Ken Gordon | Essays

Four Reasons You, Young Designer, Should Read This Academic History of Empathy

Empathy, you must know by now, is a major keyword in the design business. We empathize with our clients. We empathize with their employees and their customers. We empathize with outside experts. With humanity. We empathize, that is, with the people who most need it and seldom receive enough of it. And yet, as I recently paged my way through Susan Lanzoni’s lavishly researched Empathy: A History, I realized that we never actually spell out what we mean by the term. Lanzoni’s volume reminded of when, in 2015, my former colleague Augusta Meill published an essay against empathy. She didn’t define the term, but she did bring some necessary critical thinking to the subject: “Empathy’s great value as a design and business tool is that it offers palpable closeness to other people. This is by its nature singular and individualistic,” she wrote, adding that “our responsibility as designers (and, dare I suggest, as businesspeople too) should be not only to the individual but to the society.”

Empathy: A History is really about the gargantuan challenges of pinning down the E-word. Lanzoni looks at the idea as it evolved over time, tracing it back to its origins in the concept of Einfühlung, or “in-feeling.” This term was defined by German philosopher Theodor Lipps (1851—1914), and it involves a spectator launching herself, rocket-like, into a work of art or nature. From here, the idea of empathy unsteadily arcs its way into psychology, social science, politics, advertising, even neuroscience, all the while resisting the gravity of an un-revisable definition. Today, everyone is interested in using empathy to improve the health and wellness and community of our society, but no one can say definitively what it is or is not.

As I read, I thought: Would reading this book help practitioners, particularly new ones, in their work? I recalled J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey: a letter in which narrator Buddy Glass suggests, to his thespian brother Zooey, that Z. would have been “a damn site better-adjusted actor” if he’d been spared all the philosophical, spiritual, and other texts that were pushed on him when he was small. “By rights, an actor should travel fairly light.” Similarly, I wondered: Would young designers benefit, or be too burdened by, Lanzoni’s textured historical narrative, as they go out into the world to understand people vastly different from themselves? (Traveling light—literally and otherwise—a good idea for designers, who sometimes work all over the map, in real time, and quickly.) After giving the matter some consideration, I decided I certainly would recommend it for the following four reasons.

Empathy Is an Art, not a Science

Many stories in Empathy: A History have a mildly comic flavor, because virtually all of Lanzoni’s people think empathy is a science. It’s not. Empathy is about feeling. Empathy is extremely subjective, and it doesn’t pair well with metricization or immutable laws. (If it did, we’d have no need for art; we’d only need the Art AI!) I felt for the many people who strove, and failed, to create standardized testing for empathy or proved this or that universal law of empathy. Throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st, Lanzoni shows us people who fumbled for the perfect definition of empathy.

Instead of building laboratories and running experiments, they might have been better off writing novels, poems, or essays. What was required was the freshest, most accurate descriptions of the phenomenon of empathy, descriptions that would likely be discarded and replaced the moment after they became stale (which is, of course, the working process of poets). The idea of seeing terminology as a form of artistic evolution is detailed here. A terrific example of a contemporary empathic description is the “Social Media Is Destroying Your Capacity for Empathy” chapter in Jaron Lanier’s most recent book. I have a copy, if you want to borrow it.

Watching Lanzoni recreate the battles for the ultimate meaning of empathy is quite instructive, and humbling. It reminds us that the terms we so confidently use today will surely need an asterisk of explanation tomorrow. You, young practitioner, should not get too attached to today’s jargon; continually seek newer, better words and understand that one’s vocabulary is always provisional.

We Must Cultivate Empathy for Those Who Work in Very Different Worlds

Reading the history of empathy means acquainting oneself with the careers of various professors and writers and artists who have more-or-less been lost to time. Vernon Lee, anyone? Jacob Moreno? Rosalind Dymond Cartwright? The book rescues people and ideas that dominated the Western intellectual discourse for a spell, and were then supplanted by others, who were in turn supplanted by others. Most of the dramatis personae have fallen out of the ledger of history, certainly for general readers, but perusing their stories might prove useful to you and your design confreres. Here’s why: our work requires us to feel empathy for people in businesses that we may not necessarily have an interest in. Not only that, we need to walk into these situations and construct an accurate, detailed narrative of how the client got to the present moment. We need to deal with all kinds of corporate history and untangle various knotty problems… and hanging in there, page after page and chapter after chapter, of Empathy: A History will help train you to pay attention to careers and businesses unlike yours.

