From Aid to Accompaniment: A Story of Empathy and Design Thinking

At the University of Notre Dame, I am currently enrolled in a course that is looking to bridge two fields of interest: Design Thinking and International Development.


This morning we turned a critical eye toward the assumption that we are the ones who need to empathize with the client. Questions that arose from this discussion surrounded what exactly our role is as outside designers, and how we justify our actions. We came to two conclusions:

1. In our differences we find true insight.

2. Accompaniment is central to Design Thinking.

Through differences we ask questions that challenge cultural assumptions — co-working our way to new solutions. The example used in class related to Hagámoslo Bien, where only through key dialogue initiated by an Ameircan student, both Mexican and American students learned more about the assumptions made in the culture of Monterrey, Mexico. Without difference, we end up in the same silos that design thinking works to break us out of. Instead of seeing difference as the opposite of empathy, see it as an opportunity for insight.

Designing With

However, our differences alone are not what creates the spark of insight, it is still through the process of empathizing that creates that particular spark. Difference becomes a pre-condition for innovation; however, not the source for innovation itself. It is not independent perspectives themselves that create insight, but the molding of two persepctives into one.

How might we turn a process of empathy that is typically seen as the designer empathizing with the user, into a model of accompniment that is now permeating international development, education, and many other fields? What does accompaniment have to teach design?

Empathize with Accompaniment in Mind

Accompaniment is the process by which we recognize each other’s humanity, and share in a common human experience that bonds us to another in a way that moves beyond emapthizing with an end user.

There’s an element of mystery, of openness, in accompaniment: I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads. I’ll keep you company and share your fate for a while. And by “a while,” I don’t mean a little while. Accompaniment is much more often about sticking with a task until it’s deemed completed by the person or people being accompanied, rather than by the accompagnateur. — Paul Farmer

It seems now commonplace for designers to empathize with end users, but how might we move beyond that? How might we open oursleves up for the “end user” to empathize with the designer — creating a true model of accompnaiment within Design Thinking?