The Shape of Empathy

I walk into the studio and see an array of art scattered through the space. We sit at a desk and start talking while chomping down tacos. We don’t immediately talk about Maslo, we start on a more philosophical level. Several weeks ago Russ had made the point that we’re not living in a simulation. We agree… there is an odd feeling that the way things work in the universe, at least from our perspective, is strangely serendipitous. Intentions are shared into the ether and life happens. His point ended with the argument that we’re not living in a simulation because Pi does not end. 3.1415 goes on forever. If this were a simulation, the system would run out of memory and crash. But here we are, eating tacos.

The Study

Some would like to think that empathy is exclusively human. I believe empathy to be more than a feeling but a completely universal language with its own lexicon and syntax. Our work at Maslo involves creating empathetic technology, so when designing how that looks, feels, and is expressed… what better materials to use than charcol, paint, chalk and a good ol’ fashioned subjective experiment. A simple set of prompts helped guide this exercise in empathetic design. Along with a time limit we asked ourselves: What does empathy look like?


  1. The feeling when one is learning about airplanes.
  2. The feeling when the teacher leaves the room.
  3. The feeling the day before winter break.
  4. The feeling when there is a new student in class.
I love the third set.

Instinctive Analysis

I felt uncomfortable on the first round of drawings. Not only was I trying to pinpoint the feeling that each prompt gave me, but I was getting used to the way I expressed myself on the canvas. After each round of expression, we hung up the papers and contemplated the work side by side, and (as humans do) began to notice interesting patterns including the relationship between the mood and the expressiveness.

Here’s two prompt sets that are a bit easier to analyze. Generally speaking, the day before winter break is a positive time… there’s excitement. The emotion that I felt in this is positive and happy.

The Day Before Holiday Break (Image set 1)

Whereas the teacher leaving the classroom left me feeling a bit unsettled and the resulting work was uncertain and unresolved.

Teacher Leaving the Classroom (Image set 2)

Compiled Overlay

Now let’s clump them together to make some sort of cheap Rorschach knockoff. I took pictures of each painting and compiled into a layered photoshop document removing all color and leaving just the marks. Without working too hard, you can see the mood for image 1 is much more expanded, symmetrical and fills the canvas. Whereas the mood for image 2 leads to a smaller asymmetrical image. Pretty cool that our brain inheritly does this, right?

Overlay of image sets 1 and 2

What we sometimes fail to understand or take for granted is our emotions and feelings have a direct connection with our body. What we feel, as a result of environment, substance, context and other signals can be expressed externally to be captured, processed, and understood by others. As a unspoken form of communication.

How do you summarize what Maslo knows?

I AM GLAD YOU ASKED. Our approach to design is human centric. We don’t want to create some sort of chatbot or an advanced menu system (looking at you, Siri). We’re going for COMPANIONSHIP which by definition means to share in the experience.

Humans are not chatbots, humans are fluid, and Maslo should be that too.

We have been thinking through how to accurately and comprehensively express what Maslo knows and we outright reject notions of dashboards and other linear thinking type devices. We in particular are thinking through experiences for group leaders, such as teachers, in being able to understand the collective empathetic vibe of their communities. This blog outlines one of the design exercises we happened into. Note: at Maslo we attempt to be holistic and consistent in how we do everything — document everything, commune with each other, be transparent, and try lateral approaches to everything.

Further Reading

Maslo is in beta… get it on the app store here.