of the project, we always think in terms of the person who might use it—who they are, how they respond to certain things, how they live their day, what their real needs are…”

This person-centred approach translates into a quiet, understated aesthetic, typical of her Danish heritage, but crucially into interiors that work. She talks about an experience with a particular client: “It’s funny—we asked a whole series of questions, and his PA said afterwards: ‘He’s never been asked where he puts his toothbrush before…’ But I actually think that really matters. I’ve stayed in so many hotels where you go into the bathroom and there’s nowhere to put your stuff, so it’s either on the floor or always falling on the floor. It’s small stuff, but if you’re going to do it, do it right.”

The same way, her design for London’s Refettorio Felix, Massimo Bottura’s non-profit community kitchen, is effortlessly and instantly welcoming and homely and yet somehow elevating. It “restores a sense of diginity” for socially vulnerable people in the surrounding community, while fighting food wastage. Social inclusion and individual well-being are clear leitmotivs for Crawford.

In a different vertical, her concept for Aesop’s first Danish store in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen gets under the skin of the brand and its customers to understand and celebrate the rituals associated with wellbeing.

Make architecture convey “calm, clarity and a cup of tea”: Maggie’s Centres

Maggie’s Centre Oxford, designed by WilkinsonEyre

When the end user’s needs are more complex, empathy becomes even more important. An example of empathy in design on a larger scale is Maggie’s. The UK charity’s centres are created by leading architects within the grounds of leading cancer hospitals to provide emotional, practical and social support (or “calm, clarity and a cup of tea”) to people with cancer and their family and friends. Everything about the way these centres are designed and run is infused with sensitivity and compassion.

In their West London Centre, landscape gardener Dan Pearson included a series of seats and stopping points throughout the garden on the way to the front door, in response to the insight that people approach a Maggie’s Centre four times before going in. Some people can remain in denial even throughout their cancer treatment, while walking into a Maggie’s Centre often means taking ownership of what’s happening—and that can be hard.

Maggie’s Centre West London, designed by RSH+P with garden by Dan Pearson

The seating in the garden allows them to take a pause and pluck up the courage to keep walking. All the centres have some double-height space. This is because people with cancer can tend to adopt a new body language, physically folding into themselves as a protective barrier to what’s happening to them. High ceilings can encourage people subconsciously to walk taller and feel braver. Toilets are sound-proofed and always have a chair and mirror to allow visitors space for a good cry and the means to compose themselves afterwards—and cushions are always kept plumped so that each space feels like it’s waiting for them. Visitors to Maggie’s centres are never left to feel that they are taking someone else’s space or walking into someone else’s grief.

The principles of inclusive design: Tom Vavik & Trond Heggem

St Olav Hospital in Trondheim, Norway, is a pioneer of inclusive design

The idea of designing for those with more complex needs reaches its ultimate conclusion in ‘inclusive design’, a concept being pioneered in Norway, Japan and America defined as looking for solutions that might be needed by some, but that are also good for everybody. In his Strategy for Teaching Inclusive Design, Oslo School of Architecture and Design professor Tom Vavik defines inclusive design as “a framework that accepts diversity of ability and age as the most ordinary reality of being human.”

He argues that the so-called ‘average user’ often catered for by mainstream design doesn’t exist, so designers should instead cater for the outliers to create solutions that work for everyone. Also known as ‘design for all’ or ‘universal design,’ inclusive design involves bringing those real people into the design process. The Norwegian Design Council’s 2010 publication Innovating With People: The Business of Inclusive Design, explains: “Design can be described as the process of examining a problem and creating a solution. Inclusive Design brings the perspective of real people to that problem, inspiring a multitude of viewpoints and unexpected ideas… people who make greater demands of a product, service or environment and therefore challenge it in ways beyond that of the average mainstream user.”

St Olav’s Hospital in Norway’s Trondheim is championing this approach, including features such as wheelchair ramps integrated into stairways (which prove popular with skateboarders) to avoid the stigma associated with a separate entrance, and private rooms arranged around a central desk so patients can always see the nursing staff. Landscape architect Trond Heggem would never have considered including rocky terrain in the hospital grounds until new wheelchair users informed him this was exactly where they wanted to encounter it for the first time, leading him to include uneven paths suitable to practise on. Without their input, Heggem says, he simply would not have been bold enough to take that creative step. Perhaps then it’s time that a commitment to the value of empathy took its place in the creative industries, alongside passion, discipline and talent.

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