I just had lunch with my friend Mark Thomas, with whom I’ve been having an ongoing conversation about design, academia, backyard playground sets, and other important things. Mark is a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Minnesota, studying the biology of addiction—a field which, I’ve come to learn, is largely void of design as most of us understand it. Today we were discussing design education and Mark asked what exactly a student will study in a design program. I explained the various components of a foundational design program: 2D, 3D, color theory, typography, design systems, etc. (a list of words that apparently don’t find their way into Mark’s impressive vocabulary very often), and then I mentioned the significantly less tangible concept of empathy. The ability to identify with the audience or user of your design which is a critical skill for a designer, but is so hard to define, and even harder to teach and integrate into a curricula.
So, it was one of those freaky cases of synchronicity when I discovered later in the afternoon that AIGA.org was running that Ralph Caplan’s essay entitled, “The Empathetic Fallacy” as its lead item. Caplan is the great-uncle of design criticism, and I have fond memories of his lectures and articles over the years (for me, stretching back to the AIGA conference in San Antonio in 1989). “Empathy in design focuses on the user as a person, not just a consumer. And because it can be very difficult to imagine someone else’s needs, we try getting the necessary information directly,” Caplan explains.
I spend a lot of time (and pixels) on Merge explaining how many things designers DON’T know about entrepreneurship. But I also believe that one of the reasons great designers are also potentially great entrepreneurs is that we possess this mysterious ability to understand the needs of people who may be very different from ourselves. Moreso, we know how to connect with these people and deliver a message in a meaningful way. While there are a slew of mitigating factors involved, this happens to be an essential quality of being an entrepreneur as well: understanding a need and creating a solution.