In this piece, our Online Editor Vanessa, explores the power and purpose of empathy by redesigning design thinking with social justice in mind. Read all about it  to learn more about how the empathy map canvas can be used as a tool for building empathy, equality, and enterprise.


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If you’re unfamiliar with design thinking’s empathy map canvas, it works something like this: you input all the things your target persona (e.g. customer, beneficiary, service user, stakeholder, etc.) might see, hear, think, feel, say, and do during a moment in time. Why? To better understand the emotions, experiences, and drivers that shape and shift a mindset. Originally intended for the purpose of more innovative and effective design, both design thinking and the empathy map canvas have had plenty of success with companies like IDEO exploding on the scene. As with all things that eventually mainstream, the business case for design thinking surfaced and the empathy map became a way to more closely understand the obstacles and incentives that might push or pull your persona to and from the point of sale. The trick, when empathy-mapping, is to write all the statements in the first person (speaking from the ‘I’) so that you almost literally put yourself in their shoes which gives you a more personal and familiar-sounding vocabulary to communicate your value proposition.

Photo credit: @davegray

The adoption and adaptation of the empathy map as an entrepreneurial tool is reflected in big corporate budgets spent on design thinking workshops that involve suited and booted marketing teams wearing costumes and using puppets to try and channel the spirit of someone else’s lived experience. 

Empathy for Enterprise

I’ve always liked the empathy map because it forces us to think about someone else’s reality and it never ceases to amaze me how many assumptions we make about people’s behaviour until we actually take an interest in asking why. It also compliments a current shift towards an appreciation of lived experience (increasingly known as lived expertise) over empirical data. But there’s a BUT (of course). Allow me to break this down. In recent years, design thinking has become increasingly trendy, not just because it is effective but also because it’s accessible – you do not need to pick a political side in design thinking, in fact you do not have to be political at all. By nature, it is very process-driven which offers a neutrality that can be quite attractive for anyone and everyone looking to escape the daily grind of reality (great insight James!). The same could be said for entrepreneurship, traditionally speaking the market has been celebrated as a democratic space that doesn’t care much for ideology or identity, just ideas (obviously very debatable). Perhaps that’s why the two fields align so easily. But as design thinking (and empathy-mapping) have become more recognised as part of the entrepreneurial toolkit, they have also become more contextualised as a way to monetise through better marketing. As a result, what happens is that this commodifying reinforces our self-interest in personal and profitable gain which goes against the responsibility and accountability that true empathy demands we have for the wellbeing of others. As Simon Sinek says “Empathy is being concerned about the human being, not just their output” [or yours].

Some might argue that this contextualisation is less important but it is the context that drives our subconscious learning and shapes our behaviours which may cause the problems we’re trying to solve. This creates a vicious cycle feedback loops and industrial-complex economies which fail to address the root cause and therefore become part of the problem and not solution. In sum, if economic exploitation has been a principal driver of inequality (for example, the cheapening of labour through wage suppression, deregulation, currency wars, etc.) then we must transcend the economic argument with a more human-centered one. By doing so, we create a paradigm shift that puts the economy in service of humanity and not the other way round. This is what social enterprise is and should be all about: serving people, planet, and prosperity.

Photo credit: @graystreet

How Might We?

So how might the world be changed if we used the empathy map, and more broadly speaking the field of design thinking, to gain insights into the challenges, barriers, and injustices that people face on a daily basis? And how might we better understand how our own attitudes, actions, and behaviours contribute to the inequality of the status quo? (So that one day social enterprise is just enterprise and charities are a thing of the past)… Equity-centered Design is a framework that answers these questions by posing its own: How can design thinking powerfully serve as a force for equity and address the effects of oppression?

Like this, Equity-centered Design provides a Yes, And… by looking at design through a lens of power, inequity, and identity. This is important for social entrepreneurs who seek to dismantle the unequal power relations that govern our social, economic, and political structures. The equity-centered design process holds up a mirror up to the ‘designer’ or ‘empathy mapper’ by asking where and how they are positioned in respect to power and opportunity; how this positionality narrows our worldview through privilege and bias; and how we can begin to challenge an unequal distribution of power using these insights. Here we see equity-centered design promoting a sense of solidarity and shared humanity that leverages the power and purpose of empathy in a meaningful, long-lasting way. Fortunately, they aren’t the only ones…   

Here are my top three organisations redesigning design thinking as a practice of empathy:

  • Fearless Futures has created an iteration of design thinking’s double diamond that they call Design for Inclusion which bakes an anti-oppressive analysis into the design process from start to finish. This analysis looks at how to identify, unlearn, and challenge inequities in our products, services, adverts, workplaces, lives, and societies to build leadership that is transformative for all.
  • Creative Reaction Lab has developed the Equity-Centered Community Design which adds to and builds on design thinking by acknowledging that structural oppression has been created by design, therefore we must also design our dismantling of it. It focuses on people, power, and systems for a creative problem-solving that serves communities’ cultures and needs.  
  • The Unschool has designed the Gender Equity Toolkit as a way of facilitating a dialogue-based exploration of the systemic factors that create a gender gap which disadvantages self-identifying women in the workplace.

I’d fully recommend checking all these organisations out!

As social entrepreneurs we are often serving groups of people whose lives are often affected by systems of oppression such as ableism, sexism, racism, and classism for example – whether it is visible or invisible to the naked eye, or to you and I. And there is no doubt that it’s difficult to comprehend what life might be like for those whose lives are a world apart from our own. Empathy is therefore important. With Equity-centered Design and the organisations listed above, we might begin to see how design thinking and the empathy map canvas might help us understand inequality in order to disrupt, interrupt, and transform it (and this might not always be through pure enterprise). We must make a paradigm shift on how we think about and use ‘empathy’ because today’s global challenges require us to. Behavioural and structural change must be at the centre of our design rather than just an incentive of profit. Of all the questions posed in this article, I leave you with this one: if empathy was no longer profitable, where would that leave us?  

Photo credit: @heftiba