There’s little room for personal feelings in our business. You need to learn how to activate empathy on demand. Why? You may be assigned to a medical device project, a financial services one, or even one regarding mass transit, and the moment this happens, your empathy is directed to the relevant stakeholders (as one says in the vernacular). Delving into the complex history of academic and intellectual ideas—so very different from our consulting world—will help teach you to acculturate your minds to different work worlds.

It’s Essential to Respect, Collect, and Record the Facts

So why should you, as a young professional with a possibly awesome social life outside of work, read 280 dense pages about how others have tried to brew up the essential definition of empathy? Well, doing so is a damned good exercise in being thorough and in being faithful to the facts. Susan Lanzoni is a model of professorial meticulousness. You get a quick sense that her method of constructing a narrative, of vetting information for inclusion in her book—there are 98 pages of notes!—is far more fastidious than ours. It’s a kind of provocation to make us ensure we’ve got our facts down, about our clients’ customers and ourselves, before we take them to market.

The truth is, just managing our various stakeholders can be difficult, but sorting out the real story of what’s truly happening at a given company requires patience, diligence, and objectivity. Lanzoni’s careful book teaches all three. Use her careful scholarship as a model when you have to become the historian for your client.

Seek Pain, Discover Empathy

Lanzoni instructs us to look for the telling, resonant details. The most moving parts of Empathy: A History are ones that make us feel a strong emotion for a few of the lost-in-the-midst-of-time characters. For instance, there’s James Mark Baldwin, whose contributions to the empathy debate were nearly erased from the record because, in 1908, he was “caught visiting an African American brothel and was arrested. In the ensuing days, he abruptly resigned his professorship at Johns Hopkins and fled to Paris.” This very brief biographical tidbit says much about racism, sex, class of his academic community, and society as a whole. It raises many questions and suggests a number of empathy fails, by people who made empathy their business—and should have known better. Or consider Julia Jesse Taft, who had some really interesting ideas of relational social work and gender (she wanted social scientists to be “so socially sensitive and adaptable that they feel within themselves the impulses of points of view of all classes and both sexes”). She and her partner Virginia Robinson, a suffragette, set up house and adopted a boy and a girl and raised them according to their own ideas. You could easily sense the super-human stoicism this situation must have required, in the early 20th century, by Robinson’s description: “Good child placing practice today would not have approved this placement of two children with two professional women but I think we survived this experience without harm to any of us.”

We often talk about “pain points” in design—the moments when a person is experiencing a product or service is suddenly jolted from a smooth “customer experience” into an impromptu bout of troubleshooting (think about the first time you tried to use a self-checkout kiosk). Lanzoni’s text suggests that the real lessons of empathy can be found in the painful details. The examples listed above are fleeting in her text, but they were, for me as a reader, some of the most important moments in the book. I wanted to know much more.

When we do in-context research for our clients, we need to act like psychologists or detectives, to listen for the little details and find out where the real resonance is, and then dig in. A good example of this is found in the work my org, EPAM Continuum, did on a project regarding Pampers. We recognized, by listening carefully to parents talk to each other, that they saw the stages of their babies’ development as their metrics of their own success as parents—the worry and anxiety of making sure their babies were properly developing—and this led to our creation of Pampers Stages. Pain is always the problem to be solved, as you can see in this micro-lesson from the late Philip Roth. Seek pain, and you’ll next find empathy.

And You?

Yes, my young colleague, you should read this book. But more importantly, you, me, and everyone else in the Design Observer orbit should be discussing the numerous, salient work-relevant issues it raises. The thing about designers is they’re not satisfied with abstractions; you’re about making it real. And the way to made ideas real is to put them in front of people for feedback. These are my thoughts on empathy and Empathy: A History: what are yours?

Posted in: Media, Typography

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