Designing with Empathy

Lauren Scheib

Empathy and design go hand in hand. As creatives, we should continually think about the user experience and how to create emotional connections with target audiences to create a strong brand experience.

How do we use empathy to connect with audiences visually across different touchpoints? It’s all about the considered choices we make in creative storytelling.

The core of designing with empathy is to understand your target audience. Who are they? How will they connect with your brand or campaign? Most importantly – what do we want them to feel – how do we reinforce the brand? The ability for creatives to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, answer these questions and translate them visually is where designing with empathy comes into play.

What is empathy?

Empathy should not be confused with sympathy. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” This understanding is essential to crafting communications that speak to target audiences in a meaningful way and reinforces a brand.

It is essential to be able to relate and understand your audience in order to create compelling visuals and messaging that resonates with them personally. It is this emotional connection that can spark initial interest and engages the viewer in the story being presented.

How it all comes together

How do we create designs informed by empathy to connect with viewers? It all comes down to a combination of considered choices including photography, color and typography that reinforces the brand.

Choose colors with intent

Color connections are easily relatable. Specific hues can mirror emotional states. Blue can infer feelings of tranquility, trust and intelligence. Yellow emotes energy and joy. Red can invoke strength and passion.

Every other color has common associations, even if they only exist in subtle ways. It’s important to think about your audience and how they will perceive certain colors when looking at your design as a whole.

Create photos that make a strong first impression

Images are the most powerful tool in your arsenal. A photo is the first thing a user will see and establishes a baseline for the interaction. Visuals in your design should connect with users in a way that makes them see a real person on the other end of the design that they can relate to.

Feelings of freedom, comfort, excitement and more can all be effectively conveyed by photography. Those that feature people and faces are particularly effective, as users will unconsciously relate to the facial expressions they see. Emotive photography isn’t limited to people however, and animals, structures or even abstract imagery can create certain feelings for viewers.

Some thoughts to consider when making photography choices:

  • Tell a story with your visuals. What’s happening in the scene? How does it relate to the brand and what is the story being told?
  • Think about your target audience and use imagery that resonates with them. Consider age, ethnicity, income and setting when making choices, as people are more likely to connect with people that look like and act like they do.
  • Use realistic photography whenever possible and avoid overly staged stock imagery. If the scene appears fake or overly salesy, viewers are more likely to disconnect and disregard your message.

Typography with feeling

Consider typeface as an extension of the emotional connection you’re making with your audience.

Different fonts can imply certain characteristics. Serif fonts can exude a feel of sophistication and reliability. Script fonts are associated with elegance and luxury. San serifs have the ability to act as a blank canvas and are more or less free of associations (explaining the long running popularity and usability of Helvetica.)

While typography can provide a creative opportunity to make connections, it’s important to remember that readability is always paramount. Letters that are too ornate or stylized can be difficult to decipher. Font size is another element to consider. If you are targeting an older audience for instance, empathy may inform you to make fonts larger for easy reading.

Value of Empathy in Design

The ability to understand and share feelings is the root of human connection, and it is crucial to helping users connect with any type of design.

People are exposed to more marketing than ever before, and it’s vital to create compelling messaging and visuals that can cut through the static to reach them on a personal level – creating a unique brand experience. By taking the time to understand our audience – we can connect their personal experiences and memories to what we create – helping to connect with them in a powerful way.

Visuals that that are emotive and brand-centric are those that motivate. Sometimes we just need to be reminded to take a moment and step into someone else’s shoes to learn what it is that will resonate and motivate them.