Here I am sitting upright with opposable thumbs bashing on a computer trying to make sense of the single word ‘empathy’. Empathy is currently a hot topic of research, much of which has been inspired by the discovery, some 25 years ago, of ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain. These neurons become active — both when an individual performs a certain action and when the individual witnesses someone else performing the same action. This brain mechanism provides a symbolic, copy-cat code that enables us to understand and share the feelings of another. It may be at the heart of all social interaction and what it means to be human.
So what has ‘empathy’ got to do with design? It seems that we all have the capability to generate it, but not many of us are using it to shape the way we go about designing things. Western thought, along with education, has put too much emphasis on the individual: in form; skill development; personal rewards; and models of success — all in relation to commerce. This has created a more self-centered view of life, driven by ego and narcissistic behaviors — the wants of the individual, over the needs of the group. It has made us numb to the experiences of others. Design was never supposed to be that.
Design is the first signal of human intent. A process through which we shape the world as a tool making species. These tools were more than functional extensions of our body schemas, they were also how we connected emotionally, socially and culturally. Design used to be about material culture, rituals and customs that generated emotional resonance and social cohesion, built to make us connect and therefore function better in the world and how we feel with others in it. Along the way something happened. We fell in love, not with the tools, but the commercial system that was invented to make and promote them. We lost the human intent to make things that served the emotional needs of others and created a system of desire, commodity fetishism and we lost aspects of our biological selves.
We are social creatures and are designed to be together. Our mirror neuron system is basically our social system. What if we had opposable minds and used our empathy to drive our intent. Just imagine what kind of design we could achieve. The role of design right now is to enculture capitalism with humanism, so it serves the emotional needs of people, not profit. It is empathy that will support the cultural diversity and richness of life. In the end empathy is what makes us human.