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When we think of the word ‘design’ what comes to mind?  Possibly ‘fashion design’ or ‘engineering design’ or ‘building design’ the list could go on.  We now have ‘organisational design’.  One definition of the word design is:  purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact or object.  This definition seems somewhat cold.  When we think of the word design, often the idea of creating something colourful or elaborate comes to mind.  The notion of creating something often evokes some sort of palpable feeling.  There is often an emotive connection that is often felt with the idea of working on a design.  It is no wonder that design has, until now, been the domain of creatives.

Design thinking offers a way of approaching solutions to sticky or wicked problems from a different perspective; one that employs collaborative and co-operative ways of working and places those people who will be most affected by any potential solution to the problem at the heart of the process.


The first step of any problem-solving process is to first understand the problem and this involves collecting data.  Hard data such as facts and figures can be readily be found – just look around the internet or an organisation’s intranet.  But what about the ‘soft data’ that which resides in the people who are affected by the problem?  Listening to their stories that includes an emotional component can unearth challenges and opportunities that may not be evident from reviewing facts and figures.  Seeing and experiencing the problem from the perspective of another person is true empathy and can be revealing and insightful.


Empathy can be explained as having both emotional and cognitive elements.  Emotional empathy can be described as something that is felt, shared and experienced by both persons, this type of empathy can have an instinctive or intuitive feel to it.  Cognitive empathy invites the other person to understand, at an intellectual level, how the other person experiences the issue[1]  Both types of empathy are important to help generate understanding.




Empathy is integral to the first part of our design thinking process.  Listening to peoples’ stories (narratives) is vital to understand the emotional and cognitive experiences of the ‘solution-users’.

[1] Perspective and Use of Empathy in Design Thinking.  Andrea Alessandro Gaspirini.  February, 2015

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