Andy Chen | Essays

The Value of Empathy

Buy a tank top. Save Africa

"It’s so terribly trendy to care about the poor, the environment, and every form of 'betterment' that I begin to assume we must be selling more design by fetishizing social relevance." — David Stairs, Arguing with Success

I want to believe that the work I do matters. I think we all do.

When people ask me about it, though, I usually deflect: "I'm a graphic designer. What do you do? Are you still in school?" I find it incredibly hard to admit that I'm trying to make a career out of designing for social causes. At best, it sounds naive; at worst, self-indulgent and arrogant.

I don't blame David Stairs for his cynicism. We live in an age where buzzwords like "change" or "sustainability" are thrown around without proper explanation or context. We are constantly bombarded with images telling us that children in the developing world need us to save them. A dollar a day is all it takes. It's no wonder, then, that many designers — young and old — equate designing for causes with the bolstering of a sense of personal legitimacy.

I don't think there is anything inherently problematic with making causes accessible through graphic design. I wouldn't be in this business otherwise. There is a danger, however, to applying the logic of brand identity to social justice. Consumers buying a (RED) iPod or tank top may know that a percentage of their purchase goes to charity, but they can seldom name the actual cause that their dollars support. Though the media attention that Bono and others bring to humanitarian causes is laudable, the message they are sending hides behind a veneer of feel-good consumerism. Buy a latte at Starbucks, and you've somehow saved all of Africa from AIDS.

Furthermore, the tendency to homogenize Africa is reinforced by a brand logic that distills war, famine, disease, and genocide into a monolithic identity for the entire continent — the reason, perhaps, that Sarah Palin believed Africa to be one big, hopeless country. True, many more Americans know about ethnic cleansing in Darfur as a result of celebrity publicity, but I wonder how many of those same people know the difference between Sudan and Ghana.

Starbucks Christmas promotion for the (RED) campaign

Graphic designers bear some responsibility for this oversimplification. Campaigns like "I Am African" feature celebrities in tribal face paint, presumably meant to symbolize a universal human connection to the difficulties facing people in Africa. The result, however, is a shockingly Orientalist image that reinforces the inherent power asymmetry between Western philanthropists and their objectified African counterparts.

In a Washington Post article, Uzodinma Iweala writes, "This is the West's new image of itself: a sexy, politically active generation whose preferred means of spreading the word are magazine spreads with celebrities pictured in the foreground, forlorn Africans in the back...There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one's cultural superiority." I Am African? No, you are not.

"I Am African" ad featuring David Bowie

Power inequalities naturally inhere in relationships between benefactors and beneficiaries. As designers, we can choose to reinforce those asymmetries or to recognize them and work towards their elimination. If we choose the latter route, the way we communicate becomes as important as the causes we communicate about. We need an empathic language that engages our emotions and challenges us to act.

Michael Bierut argued in Looking Closer 4 that designers have a tendency to set advertising up as a straw man simply because of its commercial orientation, positing that designers critical of marketing practices aim at "replacing mass manipulation for commercial ends with mass manipulation for cultural and political ends." Advertising itself is not the problem; while it is admirable for graphic designers to devote their skills to worthy causes, I don't see anything intrinsically wrong with creating ads for designer clothing or dog biscuits.

There is an emotional disconnect, however, when the same visual vocabulary used to market fashion is transposed onto a cause like global warming. Diesel argued in 2007 that their "Global Warming Ready" ads that juxtapose youth hedonism with images of a post-apocalyptic world represent a tongue-in-cheek commentary intended to provoke a serious discussion about environmental degradation. I "get" the irony, but I don't buy it. I believe in a graphic language that does not shy away from the reality of social crises but instead addresses those difficulties head-on in a manner unflinching and unpatronizing.

Diesel's controversial "Global Warming Ready" campaign

This, however, should not be equated with shock tactics designed to induce fear or intimidation. Recently, New York City rolled out a campaign against obesity designed to alert the public to health risks associated with the overconsumption of soft drinks. Labeled with the tagline "Don't Drink Yourself Fat", the posters feature globs of human fat pouring out of soft drink containers. While the ads most certainly make a strong visual impact, and it can be argued that they might make consumers think twice before their next Mountain Dew, the underlying assumption is that obesity is a choice.

