Empathy: The root of all design

Or, my three holiday wishes as a designer

Robbin Arcega
Dec 26, 2018 · 4 min read

I’m writing from my dear friend’s house in Ludwigsburg, Germany this Christmas. This is the first year that I can say, “I’m a designer!” when people ask me during the holidays. (Okay, so I still can’t really explain it to people who are not familiar with the concept outside of Silicon Valley, but it seems to be enough to say, “I design websites and stuff”, even though that’s not necessarily true.) For whatever reason, humans enjoy good cheer and treating each other kindly during this month and the rest of the year is sort of hit or miss, so I wanted to talk about some of the warm thoughts I had during my trip. But first, a gif of pizza by Mauro Gatti.

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YES. THIS IS EXCELLENT.

I have some of the best discussions with my friends who live here, and it was wonderful to be able to see them again to have those big talks. One of the topics was about the heavy question of whether people in politics are shooting themselves in the foot. (Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be an article on politics. That’s not what this blog does.) In the end, though we all had differing opinions, the important thing is that we agreed that the desire to understand the other person is one of the biggest factors in peaceful discourse.

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Take On Me: what I think of when I hear “framing”

I found myself looping back to design a lot more than I thought as we spoke. I remembered all of the advice that senior designers had given me, and one of them was to remember that how we frame a story or problem makes all the difference in how we design. If we only view a feature or a product through the lens of “how much revenue will this make”, it will blind us to other important things, like “perhaps this may not agree with my definition of ethical”. An episode of BBC Radio 4’s programme, The Digital Human, mentions an A/B test where a woman’s voice almost always won out when it came to giving Siri a voice. Hopefully, you can imagine the types of discussions people can have on the topic.

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Never thought I’d use a Spongebob gif to denote diversity, but here we are.

Or, in other words, diversity matters. The word is certainly thrown around a lot, but it is my hope that people will remember what that actually means. What I mean is this: are we keeping our unconscious biases in check? Or are we trapped in the hidden privilege of design because it’s what we’ve learned in our classes or our previous jobs? Having a diverse team — with respect to race, sexual orientation, class, medical condition, and more — opens up a world of design that hasn’t been as thoroughly explored yet.

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I also never thought I’d show my age based on the gifs I choose, but hey.

Being a designer is a privilege, not a right. I personally believe that it is an honor to be able to design anything that reaches more people than just myself. When I take on a design challenge, I want to make sure that I’m challenging more than just my design chops: I want to ask myself if I’ve thought of who might actually use this design. I want to be able to say, “I’ve thought of what I could think of, but I most certainly need to talk to several people in this audience.” It’s my due diligence. The last thing I want is to accidentally perpetuate harmful stereotypes. There’s social impact, and then there’s the heart behind it. Remembering that being a designer doesn’t mean being a savior is key. I hope to be the sort of quiet hero that listens before they act. When I ask why do you do x? in research, I’m not doing it just for data. I am legitimately interested in a person’s story and why they feel the way they do when a question is posed. I like to think that sincerity is not manufactured in designers; I like to think that it’s a constant.

Hope you all have a lovely holiday. Rest, relax, and take that merry spirit with you all the way into 2019. Cheers!

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