Contempt by Design:

When Empathy turns into Hatred of Everyday Life


Those of us in the global consumer class are told every day that everything is changing. Things are apparently changing at an ever-accelerating rate. There is nothing you can do but try to adapt.

The cause of all this change is technological innovation. New devices and systems are being invented all the time. Each of these new things, it is claimed, is not just added to our existing piles of stuff or fitted into our existing daily routines. Rather, these things ‘disrupt’ how we live and work. Each new piece of technology opens up new ways of living and working. So, we must change to take advantage of all of these inventions.

But there is something missing from this account. Innovations do not diffuse on their own. The change that some new technology entails is something that must be designed. Design is the magical process that can work out 
1) how to fit new products into the practice of everyday life, but then also, 
2) allow those products to change those practices. A new invention’s design makes me want to buy it, indicates how to fit it into my life, and then guides me into ways of making all that it can do habitual in my changed existence. Technologies can only change lives when all that is involved in their use has been comprehensively designed.

What is this magical thing we call design?

Half of design is an expert understanding of materials, including pixels and bytes. Designers have deep training in lots of different types of forms, in how to make materials take on those forms, and in patterns of interactions or meanings associated with those forms in different cultural contexts.

The other half of design is understanding people, their activities, expectations and habits. There is such a big demand for design these days that this half of design has been separated out from the crafting-form expertise, so that non-designers can do some of it. This what gets called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is essentially a set of techniques for participant observation: find some people, spend some time with them, develop some ideas for them or preferably with them, try those ideas out on them. The process seems too simple to be powerful.

The magic of design thinking lies, many claim, in empathy. The exercises of a design thinking workshop give you rich access to how people actually live and work so that you can have insights into what is too often ignored as obvious and normal.

Animism by Design

The problem with separating the Design Thinking side of people-doing-things from the Design side of giving-form-to-things is that it forgets that empathy is also involved in the latter. When designing, designers develop empathetic understandings of the situations people are in, but they then translate that empathy into things. They make things understand something about human habits and expectations. And they do this by being able to not only empathize with people, but with things themselves. Designers can think from the perspective of a product.

This ladder, for instance, knows that humans get preoccupied with getting higher and higher, often to a point that endangers them. Less empathetic ladders have signs on the top rung saying ‘No Step.’ This ‘safety ladder’ removes the possibility of being precariously on the top step altogether.

This is the real power of design: noticing people-thing-interactions at the level of fine detail. With this ‘materialist empathy,’ designers move from being the people who can help diffuse an innovation, to the people who do the innovating. Designers are so empathetic with the things we do each day that they can notice problems that you did not even know you had.

There is something quite wonderful about this. Someone somewhere, who does not know you, noticed a very small everyday pain that you suffer — spilling a little cold water on yourself as you unpack the dishwasher. They convinced a wide range of people to make something that would change the world into a place without that pain. This is the gift of design — materializing empathy into the form of some everyday thing; making the world more humane for humans one thing at a time.

Design, from this perspective, is a very political act. It is a sensitivity to people that those who do not really understand design tend to dismiss as excessive. Sara Wachter-Boettcher has pointed out that what design thinking should be thinking about, the details that obsessive designers focus on, are precisely all the small ways that things like drop-down menus in website can offend. Wachter-Boettcher’s argument has of course attracted bullies, people who think that we should all just ‘grow-up.’ These are the kind of people who presumably would argue that when it starts getting cold, rather than escaping into a designed house, or designed clothes, you should just ‘tough it out.’

By contrast, design wants to act on behalf of as many people as possible. We design to make things for people we do not know, to free them from the need to do things for themselves. This is humans at their best.

But there are dangers. Empathy is not inherently good. To be a torturer also requires some degree of empathy.

Too many Things

from Peter Menzel’s Material World

The most visible danger flows from the generosity of design empathy. Every time designers notice pain points, obstacles, or even just opportunities for things to happen a little more productively or pleasantly, the outcome is another thing. The households and landfills of the global consumer class are stuffed with these things. Each one is the result of someone somewhere imagining something to improve some aspect of everyday life. And for each item we own, we must have, perhaps without thinking it fully through, agreed with the designer that this would enhance our quality of life a little — unless you think that people are just dupes, forced to buy useless things. Our societies are unsustainable because mass production has allowed designer empathy to go unchecked.

Distrusting People

Empathy for people can also, ironically, involve distrust of people. Design as innovation can be perversely cynical.

