IDC 2017: Design with Empathy
– by Vincent Ong
On its maiden year, the International Design Conference urges businesses to go beyond aesthetics when thinking about design
MAKATI—Design Center Philippines, under the Department of Trade and Industry, hosted the first International Design Conference on September 22 at The Eye, Green Sun in Makati City. Themed “Future Proof thru Design Thinking,” the conference was headlined by industry greats from advertising, industrial design, fashion and education industries, and was co-produced with ASPACE Philippines.
But first things first, what is “design thinking”, and what exactly does it protect us from?
Design thinking is a problem-solving method which employs techniques commonly used by designers—such as interviewing and research, prototyping and experimentation—to come up with innovative solutions that are based on and tailored to the consumer’s needs.
As for efficacy, Johan Persson, industrial designer and founder of C’monde Studios, provided quantitative data showing the difference “between companies that use design as a strategy and those that do not”. The image was not pretty.
Throughout the conference, the buzzword seemed to be “empathy”. We should know by now that designers must be great listeners. But in order to come up with actionable solutions, one has to employ other senses as well. Merlee Jayme of Dentsu Jayme Syfu quoted Steve Jobs in her talk, “Some people think design means how things look. But if you dig deeper, it’s really how things work.”
Jayme illustrated her point using her agency’s famed pocket fire extinguisher. It started with a fire prevention poster design contest. But she knew that no matter how beautifully designed a poster was, it wasn’t enough to solve the problem. It wouldn’t reach the ones who needed it the most: The ones who couldn’t afford actual fire extinguishers and lived in areas where streets were too narrow for fire trucks to pass. And so they began to address the root of the problem: cost, availability and distribution.
To put it plainly, design thinking future-proofs our interests by making sure the design systems that we put into place are relevant, actionable and efficient.
4B cofounder and SVA faculty member Dan Formosa provided a great example when we he asked the audience to identify the locations of joints in our own hands. Virtually everyone got it wrong because we assumed the answer, instead of trying to move our hands and see from there. He stressed that to better understand and design for the human form and mind, designers must be involved in practices of ergonomics and psychology.
Trend forecasting giant WGSN’s Charlie Clark gave us a different approach to future-proofing by way of cool hunting. If we pick up on the little cues of the world around us and combine that with an awareness of social, political, financial sentiments on a macro scale, then we can foresee what is about to come. Say, the wellness trend that pervades today—if salad delivery services, IV drip lounges and fashionable workout studios aren’t proof enough. But hold up, remember when “athleisure” wasn’t yet a word and it wasn’t acceptable to post workout selfies? Exactly. And one day the wave shall pass, too. In fact, it’s already begun elsewhere—with beer yoga and nap workouts.
While predicting the future is one way of ensuring it, the other is to create it by informing the next generation. Gerson Abesamis, executive director of Habi Lab Education, puts the focus on the means and the product of the education system—the teachers themselves. By constantly holding workshops that encourage them to re-evaluate their passion and profession, as well as the factors surrounding it, such as school culture and resources, they can come up with newer structures and learning programs that better fit the school’s and the students’ needs. By empowering the educator, they empower the students who in turn, continue to teach the educator. The teachers can thus draw from their experiences and learn from their students.
“Some people think design means how things look. But if you dig deeper, it’s really how things work.”
So, now what? How do we design-think?
It’s simpler than it sounds, and you might’ve already been doing it. First is to empathize with the consumer to know the current situation. Second is defining the problem based on this knowledge. Third, ideate a solution. Fourth, prototype and test. (If it doesn’t work out, return to previous steps.) And last, humanize the story to make it shareable. (Get the word on your cause out there. No publicity is bad publicity as the adage goes.)
The process isn’t always linear, and there are always more or less steps depending on who you ask. But the thought remains the same: Find real solutions to real problems through empathy and experience.