01.10.23
Kaleena Sales + Omari Souza | Audio

S10E9.5: Minisode


Kaleena Sales and Omari Souza discuss past episodes featuring furniture maker Norman Teague and healthcare designer Kim Erwin

In discussing the values of empathy and compassion as tools of design Kaleena focused in on the importance of listening carefully:
You're not engaging in other people's spaces so that you can then fully understand what it's like to be them. Hopefully you walk away with some insights, but I think the most important part is really listening and then believing what other people have to say about their own experience, and then using that as a way to hopefully inform design decisions.
And building on that point Omari questioned how far empathy and compassion in design should be expanded:
If the greater globe and ecosystem is impacted by the things that we're creating and creates further issues for human beings living on it, are we really being human centered by solely thinking about how we design for them in the immediate sense, or should human centered design be something that's more of an ecosystem based design that then considers the world holistically and not just individuals.

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TRANSCRIPT

Omari Souza
Welcome to The Design of Business,

Kaleena Sales
The Business of Design — minisodes. I'm Kaleena Sales.

Omari Souza
And I'm Omari Souza. Kaleena! Happy New Year's!

Kaleena Sales
Hey, you too. Did you enjoy your holidays?

Omari Souza
Yes. I also tried not to freeze. There's like a huge cold front traveling through Texas, and on some days, we got down to single digits.

Kaleena Sales
Oh, my god.

Omari Souza
It wasn't the most pleasant thing, especially in a state that's normally known for being quite warm. How about you?

Kaleena Sales
Yeah, it's been nice. Just getting a little bit of a break from the semester, relaxing a little bit, finishing up some projects and just having sort of like mental quiet time. You realize how busy you are when you sort of chill for a second, you know? And so that's been really, really nice. And I did work a little bit, but now feel like I'm I'm ready to start the semester again. So-so, yeah, it's been good.

Omari Souza
No, I hear you on that one. Do you have any New Year's resolutions?

Kaleena Sales
I do. I set lots of New Year's resolutions. I'm someone that's really inspired. I know people sort of get tired of people that are like New Year, New me, but I I'm inspired by, like, the turning over of, like, the calendar to a new year. I like the idea of a fresh start. So I have all the traditional resolutions, you know, being healthier, spending more time with family, traveling a little bit more, all those things. But I think that one that's personal to me, too, is just being more organized. I think more and more sort of fun things on the horizon. Disorganization can be my enemy. So yeah. So I'm hoping to just kind of enter this year with a better plan of just being more organized. How about you?

Omari Souza
Drinking more water.

Kaleena Sales
Yeah.

Omari Souza
It's very boring, but drinking more water and just eating healthier. I'm getting older and not in my twenties anymore. And, you know, I feel like I need my diet to reflect that.

Kaleena Sales
Yeah. No, I hear you.

Omari Souza
All right. Let's jump on into the breakdown. Last month, Kevin and Dana spoke with furniture maker and educator Norman Teague, and to Kim Erwin, an expert in health care design.

Kaleena Sales
Both Norman and Kim design in spaces where they put the human at the center of their focus as a mentor for young design apprentices, Norman spoke to the crucial ingredient of what he hopes to communicate.

Norman Teague
As a designer, and you're dealing with humans constantly— at least the things that you're dealing with are eventually will be dealing with humans— it's really important that you be a good human I guess, or at least, you know, you're trying to be the best human you can be. And so how how do you project that on to the projects that you work on? How do you practice that on a regular basis?

Omari Souza
And having worked in health design for almost two decades, Kim elaborates on the necessity of centering the actual lived experiences of the people she designed for.

Kim Erwin
So you have to kind of bring your design thinking skills and your design-your human centered frameworks to be able to go into a home and be compassionate and listen carefully and come back with design requirements that you can do something about it is compassion. You know, people often talk about empathy as being a primary benefit of human centered design. I'm against empathy. My empathy and to $2.50 will get you on the train, as my Chicago cop friend used to say, you know, is not sufficient. My empathy is not going to help. My information, my ability to turn in that design requirements that will get us somewhere.

Kaleena Sales
I thought what Norman and Kim said was really, really interesting. Did you have any thoughts on that specifically about empathy not being enough?