In fact, social scientists have found a strong correlation between poverty and obesity, suggesting that the consumption of unhealthy food is associated with the inability to purchase bikini-body lifestyles. When McDonald's is the cheapest, most accessible option, it's no wonder that statistics for obesity are tied to wealth. Suggesting that overcoming obesity is as simple as eliminating soda assumes that individuals make choices absent of the particular social context they are situated in. Just imagine if coins were pouring out of the soda bottle, and the caption were to read "Don't Drink Yourself Poor."

That's not to say that we shouldn't educate people to drink water instead of Coke or that individuals shouldn't assume some measure of responsibility for their own livelihoods, but there has to be a better way than singling out fat people and telling them that they ought to be ashamed of their behavior. The NYC campaign and others like it do nothing to build empathy for people who suffer from obesity and instead reinforce existing stigmas and stereotypes.

New York City's "Don't Drink Yourself Fat" campaign

PETA's "Save the Whales" billboard

Certainly, there are instances when shock is appropriate and can help connect audiences emotionally to socially disenfranchised populations. More often than not, designs of this kind play an essential role in bringing necessary attention to problems that are easily ignored otherwise. In the best cases, they can serve as mouthpieces for people who face difficulties communicating on their own. Harry Pearce designed such a poster in 2006 for the New York-based charity Witness to raise awareness about human rights atrocities in Burma. Protestors from New York to Bangkok adopted the poster as a placard to voice their dissent against the oppression of military dictatorship.

Design can also open dialogues about social exclusion by resisting prevailing stereotypes. In 1994, Colors magazine broached the subject of AIDS with blunt, straightforward graphics that debunked popular misperceptions that AIDS was a "gay disease" that could be transmitted by using the same toilet as an infected person. The implicit argument behind the design was that our fear of the other is socially constructed into our cultural imaginary and that accurate information is the first step for assailing that fear.

It also featured a faux-obituary for Ronald Reagan alongside a doctored photo of the former president with Kaposi's sarcoma. While this design might easily be criticized for being equally as distasteful as the Coke-into-fat ad, one important difference is that it carries a universalizing rather than a minoritizing message: I don't care who you are, you are equally as susceptible to AIDS. The empathy of that message — admittedly wrapped in shock and controversy — may be the basis for successful shifts in social perceptions.

Harry Pearce's "Burma" poster out on the streets

Cover of Colors No. 7: AIDS

Over the last week, I have been sitting in all-day induction sessions at the Helen Hamlyn Centre geared around getting me and four other new research associates up to speed on inclusive and people-centered design. The premise of this methodology is simple: design ought to serve as many people as possible and ought to center on fulfilling both the aspirations and needs of human beings, in accordance with a "human-centered" approach pioneered by the design innovation firm IDEO.

Most design caters to the "average Joe," he who is averagely tall, with average tastes, and no real handicaps. The truth, however, is that none of us are really average. People-centered design methodology focuses, instead, on socially-excluded populations. By creating ethnographically-informed design solutions that include those on the margins of society, the needs of the general population are also better met. Furthermore, this methodology does not merely intend to make life more tolerable for disabled or older people; it strives to fulfill their deepest aspirations. As such, it demands a collaborative rather than a top-down approach — "designing with" rather than "designing for."

We heard from Clara Gaggero and Adrian Westaway, two industrial designers who partnered with Samsung last year in order to make mobile phone technology accessible to older people. By asking older users to open the product box and try to use their mobile phone, Clara and Adrian discovered that older people tend to rely on instruction manuals for direction, while younger users experiment until they figure things out. The trouble is that the manuals are poorly-designed and completely inaccessible.

As part of the design process, Clara and Adrian asked older users to decorate bananas to demonstrate what an ideal phone would do. This exercise revealed that older people want step-by-step guidance through the usage of their mobiles, which led to the design of a manual die-cut so that the phone could sit inside it, each page providing simple steps by which a user can access a single function. The remarkable thing is that this design solution engineered for older people is helpful to all users.