When people already know what their problems are, they need problem-solvers not design innovators. Designers study people carefully, using design thinking techniques to pay close attention to their everyday material practices, in order to find things that those people did not realize were significant problems. The good version of this assumes that people are often too focused on other things to have noticed their real problem; they are constrained, and so make-do, not paying heed to how else things could be. The bad version assumes that people are often dumb; they are doing things in painfully inefficient or ineffective ways because they know no better. Such people of course deserve to have their lives disrupted, for their own good.

The cynical kind of design thinking often privileges actions over talk. It actively distrusts how people try to make sense of what they are doing and focuses only on their behavior. This happens when advertisers declare that people ‘know not what they do,’ so why ask them what they want. But it is also happening when big data analysts claim to be able to predict your desires before you have even articulated them.

Saving Time for Who and for What?

Even when design innovators are sympathetic to the daily constraints that might cause people to miss better ways of doing things, there is a wider danger. The slogan that has characterized the value of technical innovations throughout the twentieth century is ‘labor-saving.’ Designs empathetically do things for people — remove obstacles, prevent mistakes, automate repetitive tasks — to make living less effortful. These conveniences seem inherently good; easier is better, isn’t it?

But much of what we value manifests as things that we are prepared to work hard at: exercise, mastering a skill, building something complex. So should everything have labor-saving design thinking applied to it? We are saving time and effort on some aspects of life so that, presumably, we can reinvest that time and effort in other things. Given all these design innovations then, what are we doing with our resulting surpluses?

There is clearly an issue here of who is getting to save time and effort at doing what. There are plenty of people burdened by tasks that could be facilitated by designed products and services. Invariably, these are precisely the people who cannot afford those designs. So instead, these designs are aiding people who then redirect their saved time and effort into working more, rather than humanitarian or avocational or leisure activities. It is problematic when some people are designing things to save themselves time so that they can have more time to design more things to save themselves more time.

Living is too Hard

So at what and for who should designers be directing their insightful empathy? These decisions seem at risk of perpetuating a weird contempt for everyday life.

Consider this fairly conventional opinion piece about User eXperience Design. The author opens with what he assumes to be an uncontroversial claim: “No one wants to wash clothes. No one. If someone tells you that they want to wash clothes, they do not know what they are saying. What they really mean is, I want clean clothes.” The belligerence of the rhetoric suggests someone who really detests the material practice of laundering. The language is so strong, it immediately made me want to think of all the ways that the process of cleaning clothes could be enjoyable: remembering the edicts of your mother as your sorted whites from coloreds; puzzling through stain removal; the satisfaction of a well-functioning, energy and water efficient washing machine; the smell and feel of clean clothes; meditative clothes folding. No doubt there are many who must launder more than me for whom these pleasures are impossible; hence ‘wash-day blues.’ But that ‘no one’ of ‘no one wants to wash clothes’ is so contemptuously absolute.

Both Thomas Tierney and David Noble have written about the fact that dominant religions for a long time shunned technology because earthly life was supposed to be hard. It is only the after-life that should involve less suffering. Both argue, in different ways, that when Christianity accepted the introduction of labor-saving devices into everyday life, it did so because these innovations were considered to be compatible with religion’s contempt for mortal living. They were either bringing some godliness to the existence of those humans who deserved it, or they were accelerating the coming of end-times. Either way, the purpose of technology was to escape everyday life, to access what lies above and beyond material suffering.

There is then, Tierney and Noble suggest, a distaste for everyday life at the heart of these design innovations. Even when technologists work on eternal life, there is often still the question, ‘what will they do with all that time?’ The question arises because they have already outsourced most of living to machines.

This is the greatest danger of design empathy; that its concern for humans and its insight into materiality end up being contempt for all the friction and finitude of everyday life. To counter this we all, but especially designers, must learn to empathize with the activities of everyday life. We must use design thinking not to eradicate all the hardships of everyday life, but rather to find existing everyday pleasures in material practices. We must be prepared to listen to people when they say that they do enjoy doing some mundane tasks. We must accept that not everything needs to be disrupted, that some things need not be changed.

Enjoying Everyday

To this end, consider this beautiful (ethnographic?) account of the pleasures that can come from the friction involved in doing the dishes —empathetically the opposite of a contempt for everyday life. The author is Nicholson Baker, from A Box of Matches:

This is write-up of TEDxCMU talk