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The Empathy Muscle

by Miki Saxon


There was a time, and still is to millions, when “design” meant looking pretty—or not.

Design certainly didn’t refer to finding solutions to life’s real problems.

Of course, first you have to identify the problems, which isn’t done 140 characters at a time.

You won’t find them with Google and there’s no app for that.

Identifying real-world problems requires actually talking (gasp) to people—and real world experience doesn’t hurt.

This may be why senior entrepreneurs are on the rise, since it means communicating with empathy and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Empathy seems to be in short supply the younger you go, but it can be taught and where else but at D.school—the top design school.

At the heart of the school’s courses is developing what David Kelley, one of the school’s founders, calls an empathy muscle. … the students are taught to forgo computer screens and spreadsheets and focus on people.

So far, that process has worked. In the eight years since the design school opened, students have churned out dozens of innovative products and start-ups. They have developed original ways to tackle infant mortality, unreliable electricity and malnutrition in the third world, as well as clubfoot, a common congenital deformity that twists a baby’s feet inward and down. (…)

Mr. Kothari also said his plans took a new path. Before he took his first D.school course in 2008, he said, he spent most of his spare time in front of a computer, brainstorming ideas for websites and mobile apps that never materialized. Design was always an afterthought. But he says that first ramen assignment became the prelude to a revolutionary new way of solving problems by spending time with people to understand how they live their lives.

Empathy muscle.

I like that.

Too bad the teaching is limited to design and only at one school.

It’s definitely a muscle that is lacking in many of the under-25 crowd and badly atrophied in much of the rest of the population.

Flickr image credit: Arya Ziai

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