The redesigned mobile phone manual

As an exercise, we were asked to identify a social problem, assess that problem with user research, create a design brief, and propose a solution — all in the space of 24 hours. On the first afternoon, we walked around South Kensington and noticed the confusion and pedestrian hazard that local road work was causing. We interviewed a cafe owner who said that his profits had dropped fifty percent since the construction started in January because of accessibility and noise issues.

The next morning, we were paired with Adrienne (name changed), a legally-blind woman who suffers from macular degeneration. We found out from her that 90% of legally-blind people actually have some vision, and that we as designers should not take this for granted. By walking her through the construction area, we found out that the signage used to indicate pedestrian walkways was incredibly inadequate and often too text-heavy to be read. Green meshes used to prevent dust from going into sidewalk shops barely did their job because they weren't designed for the fences they were draped over and did nothing to prevent a trip hazard.

Confusing signage that is difficult to read from a distance

Ineffective meshes designed to keep dust out

Fences designed to keep pedestrians safe become a hazard

We had about an hour to create a brief around our observations, think up a creative solution, and present it. With Adrienne's help, we decided to create a wayfinding system that used color to indicate safe zones for pedestrian mobility. We proposed that the existing green meshes be replaced by single-unit canopies that would drape over single fences, with green indicating pedestrian walkways and red signaling motorist routes. Instead of using small type, the meshes would employ large, unambiguous icons to communicate safe passageways. Furthermore, they would be outfitted with velcro strips to address the trip hazard issue.

While this design was created extremely quickly as an exercise, it was inspiriting to see anthropology and design work so well together. I've never felt more grateful for my training in sociology, and it surprised me how much we didn't see without Adrienne's perspective. Only through her eyes were we able to fully understand that most type-based signage is useless to blind people and that the solution is as simple as color-coding existing meshes. Like the mobile phone manual, a fully-developed version of this design could potentially be useful for most pedestrians and motorists, even if they don't have the same mobility difficulties that Adrienne does.

Surveying the problems with existing solutions

A schematic of the redesigned mesh completed 30 seconds before our presentation

A super-quick rendering of our redesign

The challenge ahead seems steep: mine's is one of the first projects the centre has taken on that uses graphic design to address social perceptions of excluded populations. While the mobile phone project and our road work design brief were challenging in their own ways, they didn't have to confront social stigma. Is it naive to think that this "people-centered approach" is really a means by which empathy can be built? Is it arrogant to believe that graphic design can do just as much for older people living with sexually-transmitted diseases as it can for pedestrians in South Kensington?

Perhaps. But I did not choose this profession because I wanted to join a trend. Neither do I believe that designing for causes automatically makes me a better person. I do believe, however, that intentions are important. The last week has taught me that I need to start regarding myself as a designer and to stop worrying about how that will be perceived. The work I do does matter, and, if I'm lucky, it just might make a difference in somebody else's life.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Media

Comments [22]

Thank you Andy, for this voice. As a young artist passionate about people, this is very refreshing.

I believe that discovering how to combine a passion for the creative arts with people, without losing creative integrity and without portraying the people as less of persons, is a challenge that every artist is responsible to talk seriously.

Keep up the good work.

- David
David Vosburg

less writing, less talking, less navel gazing and more, much more action through design, please.
Ahjmal Dennison

Andy, this is so heartfelt and so well written. Your critical, yet thoughtful and nuanced approach to design is remarkable. When a Princeton Sociology major becomes a graphic designer, what you get is truly amazing! :)
Waqas Jawaid


It isn’t naïve and it isn’t arrogant. But a single design solution alone can’t solve a complex problem with different stakeholders. The benefit of human-centered approach is to facilitate everyone involved to think big and cast the net wide. Your examples show the need to include other partners in creating solutions that can address immediate and related problems. The South Kensington example showed that the best solution involved collaboration between the disaffected and the designers. But the situation became a problem in the first place likely because the road works and construction teams were not involved in setting up the situation properly, which would include identifying the problems that you later had to address. Visual design can only be socially effective (and work in any system) if those who work in other fields and those who are affected by the situation all have a seat at the table, i.e., integration. Your mobile phone example is one where the logic and insights of the solution can be mined for other analogous applications involving users with entirely different sets of issues. By doing that, the knowledge gained from one area can help other seemingly unrelated groups.

I think that getting participants with different points of view and different needs to work together can culture empathy. This process fosters transparency and exchange. At the end of the day, every participant is affected, not just the party for whom the solution is designed. Broadly defined, design can be a kind of forum for this purpose. If the goal of design is to create solutions to help people live better in a host of different circumstances, then the questions designers ask can be a guide to develop these conversations.
Julietta Cheung

What a great and heartfelt post....good work!
Caitlin Alev

This post transits from a consideration of the universal (and fraught) desire to design for Good to a more focused consideration of Design as Problem Solver, and I think that is for the best - yes, you might ask designer, plumbers, or highly compensated musicians to take on the political problems of decolonialization/global poverty, but to what end?

At best the results are treacly - at worst, patronizing in the extreme (I still wince at Bowie's ad and imagine him in a NASCAR-twanged warpaint pouting We Are All Americans in the wake of Katrina...)

The idea that Gap, Apple, Nike, or any other global corporation dependent upon labor inequality and free pollution (in the broadest sense of the word) for their profits has any genuine social concern is crazy; buy your IPhone and tune out, but don't believe for a second that your little first world, heavy-metal & technology laden gizmo that will be toxic waste in 2.5 years is anything other than a pollutant at the expense of those on the planet who are less powerful.

But the designer as tool and problem solver: great, and a couple of wonderful examples of exactly how designers can be Useful Engines. Its also not incidental that the improvements for the phone instructions, originally for a niche market, prove more universal. ADA ramps have fostered a new form of stroller accessibility, and in WWII, modifications to assembly lines to accomodate the smaller frames of women workers resulted in huge production increases for crews of both genders.

When the revolution comes, and we need to learn how to play music again without furiously pressing buttons infront of a TV, someone's gonna have to know-how (or something like that).

Ugly Stepchild

Julietta: I agree entirely. Were the project more than a 24-hour exercise, it would have been very helpful to get the input of the other stakeholders involved. Including them in the design process would likely have yielded a more nuanced and implementable solution.

According to the cafe owner, construction workers would rotate in for week-long shifts without knowing what their predecessors had or had not accomplished. It took months for the owner to convince them to put up the meshes in the first place to stop the dust from entering his business.

There is a lack of communication both between the workers and the public, and among the workers themselves. This makes for extensive delays in progress and general confusion all around. It seems that part of the responsibility of the designer, as you've suggested, is to liaise among the different parties involved in order to arrive at a workable consensus.
Andy Chen

I think everybody just wants to be part of a group, or a trend -- which isnt a bad thing. You just have to make sure that what you're doing is really adding to the effort
Custom Toronto


I was once contacted by a group of grad students who wanted my opinion about a project they were working on to design signage for a refugee camp in Tanzania. I almost fell out of my chair. Imagine, signs to guide people who've lost everything to the nearest pit toilet! I have a similar response to your project working with the legally blind lady. My Dad had macular degeneration. I assure you, he never needed new construction signage because he was never allowed to go anywhere near construction sites.

When articles like yours stop citing examples from designers and firms in the developed world, such as IDEO, and recognize the genius inherent in human inventiveness everywhere, then we'll be making progress.

Remember, empathy is a basic human behavior, literally in our genes. http://design-altruism-project.org/?p=1

Skeptically yours.

David Stairs

Dear Andy,
I enjoyed your piece very much. As a professional and educator at a college for undergrads and grads, majoring in graphic design, I always give students projects that involve serious social issues that may not be popular or pretty, such as human trafficking to name just one, for them to design that would educate and make others aware of these issues...it's not always about designing for profit. Thanks again for your piece.

Jack Tom


Don't lose hope. I have worked with numerous NGOs (UNICEF, OWF) to help improve their identity and it is a most rewarding task.

Most people find it counterintuitive to connect the concepts of marketing/publicity/design with something as socially driven as a NGO, but it is these types of organisations that need their identity reach their public the most.

I have written on the subject on my own blog.


David: I agree with the spirit of your comments — that we shouldn't assume that design "interventions" are appropriate everywhere, or that first-world designers and firms are more suited to addressing problems than non-designers from other locales. I too am skeptical of a Messianic mindset I often see among my peers. I cited IDEO because I found their methodology helpful, not because I think they have all the answers.

Furthermore, I think that your reaction to the group of grad students you cited is fair. Having spent time in areas of extreme poverty in China and India, I'm well-aware that true empathy comes from understanding the needs of people on their own terms. They are experts in the way they live their lives. It's not for us to presume we understand better.

That said, I think you can't assume that your personal experiences speak for everybody. Unlike your dad, there is not a question of whether or not Adrienne is "allowed" to go near hazardous work sites — she lives alone and needs to get around in order to live her life. She told us that she often has to navigate treacherous construction zones when trying to get to and from places she hasn't been before. While she listens to the radio before leaving home for news of road work, it's not always possible for her to plan around it.

This is similar to blind people I interviewed in urban China who need to commute for hours in hazardous traffic simply to support their families. I don't think it presumptuous to believe that designers have an obligation to do their best to support these people to the extent that is reasonable. Design is not an automatic panacea, but likewise, it's a bit defeatist to think that it has no relevance towards addressing pertinent areas of social concern.
Andy Chen

I just wanted to add that I'm using "first-world" in a tongue-in-cheek way to indicate a distaste for patronizing, self-superior approaches to design.
Andy Chen

ramanuj shastry

I totally agree with you, and this is a great article that opens the discussion about social design and brand identity. "Design can also open dialogues about social exclusion by resisting prevailing stereotypes." Ultimately, I think that's what fashion and commercial brands should do. The goal here isn't to reassure consumers and tell them, "you're buying this Starbucks coffee, thus you save the world". It's pretentious and ridiculous. Labels should encourage exchanges, provoke, create a platform for dialogue and communication instead. That's why I really liked Benetton's ads made by Oliviero Toscani in the 1990s (Benetton also asked Tibor Kalman to create COLORS Magazine, and they're still publishing it today). As long as the world isn't polluted by too many Diesel billboards pretending to spread awareness about global warming...
Daviel Lazure Vieira

David: Red and green are color-blind colors when they're dull, not when they're that bright. Most colors are vulnerable to being indistinguishable by varying levels of colorblindness when they're dull. Colorblind people have trouble with color, but can distinguish shades easily enough. Also, your pessimism is blinding you.

Andy: Wonderful article. Thoughtful and honestly empowering.


this might be interesting to you, somewhat tangentially:
especially the part about "nudging" that could be applied to your/our work in design.
Julietta Cheung

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I'm interested to know if some of you have seen this website, cause he seems pretty sure that it is possible to earn cash in that way. Perhaps someone can post here your opinion on that. Thanks in advance and sorry for going offtopic. Here's the site again: Money Ventures

This is an excellent post. It really makes you think about the ethics behind not only what some of the ads themselves highlight, but whether it is moral to use controversial subjects to promote their own brands more effectively.

Andy! I think by the response your image of your self requires some adjustments. What other approach would you propose to bring about change for the disadvantaged. Without your creativity and ability to convert into product branding a vast majority of the population would be ignorant to the needs of many people across our sometime wonderful, but often cruel planet called Earth. You are inspirational and the envy of many who would like to impact on the challenges faced by many within the social injustice and lack of voice for human rights. I like many on this forum applaud your contribution.

Corporate Merchandise

Hi, I came across your article as I was searching for methodologies for social design for my Phd research project. I feel that you cant loose hope on this as I haven't. I am form a country where social design is not a being innovative alone but a dire need!
A country with 35%of literacy , what do you expect. how do you communicate , how do you inform and educate? what can be independent of the literacy level, poverty and a thousand other such issues............. Design!!! especially socially inspired visual communication and be one way.....
This is what its all about....finding the best solution, and isn't that what design is about :)

Well keep up the good work. I am going to cite this article in my research.
Hena Ali

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