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Make empathy your key tool to achieve good design

Joanna Asia Grzybowska

Put on an old age simulation suit, use a wheelchair, or get the end users of the building involved before you design your next project to experience it as some will, urges 2019 Rising Star Joanna Asia Grzybowska

Basia Flores' artwork Different Perspectives.
Basia Flores' artwork Different Perspectives. Credit: Basia Flores

Every day, architects imagine and design buildings to best suit their clients’ brief. And without investors, projects might never be lifted off the paper. Responding to a client’s needs is key, but how deep under their skin can we get?

There is a reason why we say architects are acting on behalf of their clients. The word ‘acting’ has a deeper meaning here. Schools of architecture don’t always prepare you for the task. Our job is not only about incorporating good design principles and legal requirements, but also about taking the brief and interpreting the client’s dreams. Designing in line with building regulations is one way to respond to a design task but a deeper understanding of how the building might be used makes a real difference.

It might be challenging for an architect to open up to people’s real needs as they might not produce the most flashy/exciting designs. For example, a sleek glass staircase might deter a guide dog and create a physical barrier for a blind person. High contrast, vibrant floor tiles could unbalance those with age-related eye disease, such as macular degeneration or cataracts. Plants projecting on to the pavement can be disorientating for blind people navigating their way through the streets. Pavements are also often too narrow for deaf people to engage in a sign conversation, and force one of them to step off the curb. This might change now as cities widen their pavements to allow social distancing. Since wearing face coverings makes life more difficult for people who rely on lip reading, perhaps architects should look at different ways to provide safe environments, without relying on masks.

The Women’s Centre in Senegal by Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects from 2001.
The Women’s Centre in Senegal by Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects from 2001. Credit: Helena Sandman/ Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects

I have come across some unhappy design accidents that would indicate the authors didn’t fully succeed in imagining being a user of the space. I have seen wheelchair accessible toilets in hospitals with mirrors so high as to be unusable to a child or wheelchair user. I have found baby changing stations with a downlight located just above the changing table. While good lighting is welcome here, a bright spotlight directed at the baby’s face produces a lot of tears and screaming.

There are many brilliant examples of architects making an extra step towards understanding the human element in their buildings. The Women’s Centre in Senegal by Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects from 2001 is a great example. Women for whom the centre was designed were involved in the design process from the beginning. The design team spent time with the community to understand their culture. Consideration of the human element lies at the very centre of this practice. One of the studio’s leaders, Helena Sandman, is working on a PhD that relates to the topic. Her research is focusing on designing with users and explores how such an approach affects how they support their environments and lead more sustainable lifestyles.

  • An empathy workshop where users use props to stimulate the experience of being less able-bodied.
    An empathy workshop where users use props to stimulate the experience of being less able-bodied. Credit: Mycelium Studio
  • Arup's Queen Elizabeth Park, east London.
    Arup's Queen Elizabeth Park, east London. Credit: Asia Grzybowska
  • David Morley Architects' King's Cross Academy and Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children.
    David Morley Architects' King's Cross Academy and Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children. Credit: Argent LLP

Another interesting example is King's Cross Academy and Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children by David Morley Architects. The two schools share some areas and children play together in the outdoor spaces. DMA has completed extensive research in design for the deaf in an educational context. The architects constructed the brief with the help from the school teachers, children and consultants. Though the process took many months, key design elements included curved walls, generous linear staircases and glazed walls – all to improve sightlines and help children move around the building safely.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park designed by Arup is a great example of an accessible public space. A frequent visitor to the park described his experience as a wheelchair user, and his words stayed with me. He was happy and grateful for the efforts that went into the design to help negotiate a change in levels. For Arup, designing the most accessible space was an ambition, but for him it’s the freedom that comes with accessibility that matters.

It might be difficult to imagine how it feels to be pregnant, blind, old or in a wheelchair. Sometimes there is nothing like the real experience, and there are ways and props that might help. Old age simulation suits are typically used by product designers and have been developed to support designers of cars and small household items. Often products adapted to suit specific user types replace original designs as they are shown to be more ergonomic for everybody to use. I use old age simulation suits along with wheelchairs, pushchairs and crutches at Mycelium Studio as tools to test how existing buildings perform and allow people to exercise their skills in empathy. I believe there is nothing like the real experience.

I am an advocate of using empathy as a tool in design. Whether you research and observe from a distance or involve the future users in the design process from the beginning, it makes a real difference. The power lies in understanding that the architecture is about the end-user not about the architect.

As architects, we should really use that knowledge and practise empathy. Imagining being someone else, and a little bit of acting, might help us to provide the best possible service. When we can understand those nuances and empathise with the end user we are able to design empowering buildings and spaces that give freedom to all.

Joanna Asia Grzybowska is founder of Mycelium Studio, associate at Powell Tuck Associates and a RIBAJ Rising Star 2019. Rising Stars 2020 is open for entries, nominate yourself or someone you know by 12 October deadline.


Join the Inclusion Festival's disability and design event and find out what makes a building accessible.


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