10 Tools for Empathetic Design

10 Tools for Empathetic Design

We’ve discussed the importance of empathy in design in many blog posts, but how do we implement it and practice it? Here are 10 tools for empathetic design that should help to get you started, and each is explored in more detail below. Remember, empathy takes practice and intentional work.


    1. Engage and Observe
    2. Use Humility
    3. Care
    4. Be Transparent
    5. Experience
    6. Questions – Why
    7. Listening
    8. Imagination
    9. Sustainability – Caring for Creation
    10. Universal Design – Equality

1: Engage and Observe

Crossroads Farm House porch

To design good buildings, you must first engage and observe the people you intend to design for without ego. Work hard to understand and experience the feelings of others. Watch for body language, cues, and habits – seeking to get through to what is really driving the desire.

2: Use Humility

Use humility to elevate the value of others above ourselves. Understanding that each of us have limited experiences and therefore shortfalls to achieve good design alone. We as architects can get hung up on the idea that we know design and therefore know the right solution. However, each of us is limited to our own experiences and thus need others to be able to design a better future for all. We have to invite in stakeholders that have different experiences and views to fully understand the design challenge and to create more holistic design solutions.

3: Care

Keezletown Farmhouse exterior deck

Care about your clients, the community, and the environment deeply.

4: Be Transparent

Be transparent in your thoughts and actions. After all, you are translating dreams.

5: Experience

You will pull from your life experiences, but that is not enough. You have to pull from the users experiences and put yourself in their shoes. You have to know the experience of your community to completely design for your community. This is where being of the community is so important. How do you engage others and get to know them? How do you understand their lived experiences? How do you design with meaning? You do it through understanding experiences.

6: Questions – Why

Pull out their stories, challenges, desires, needs, and wants by asking why, then why, then why.

7: Listening

It takes time and practice to take notes while listening fully, listening to hear, not listening to respond. Active listening is hard for sure. You have to clear your mind and fully engage in the conversation.

8: Imagination

Put yourself in your client’s position and ask yourself questions – use your imagination.

9: Sustainability – Caring for Creation

True sustainability relies on an architecture that not only reduces our impact on the available resources on the planet but also recognizes, grounds, and affirms our need to be vulnerable, mentally healthy, and connected to each other and nature.

“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations”  ~ The great law of the Iroquois Confederacy 

10: Universal Design – Equality

Stairwell in blue, Eastern Mennonite School's color.

Design for any ability rather than specific disabilities which invites equal access for all.

Using these 10 tools will lead to a better future – A future that builds community for all.

Using empathy to build better community

Using empathy to build better community

As architects, our purpose is to shape the built world we live together within and to create a more equitable and just world through design. I believe a key component of designing for a community is to understand that community. You have to be of the community to connect with the community. You have to be open to sharing experiences, knowing that you don’t know every experience, that you can’t see every solution to every problem in a silo of your own experiences, and that you need community, partners, and other viewpoints to design holistic solutions. This requires work to connect with people in a place, hear their stories, understand their point of view, see what has shaped them, and better understand their experiences to expand your ability to design for them. 

There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work…that a [person] is entirely responsible for [their] own problems; and that to cure [themselves], [they] need only change [themselves]…. The fact is, a person is so formed by [their] surroundings, that [their] state of harmony depends entirely on [their] harmony with [their] surroundings. ~ Christopher Alexander

So why don’t we see empathy being used in design on a regular basis? The challenge to take on empathetic design is change. You have to open up and be vulnerable, hear others fully, and be willing to let go of what you thought was right solely based on your past experiences. I believe we are at a turning point in the world where disharmony sells and many are not focused on helping each other or building a better world. It is time for all of us to lead with empathy, to sell harmony in our communities, and to build a better future together. We need to step forward to make positive change. If we don’t do it, then who will?

Empathy as a Design Tool

Empathy as a Design Tool

Empathy as a Design Tool

Using empathy as a design tool is a powerful way to create buildings with purpose. It is the way to design custom homes that are dream homes. It is the way to design businesses that a community loves. Using empathy is how we design differently from others.

Empathetic design means understanding the users’ dreams, hopes, habits, and way of life. In other words, it means putting yourself and your experiences into their shoes to respond to their needs, wants, hopes, and dreams. Empathy will help designers set aside their own assumptions in order to understand the client’s motivations and experiences. It helps you figure out the needs of the client so we can provide solutions that are meaningful and go beyond surface textures and beyond just new construction. 

Using empathy in design gives power to place, provides equality, comfort, joy, and gives mutual respect to earth and user. This approach to design leads to innovation that neither client nor architect could have produced solo. It preserves heritage and celebrates history and empowers humanity to be better.