Empathy in graphic design


Empathy in graphic design has recently become a popular topic. All thanks to design thinking, user experience and determining the ideal customer’s avatar. Designing should put the user in the center and focus. This is where empathy comes in.


According to Berne Brown, empathy allows us to connect with others and has four main qualities  – perspective-taking, stay out of judgment, recognition of the emotions of other people, and communicating that. It is a sign of sensitivity,  vulnerability and using it helps someone and improve his/her situation.



So, once again, what is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to empathize with other people without being in the same situation. Thanks to it, we can understand the problems they are struggling with and the feelings they are experiencing.

In the 1960s, scientists conducted an experiment on monkeys. One group of individuals had access to a chain that, when pulled, released food. This award was associated with something else. Every time a monkey pulled the chain another was electrocuted. It was noted that the monkeys that controlled access to food did not want to pull the string, knowing that it would cause pain to their companions. Science came to the conclusion that the monkeys were driven by empathy.

Although empathic behavior can be seen not only in people, it is assumed that it was the ability to empathize that helped our ancestors survive. This involved, among other things, taking care of offspring, the ability to guess their needs without verbal communication. Another reason is that only a healthy and harmonious tribe could survive in a hostile world full of threats. Caring for others had a key impact on the well-being of the group.

But how does this evolutionary strategy translate to design today?

The role of the designer is to take care of the needs of customers and recipients. Recognizing the problem and skillfully finding solutions that suit them. However, this is not always easy.

‘People do not always convey all the details. They may withhold information out of fear, distrust or some other inhibiting factor, be it internal or based on those with whom they are engaging. Additionally, they may express themselves in ways not extremely articulate, thus requiring the listener to make sense of what is not being said or what is being hinted at, beneath the external expressions and words. As designers, we need to develop intuition, imagination, emotional sensitivity, and creativity in or to dig deeper without prying too personally, in order to extract the right kinds of insight so as to make a more meaningful difference. ’/ Interaction Design


Is empathy in graphic design possible?

Don Norman – a promoter of human-centered design in his article for Adobe stated that empathy in design is not possible, and attempting to use it is a mistake. He also argues that for people whose work is focused on the needs of hundreds, thousands and even millions of people, it makes no sense to try to understand only one person’s perspective. In the world of brand design, where narrowing the target group and putting the user’s needs at the center are so important, this may seem controversial.

Don Norman, however, supports the concept of human-centered design where the most important is to understand the mechanisms that are behind the actions of users. Finding solutions occurs through interaction with people affected by the problem, research, and test. His process is based on knowledge, research, and facts, and empathy, even if possible, won’t be beneficial to the community. According to Norman, each of us is different. In this case, the empathy-based design has no right to succeed.

To make things even more difficult, it turns out that we are more empathic with those who remind us of ourselves with whom we feel connected. In the designer’s work often, however, we are put in a situation where we have to play the role of people that we don’t know and we’ve never interacted with.


Firstly, I often don’t understand the things I do myself. It’s amazing how little empathy I have for myself. In part, that’s because most of our behaviors creep in subconsciously. The conscious mind then watches over it and tries to rationalize and make sense of it. Often the next day we wonder “why did I say that?” or “why did I do that and not this other thing?” My conscious mind has little or no empathy with my subconscious.

~ Don Norton

“21st Century Design” Don Norman – Interaction19 from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.


In psychology, there is the concept of perfect empathy, which is characterized by impartiality, objectivity, and selflessness. You probably do not have to guess that such an ideal does not exist and that this everyday, ordinary empathy is far from perfection. Usually, the one we have is biased and subjective.

As you can see, our empathy is far from ideal, and probably Norman had in mind denying the purposefulness of its use in design. However, even this imperfect empathy, in my opinion, is useful in our work. Because it is often a trigger of action taking.

That is why you can agree with Don Norman that striving for ideal empathy in graphic design is pointless. On the other hand, even the imperfect one that we have can help us notice the problem and lead to appropriate action. It can also help in gaining trust in working with the client and ensuring good relations.


Empathy in design and the client

I know from my own experience that the clients with whom we are able to establish a greater emotional bond, show that we listen to their stories and are interested in the problems they face, they will trust us sooner and will be open to suggestions.

Our task is often to maintain a balance between the expectations of both parties –  our customers and their audience. However, to be able to achieve this, we often have to reach for empathy. Be able to empathize with the situation of both may be crucial.

This proves that the empathic behavior we display towards our clients can help us convince them that we are the people they want to work with, help them stay longer and make them come back to us.


Empathy in graphic design and the user

When I build a brand strategy for my clients, I spend a lot of time understanding the problems their customers are facing. Getting to know the target group and a thorough understanding of their needs is for me one of the most important steps in designing.

This skill is useful not only in branding. It’s similar in web design. This is, often the first touchpoint between customers and our brand, which is a website, is an important tool in building trust among recipients. However, for this to be possible, empathic thinking and the ability to empathize are important. What are they looking for, what problems are they facing, how do they use the internet, what makes them decide? This information is obtained from in-depth research, but to interpret it well we often reach for empathy.


Where is the place for empathy in design


Empathy helps us to better understand others, creates a desire to explore their problems and understand what they are struggling with. Empathy, in this case, may be the reason why we want to take action. May underlie design. Create questions and willingness to find solutions and answers.

In design thinking, empathy is the first step in the process of creating a project/product. At this stage, we need to thoroughly understand what he may feel, what problems they are facing.

In preparation for project creation, focusing on thorough interviews and research seems crucial. The right attitude helps. As in everyday empathy, impartiality and lack of judgment will be important. An additional approach to the subject without assuming that we know everything, the ability to listen and ask the right questions.

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Written by Magdalena

Written by Magdalena

Brand Specialist

I am on a mission to empower small entrepreneurs in reaching their brand’s goals, connect with the right audience and stand out from the crowd. I use strategy and design to show their brand’s true potential.

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