How does co-design approach empathy?

Co-design looks at empathy in a different way to other design perspectives. The “co-” can mean lots of things, but one description is the working across boundaries with those who find themselves on either side. These might be roles of carer and patient, parent and child, manager and employee, waiter and customer — designer and user.

Through its framing of design as a collective endeavor across boundaries, empathy is no longer one part of the process of design, it becomes the main purpose of co-design.

Co-design, reluctantly perhaps, will always place empathy over beauty. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, co-design is the attempt to share the experience of beauty despite the differences that people hold and the diversity of human experiences.

To practice co-design is to experience the challenge of being empathetic. The more people who are involved in the design process, the more complex human relationships become. If there are two people in the design process then there is one relationship (although there can be an infinite reverberation in the minds of each person about that relationship — e.g. “I think, that you think, that I think …”).

If we add more people and more boundaries (e.g. roles or formal positions) into the design process things get complicated very quickly. Graph theory and networks are helpful here. With three people there are only three relationships, but with five people there are ten relationships, and with ten people there are 45 relationships.

This is not very intuitive for most people, so try to imagine how many different two-way conversations need to take place in a group for everyone to speak to everyone else (the calculation from graph theory is n(n-1)/2).

With more people things increase rapidly. This complexity, and the strain it can put on the social brain, has led social theorists, like anthropologist Robin Dunbar, to propose a limit of the number of human relationships that any individual can maintain. The Dunbar number is 150 people. And at this point there are 11,175 possible relationships in the social group! This is a lot of social activity for your brain to keep track of.

The brutal complexity of this arithmetic is enough to make any co-designer humble to the task of being empathetic and making things better for other people. But it also reminds any designer how important other people are in the design process, and how complex this is.

The co-designer makes a conscious decision to design “with” people rather than “for” them.