Creative Empathy helps you connect with people’s deepest needs. And since it’s a process-agnostic toolkit, it works for any creative project.
📖 This is adapted from The Creative Empathy Field Guide. 👇🏼 Skip to the Free Tools ✉️ Get in Touch
Connecting Human Experiences
Theresa Brazen sums up the core conditions of almost every creative project:
- We make things for people.
- Those people aren’t us.
This is the point of Creative Empathy. We need to connect with people’s experience of the world. Then, we can create things that serve their real needs.
What Empathy’s Really About
For many people, empathy is “what would I do in their situation?” But it’s more about “what do I need when I feel like they’re feeling?” Rather than focusing on someone’s external context, empathy explores their subconscious experience.
Human Experience is Subconscious
The challenge, as Froukje Sleeswijk Visser et al explain, is that subconscious experience is “determined by tacit knowledge or latent needs and is often difficult to express in words.” But subconscious experience is important, because most of human decision-making happens subconsciously.
Creative Empathy allows us to dig deeper than traditional research methods. In that sense, it’s our backstage pass to each other’s subconscious experience.
Benefits of Creative Empathy
By understanding the real needs people have, we can empower them to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. More specifically, Creative Empathy helps with product-market fit and with sustainable innovation.
We see this principle at work most vividly in the innovation space. That’s because most startups or innovation projects fail because they don’t have product-market fit. In other words, they’re creating things people don’t want.
When an innovation does achieve product-market fit, a reciprocal relationship between its creators and customers emerges. We call this a fair value exchange.
One way we can provide meaningful value is by helping them change their behavior. Whether we want to quit smoking, start exercising, or start recycling, change is hard.
Creative empathy helps us support meaningful behavior change in two ways. First, empathy helps people feel valued, which makes them more willing to enact change.
Second, empathy helps us understand people’s latent obstacles. If we can address their confining convictions or hidden barriers to change, we can help people accomplish their objectives in life.
Creative empathy helps us achieve product-market fit by surfacing people’s latent needs. That, in turn, allows us to create products and services that serve those needs. And when we empower people in meaningful ways, they’ll support us in return.
It’s as true today as it was in ancient Greece: the only constant is change. But while technology keeps changing, human nature does not.
One of the biggest drivers of change in today’s workplace is automation. But machines don’t care about us (yet). That’s why empathy and emotional intelligence are widely counted in the top ten vital skills for the future of work. And because Creative Empathy gives us practical ways to develop those skills, it helps us professionals stay future-proof.
And while empathy is a valuable skill, it also helps us create love-worthy products and services. According to Beatriz Russo Rodrigues, we can fall in love with products in ways similar to how we fall in love with other people. Her research shows that once we experience ‘person-product love,’ we remain loyal to that product over time.
In fact, experiencing love actually improves the experience of using a product. In other words, a product that makes recycling fun would also make it easier, which would help people recycle more. So besides competitive advantage, person-product love enables us to improve people’s lives in meaningful ways.
How Creative Empathy Works
Most people can drive a car without knowing how the engine works. Creative Empathy works the same way! Still, understanding the process and model behind it can help us get the most out of using the tools.
The Empathic Design Process
Merlijn Kouprie and Froukje Sleeswijk Visser synthesized a number of academic empathy models into this empathic design process.
- Discovery: As creators, we approach the other person’s world, which provokes our interest, curiosity, and willingness to empathize.
- Immersion: We enter the other person’s world, look around, and absorb what we see without judgement.
- Connection: Here, we resonate with the other person’s experience by recalling our own relevant experiences and memories.
- Detachment: Finally, we leave their world to focus on creative action, before starting the cycle afresh.
Most creative processes already include an immersion phase. But explicitly adding this connection phase enables us to operationalize our emotional resonance with the audience.
The Eindhoven Empathy Model
Just like creativity, people tend to see empathy as some kind of magic: “Either you have it or you don’t.” But empathy isn’t magic, it’s more like a muscle.
The muscles we exercise are the ones that stay strong, and empathy is no different. We’re all born with the capacity to experience empathy, even ‘coldhearted’ psychopaths.
Empathy is a function of ability and proximity. If either of those factors equals zero, empathy won’t happen. But we can make up for a lack of one with a boost to the other. I call this the Eindhoven Empathy Model.
Our resonance with someone else’s experience.
The strength of our empathy muscle
How closely someone’s experience resembles our own
Free Creative Empathy Tools
Talks & Workshops on Creative Empathy
The Creative Empathy Field Guide
About the Author
Brian Pagán teaches Creative Empathy at conference workshops and in-company trainings. And this toolkit represents his work synthesizing ideas from theater, psychology, and design since 2013.
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