Omari Souza
Yeah. So I think I had a lot of thoughts about everything that they mentioned, all of them being in agreement, but specifically as relates to the idea of empathy. I agree wholeheartedly. I think especially considering my positionality as a black male who also happens to be a designer, when I see my fellow designers practicing, I often feel like empathy is used as a substitute for lived experience and oftentimes ends up being a very superficial action. For me, it's also very difficult to build empathy for a particular situation if you've never participated in it. So, for example, as a design professor, teaching design research in particular, I often talk to my students about this idea of empathy and observational studies conducted by designers, and I often tell them the pros and cons of utilizing these different systems. But one of the things that I often mention to them is you don't want to diminish the experiences that people have, and you don't want to wear identities as costumes. And sometimes I feel like as designers, we do those things in temporary settings and automatically assume that we have all of the nuances necessary in order to make good products. So I use the examples with my students and say, okay, so if we're doing a research project and attempting to assess how design frameworks can be utilized to improve the conditions for homeless people — if as a designer, you interview a homeless person, you get their insights. But is that enough? Is that enough of an experience in order to gain full empathy for what they're going through and find innovation necessary in order to improve their lives? You also have practices where you see designers who'll dress up as somebody who's homeless and take time sleeping on the streets. And for me, I feel like it's it diminishes the experience because at any point in time, it becomes too hard, you can take the costume off and return home. The desperation that someone in that situation may feel is something that they can't escape and solutions that you may be able to find maybe difficult for you to do so because you haven't been in those situations. So for me, I try to push my students to disregard the idea of empathy and rather than doing so, adopt the idea of positionality and participatory design, where you're bringing the people in that you're designing with versus attempting to assume that I can gain enough empathy that I can design without their feedback. In relation to Norman's ideas about being a designer means that you have to be a good person. I agree with that to an extent because if you're designing for people, you have to care about people. But it also made me consider like, what are the qualifications of being a good designer or who innately who becomes equipped to have these particular skill sets? And for me, I think in many ways, coming from a subjugated background— whether it's economic subjugation, gender identity base subjugation, race based subjugation — puts you in a position where you are considering the other people around you, what they like, what their dislikes are, because you're attempting to navigate in a society with whatever limitations you have and navigate that society in a safe way and in a safe mechanism. So let's say I am a person, which I'm not, but let's say I'm a person who has a different gender identification than what's normally expected. I have to consider in very nuanced ways how I can present myself in particular settings if I want to return home safely. If I want the people around me to feel comfortable. You know, if I'm attempting to challenge the status quo and the fact that I am outside of the normal center means that I have more insights on what those in the center will feel okay with versus the things that they will not. Because my entire existence circulates around that normal center that I'm not a part of.

Kaleena Sales
What you said is so true. I remember coming across a story on my social media feed where this woman, she was a white woman, and she was talking about her experience attending an HBCU. And, you know, she said that she learned a lot and she really valued her time there. And she would—she used to, you know, sort of tell everyone that she could identify as a minority because of her experience of being a white woman at a predominantly black institution and how that really shaped our understanding of minority experiences. And so she said she was talking to one of her professors at the time about it, who was a black woman. And the black woman was like: Uh no. You have experienced this, but you actually don't know what it's like to be a minority because it's, you know, to your point you made earlier, it's not a costume that you can sort of like then take off. And so when you leave campus and you return back into the dominant culture, that's your reality. And you know someone who is a black person in this country, you know, we can't do that. And so to your point, it is really important and so critical not to think that just because we place ourselves, you know, as designers into different environments and different spaces or that we engage in certain research, that we're going to get a full understanding of any other group of people. I think what Kim said, she talked about how important it was to listen carefully. And I think that's the critical component. You're not engaging in other people's spaces so that you can then fully understand what it's like to be them. Hopefully you walk away with some insights, but I think the most important part is really listening and then believing what other people have to say about their own experience, and then using that as a way to hopefully inform design decisions.

Omari Souza
I think the other thing too that I thought about, especially in relation to Norman Teague's post about being a good human or good person to design for humans — is also the thing that I've been struggling with in terms of expanding the center, in terms of who and what we design for from simply being human related. I think a lot of the problem, a lot of what we design as human beings has impact on how we exist. I often define design as being anything artificial that augments existence in any way, whether it's, you know, the utensils we used to eat, work, the streets we drive on, the lights be used for traffic if the GPS system in our car, all of these things have been designed by someone, the tools that we build or fail to build our IKEA furniture with, taking a shot at myself, I think when we think about how we augment our own existence, it often negates how the waste that we create from that augmentation impacts the greater globe around us. And maybe this is also something that I've been considering as Texas is experiencing the coldest winter it's had in quite some time, and also thinking about human existence that lives outside of major metropolitan areas. So if the waste that we create ends up impacting sea life, some of the fishing communities and cities in the Caribbean where my family is from may be impacted by that. So this thing that augmented existence for people in Western society now negatively impacts human existence somewhere else. If the greater globe and ecosystem is impacted by the things that we're creating and creates further issues forhuman beings living on it, are we really being human centered by solely thinking about how we design for them in the immediate sense, or should human centered design be something that's more of an ecosystem based design that then considers the world holistically and not just individuals. It makes me wonder if it's not enough to simply be a good person, but maybe in order to be a good designer, you have to consider being a good global citizen. Because I often feel like as designers we talk about these things as if they're holistically separate from one another, when in reality they're not. They're entire communities, fishing communities that have been destroyed due to, you know, the blue jean community. And there was a fashion designer that crafted those. There's an island of waste, plastic waste, they see the size of the state of Texas floating through the oceans currently. And all of those things were packaged by designers. So I do think, you know, it's really important for us as creatives to consider not just are our responsibilities to our fellow man and woman or any other identifying marker that we use for fellow human beings. But how do we how do we consider the implications of what we make on a holistic space going forward?

Kaleena Sales
Yeah, so Norman spoke about being a good person and I thought about that. I was just like, you know, how do we exemplify that in in the classroom? How do we exemplify that in the different roles that we have in our professional careers? And so I sat with that. I was just like, okay, so I am teaching, but then I'm also doing an administrative role as the chair of the department, and so do people get to experience, you know, me as an example of a good person. And so how are people engaging with me, for example? And so oftentimes, like as a chair of a department, I get emails from people who are not happy. And so I get people who are upset that they didn't get the grade that they thought they deserved in their class or, you know, they're not happy with, I don't know, their schedule or whatever it is. But you deal with a lot of complaints. And then I have my own students who have taken a class and, you know, they want this or they they missed a test and they want to do a makeup test or, you know, whatever, right. You get you sort of get your fair share of requests and complaints and that sort of thing. For me, I think about am I considering what it's like to be on the other side of that email when I'm reaching back out to these students, right. And so how do I demonstrate compassion or patience and how do I, you know, put myself in their-in their shoes? And even if I think that a student, you know, maybe didn't do their part and they didn't satisfy all of the requirements according to the syllabus or whatever, I have to consider what it's like to be a student who is a freshman or who doesn't understand, you know, what their requirements are in the class or who doesn't who may have decided that they were overwhelmed in the middle of the semester and maybe they didn't engage properly and they just sort of took off for a couple of weeks and didn't do all of their assignments, you know. And so I think about that in relation to, I think Norman's point about, you know, being a good person. And for me it's sort of a reminder to consider someone else's reality and not just sort of make a decision that's easiest on me or that requires the least amount of work, but to instead really try to engage with, you know, come up with a solution that's fair to the person on the other end of the problem. Even if I don't always agree with the other person to realize it, that there's a certain amount of empathy or compassion, maybe it's a better word, right, that I can extend towards that person.

Omari Souza
No, I agree with all of that completely. I think, too, one thing I've also been trying to impart on my students and just people in general when considering design, especially if you titled yourself a human centered designer, taking inventory of what's important to both the classes that I taught this semester were group based projects and group based projects are always frustrating for students because there's always a group of people that are doing more labor than the others. But I do think it's extremely beneficial for students to participate in these group project because it teaches you how to work with others. But I had my students basically sat me down and asked me questions about how things would be graded because they were all fighting about what would get them the highest grade on the project and they all had dissenting views. So they wanted to know like: Hey, I feel like I'm doing this amount of work. Am I going to get this grade? Is this person going to get the same great as me? If they don't do a particular work as my grade get impacted? And the tension within this group was so dense that it impacted their productivity. So I sat and I listened to everyone's problems or I sat and listened to them complain to me and not even necessarily complain. They weren't pointing fingers at anybody but talk about their overall concerns and realizing that grades were the center of the issue. And I remember looking at them and I was saying, okay, so let's say give everybody an A — what's your problem? And like, everybody kind of just stopped for a minute and they were like: Wait, what? And I was like, Yeah. So let's say grades weren't a problem. Like, let's say that everybody gets an A, what would you do? How would you solve the problem at hand? How would you, you know, what would your relational dynamics be within the group? What solutions would you propose to me? If you were to be given an A, how would you work with one another? And everybody stopped and no one had an answer for me. And then I turned and challenged them again and then asked. I was like: Here you guys are working on a human issue, studying within a major that's human centered and its application, and you're working with other humans. How good can you profess to be if you can't solve problems within the group of humans that you're working with, but you are attempting to pitch an idea to me that will work for other people that you've never met. And for them, you know, like basically they had nothing to say for the rest of the meeting because they were dumbfounded. But the reality for me, it was it was me trying to challenge them and take inventory of what the priority is. And I think that maybe that also is another part to why the idea of empathy is so problematic to me, because what the person wants is attempting to gain empathy. It's never clear cut. We should-we should have discussions around what our priorities are outside of the initial project that we're doing. But I feel like taking inventory of what's important to you and how what's important to you can contribute to the success of your project or may run counter to the things that you are attempting to design for is also really important in order to be a good designer.

Kaleena Sales
Yeah, that's a really good teaching moment.

Omari Souza
The Design of Business | The Business of Design is a podcast from Design Observer. Our website is D B B D dot Design Observer dot com. They can find the complete archive from past guests and hosts to listen. Go to D B B D dot Design Observer dot com.

Kaleena Sales
If you like what you heard today, please subscribe to this podcast. You can find The Design of Business | The Business of dDesign on Apple Podcasts or however you listen to podcast.

Omari Souza
And if you are already a subscriber to the podcast, tell your friends about the show or go to Apple Podcasts and rate us, which is a great way to let other people know about the show.

Kaleena Sales
And between episodes you can keep up with Design Observer on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And thanks to Morningstar for making this conversation possible.

Omari Souza
Our producer is Adina Karp. Judybelle Camangyan edits the show. Design Observer's executive producer is Betsy Vardell. Our theme music is by Mike Errico. Thanks always to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand,

Kaleena Sales
And of course, our counterparts, Kevin Bethune and Dana Arnett.

Omari Souza
See you next time.

Kaleena Sales
Talk to you next time.

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