1. Ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

People often confuse the words empathy and sympathy. Empathy means ‘ability to understand and share the feelings of’ someone else, whereas sympathy means ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’.

Empathy, at Design Academy Eindhoven, is an important tool for understanding and feeling for one another and for analysing the other’s reactions. During the design process, the ability to empathise can be very useful for a design researcher because it is related to the unknown ‘other’ and can unveil new possibilities. Empathy involves being aware of, and taking into consideration, more points of view than a designer may initially have envisaged – it is being open to someone else’s thoughts, and accepting, rather than judging, a situation. Empathy is essential for a designer as it enables the designer to understand, and thus be able to design for, ‘the other’.

Developing empathy can be an active process in which the designer decides to step into someone else’s shoes and take responsibility for listening and understanding the other person. This is a process which might result in a change of perspective on the designer’s part, and which thus influences his or her next step – designing in a way that is understandable and useful for the ‘reader’ or user, incorporating what the designer has come to understand that the audience wants or feels. The process can also be initiated the other way around – designers starting by researching how the viewers could empathise with their work, before commencing the design.

‘Empathic conversations’ is a term sometimes used for a fairly informal, yet productive, way of engaging with people in order to better understand their points of view. The format can, for instance, be a semi-structured interview that is based on a list of questions or topics that the researcher wishes to address, but which are introduced into an informally structured dialogue that flows from one subject to the next. Co-creation workshops, or other group activities, can also serve as empathic conversations. Listening and empathy are crucial in all these exchanges because the goal of the design researcher is to place him or herself into the shoes of the other.

DAE examples

  • Gijs Kast, Böhnhase, Graduation project Man and Communication, 2008


  • Raijmakers, B., Van Dijk G., Lee, Y. & Williams, S. (2009). Designing Empathic Conversations for Inclusive Design Facilitation, in proceedings of the Include. Royal College of Art: London. [accessed 25 November 2016].