Why empathy is key for design. Tools change. Methodologies are adjustable.

Orlando Rocha
21 de March, 2021


I am Orlando, and I am the co-founder of Miew Creative Studio. I head up business development and design. I traveled the world to learn how we, as a studio, can learn, get better and grow. From Shangai to Austin. From New York to Maputo. From Porto to Macau. From Paris to San Francisco. There were times I failed miserably, but I had some degree of success after never giving up. I’ll mix up product design, brand design, service design, and whatever I feel to because I am tired of labels.

When my social media team asked me (“pressured”) to start writing some articles online (yes, I am talking to you Marta Torre and Bruno Pião), I thought a lot about what would be my first article.

So my first idea was to talk about how we work in our design team. What tools do we use? What are our processes? But I quickly came to the realization that because I’ve been into Business Development so long, I’ve felt over and over again that the biggest pain point in design isn’t in “why we should use Zeplin for developer handoff” and “why we should do google design sprints”. It is in fact on the gap that exists between, how we as designers empathize with the product we are designing, the business for which we are designed, the users that use our product/service, and between each other. (Note: I am saving technical articles for the next stories/articles).

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.[1] Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states. Types of empathy include cognitive empathy, emotional (or affective) empathy, and somatic empathy” From Wikipedia.org

In fact, I try to listen as much as I can to Chris Do (The Futur podcast is deeply interesting), Gary Vee, Pablo Stanley, John Maeda (I am particularly fond of Maeda’s design reports and getting forward to his CX report), Neil Patel, Simon Sinek, and others to understand trends or enhance my skills (In the long shot that any of you ever read this article: Yes our design slack channel is always inundated with your referral links). But I am saying this, in spite of them being so different, because what I do recognize in all of them is a deep sense of empathy towards the business side of design and its value. They all produce relevant content, they all have their own preferred channels and mediums, and they all have their own view. It doesn’t mean that I always agree with them, I just feel that they can observe, identify and produce meaningful content.

The Gap.

That is what we struggle with in design (at least I do). I think we all have been so much overwhelmed by the specificity of what is the best design tool, or what is the process standard optimizes sprints. The ongoing war between Sketch, Figma, and XD is a good example of it or how we use and abuse design thinking as a methodology (Natasha Jen’s view is pretty interesting as a provocation).

To be honest, I really understand that tools and processes can help you speed up and optimize design, but that doesn’t mean a thing when you’re getting yourself to design the same clean-cut, minimalistic web design that mimics Apple, Airbnb, and Shopify all in one.

So far one of the best experiences we’ve been having at our studio is to clearly have Pedro Ferraz (our UX designer) assume the UX and nothing else. The most interesting thing is as much as Pedro understands Norman/Nielsen guidelines, he is at base a sound engineer and musician. And that matters, because thriving businesses have emotions and appeal — Music has that intrinsical quality.

Let’s understand that there is a human side to every question, and sometimes it’s not only with users but with other stakeholders as well. Sometimes we just need to step back and identify the needs and interests of everyone involved. I think we get too much into what we get from inspiration and benchmarking that we forget that we need to immerse ourselves into a complex team of partners that have different backgrounds.

Users matter, but everyone else that is working with us, matters too. Everyone interprets the world through the lens of their values, history, religion, and culture. Be curious.

Gaining insight means that you need to display emotional sensitivity or you’ll end by enabling yourself to be back to your own world. Designers do need to make decisions, but decisions that provide clarity to everyone involved. Users first, yes. But business doesn’t need to be placed in a faraway black corner.

The emotional connection.

Sagmeister got me thinking a lot about the role of “art” in design. Please don’t kill me in the comments about the objectivity of design vs. art. It got me thinking that we continue to obsess over seamless experiences with ultra-optimized patterns, but that friction has a role in everything we design.

I find myself more and more interested in projects as The Outline, and in Mailchimp’s smart and humorous feedback through micro-interactions (https://jonny.wtf/ website always gets me smiling) than in any particular design system. There is an emotional connection to things that challenge us. When we are stopped and challenged — we relate — we create empathy.

Content rules the world. As much as I relate to these influencers of design and marketing, I also relate very close to Chance The Rapper (even if I am not a super hip hop fan, and can’t truly understand their life reality) playing at Tiny Desk, or Dennis Lloyd (even if I even never have been in Telaviv) playing at COLORS on YouTube, or even at how the La Blogothèque changes my view of artists.

I feel we as designers are, nowadays, closer to “film directors” than the classical graphic designers. Maybe we should be getting inspiration from those content creators more than Dribbble (still love you Dribbble but we need to take a break. It’s not you, It’s me.). I think we need to shift to that same idea of “creators”. Copywriters have a crucial role in all of this too — I always feel the need to have a clear message of what I am designing, most businesses fail critically about what they want to say — what their voice is.

Business, clients and lost in translation.

So whenever I have a discussion with my team, I try my best to make them understand that there is another dimension to what we are trying to achieve. That if we are trying to get our own voice, we need to empathize with our clients until we are exhausted.

Because as much as our clients say they want the logo to be bigger and bolder — They just want more brand visibility and we need to acknowledge that we have to find a more creative way to achieve that goal. Because as much as our clients say that we should get the user to the checkout asap — They just want to say that we can’t lose the user on bland storytelling.

Because as much as they want their app to be the new tinder for chocolate lovers (imaginary project — VC investors invest at your own risk) — at the end of the day, all they want is just a new way of selling chocolate. Business is made of people too. Business decisions are hard to take. Sometimes, we don’t see what our clients thought was before they came at us with their briefings or decisions. Because it takes emotional involvement to spend more money, more time, more assets, or go into a specific market, to align values and mission.

Most importantly, practice empathy inside your team. Understanding others is a seriously difficult thing to achieve. Design Reviews suck when we can’t add value to the critique. There’s always a person behind each work with their own story.

We need to be empathetic to uncover the needs that we don’t see at a first glance, to understand feelings.

Practice empathy. Across the board.

Note: one of our best projects where empathy was fundamental for design, was in the development of the project for UPTEC.

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