Design for Empathy

Why do so many people expect so little from the design of their buildings?

Architects have been talking about “educating the public” for decades – how much progress have we seen?

My guess is that, over the years, exposure to boring architectural theory has caused the public to lose interest in the whole subject. The resulting knowledge gap affects what actually gets built, which all too frequently, is soulless and stress-inducing. As Alain de Botton explains in The Architecture of Happiness, we need to engage in conversations about how physical surroundings affect our moods and emotions. In his view, some places drain our sense of optimism and purpose, while others have restorative powers that “reunite us with what makes us human.”

When de Botton’s book was published in 2006, I was struck by his heartfelt rationale for why we should care whether or not places show empathy. Recently I re-read Happiness, having noticed egregious examples of the emotional neglect he cites during the intervening five years.

Here are seven questions inspired by The Architecture of Happiness that can serve to raise our awareness and expectations for our surroundings:

1. Does the design demonstrate empathy for the deepest human needs of people affected by the space?

2. What does the design say about our values?

3. Does the design improve our state of mind?

4. Does the design embody our highest aspirations as whole human beings?

5. Does it have character and personality, or is it anonymous?

6. Are we thinking beyond what style it is to consider what emotions and messages it conveys? For example:

  • openness or arrogance?
  • welcome or threat?
  • boring or interesting?
  • enduring or disposable?
  • optimism for the future or nostalgia for the past?
  • hostility, turbulence?
  • serenity, reverence?
  • a sense of the eternal, infinity, peace?
  • harmony with nature?
  • dignity?
  • uplifting the spirit?

7. Are these questions asking too much from our architecture?

Let’s change the conversation so that citizens and decision makers can see, as de Botton says, “that it is architecture’s task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.”  This is a far cry from current expectations, which too often are restricted to questions of taste, engineering and project management.

– Sharon VanderKaay


  1. Agata Gabriela Hamciuc

    great article Sharon! I wish it was longer and more… repetitive :), so we all architects remember what we’ve chosen this path for.

    thank you,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
  • Admin

%d bloggers like this: