Compassionate Design

Image from Flickr user staflo

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of compassion lately, and about how it relates to my work as a designer. It’s a tricky concept. When you look for definitions of the word compassion, ideas like pity and suffering come up quite a bit. While they might fit some situations, they’re not quite what I’m thinking of. They seem a bit desperate and hopeless. Ideas like empathy and commonality have more appeal. Concepts that embrace our shared humanity, in all its imperfection. Our abilities and inabilities, and how both can be respected in equal measure.

To paraphrase my go-to dictionary app, Terminology, compassion is:

the humane quality of understanding the challenges of others and wanting to do something about it

So if that’s compassion, what would Compassionate Design encompass? To me, it would combine the ideas of universal/inclusive design and user experience design to create work that is user centered, accessible and positive for the widest possible audience. It’s design that is tolerant of user error. It’s design that rewards the best of our human qualities, like curiosity, generosity and sociability, but is forgiving of some of our lesser qualities as well.

I see this as design that gives back more than it takes. Design that makes a difficult task easier, and gets you to smile while you’re doing it. Design that requires you to depend less on what you know, and more on what you can see, feel and intuit. It’s design that uses scarce resources wisely, whether those be physical, like oil and plastic, or mental, like close attention.

I like this concept of Compassionate Design. It calls on designers to be attentive to the needs of their users. To make their lives simpler instead of more complicated. It asks designers to understand their users at a deep level, to feel what they are feeling, and to want to do something to make things better. Sign me up.

Image by Flickr user staflo

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Comments (2)

    It is midnight on Vancouver Island and I came upon your blogpost about compassionate design. I have been thinking for quite a while now about it at a more “personal” level. I deeply enjoy interior design but am put off by the material vanity and price tags, meaning it being undemocratic. Every soul on this planet needs some sort of shelter from the storms of life and longs for a home. I got to know people that have chaos at home and in their house or trailer, their kids don’t have a “kids room”and wonder why the little ones drive them crazy… No shelter, no reprieve, no exhaling,no smiles…homeless in their hearts. I wonder if these souls are still visually attracted to things and if their home was somewhat helped, dare I say transformed, would it make a difference.
    My idea is to have a nonprofit interior design, I guess since its free more of a decorating service for people who can’t even afford a house and home magazine. Im hoping theyll feel happier in their homes, easing lifes troubles for at least a few minutes a day, not shutting out community because ones too embarassed to have a neighbour or a kids playdate over…Does that sound crazy? You can get some great free stuff these days on the Internet and handy people seem to willing to lend the occasional hand.Of course my husband isn’t too excited about the nonprofit part, but anyhow…
    Reading your article encouraged me to investigate this crazy idea further…after all design should be accessible to anybody and enhance ones life.What do you think?
    Thanks for your time,

      Hi Miriam, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I’ve no doubt that the sort of program that you describe could very well make a positive difference in the lives of folks that are already stretched to the limit, financially or otherwise. I think it’s true that surroundings that we dislike or even are embarrassed about can keep us in an unsettled state of mind, perhaps compounding other issues. I seem to remember some sort of TV show a few years ago that paired a psychologist with an interior designer to help families to identify and work on interpersonal issues and to address them in part through changes to their living space. It was good, I wish I could remember the name of it (my wife thinks it might have been called “Fix this House”).

      What you propose sounds like it would be really rewarding on a personal level, maybe you have to find a way to make it more of a part-time volunteer thing and see where it takes you. I do some volunteer work with homeless/marginalized people, just at an “out of the cold” supper and find it very rewarding and eye-opening. It certainly changes your perspective. Everybody has a story, that’s for sure. I’d never thought of trying to use my design skills in this way, you have a very interesting idea there — doesn’t sound crazy at all.

      Best regards, Stewart

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