Every day (should be) World Mental Health Day.

I believe that a big part of World Mental Health Day (10th October) is all about lifting the lid on the stigma, raising awareness but also taking action. It’s this last part that is often the hardest. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it’s very accessible to make a start, so I shall attempt to offer a call to action at the end of today’s heartfelt musing…

Over the years, I’ve met with, worked with and helped a number of people with varying different mental health issues; including depression, anxiety, dyslexia, dementia and even more medically influenced ones such as epilepsy. This has been through my work as well as in personal life. Through these experiences, I have come to appreciate that the most fundamental way in which we can improve the lives of those suffering from mental health issues is with better understanding and practice of something very close to my heart – empathy.

Without empathy between people, there can be critical misalignments that lead to incorrect and even inappropriate experiences; be they physical, verbal, environmental or psychological. And they can often be very unintentional and therefore not malicious in nature. Having a bit of empathy tends to avoid that happening.

Take someone who is suffering from even a mild metal concern. Their perspective, judgement and responses are clouded by whatever the condition is, even something as ‘simple’ as everyday stress. This means they can very easily misinterpret the actions or intention of somebody around them. It’s not intentional, but conditional, and therefore relies heavily on the other party (who is not suffering from such anguish) to always have an empathetic approach to interactions. Note, this is something we need to do all the time, as we don’t know the frame of mind of somebody else is in, and so beginning with empathy in every encounter ensures the platform for better-aligned engagement is always there. On a first encounter, this can be a crucial intervention method, whereas over time it develops trust and reliance that means others will know your nature to be empathetic no matter the situation.

Equally, a lack of empathy towards somebody will easily prevent you from recognising mental anguish (of whatever degree) and can, therefore, result in you saying/doing/behaving in a manner that makes the situation worse. In the worst case it’s ignorance, but at best, you can start to see and understand the perspective of somebody else and then put it on yourself to adjust — rather than expecting the world to adapt around you. It’s a very subtle, powerful and underrated behaviour.

A very personal experience

A few years back, I committed a significant amount of time and resources from my design agency to helping our studio neighbours; a brain injury charity in the U.K. called Headway. We also worked with other charities like Community Integrated Care (CIC), who specialise in supporting independent and assisted living for people with mental health disorders, winning awards for our digital work. The commitment remains alive today, with EY-Seren working on demystifying Dyslexia. I think being empathy-driven designers makes us have a genuine propensity and desire to use that mindset to assist others who need it most.

For me, that relentless practicing of empathy is probably the most important skill and behaviour of a designer (yes, much more than artistic flair, using post-its or having a Macbook). Unfortunately, much like in the context of mental health, it’s also one of the most lacking and that in itself tells you why there are still many problems to overcome. Certainly, the best designers who have worked with/for me have had an intrinsically empathetic nature or have honed their evolution to be in tune with it.

Equally, I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing dangerously ignorant/arrogant people in design studios too; even to the point of having workplace bullying become apparent within a team, which triggers mental anguish for the victims. Who knows whether this is harmless office politics or if somebody is taking home a much deeper distress due to the attitudes of those who should be their peers and leaders. It’s a sad situation for sure and one that makes you reflect on your own ability to remain empathetic – if for no other reason that you can be the one to reach out to those who need it. I’ve had to do this a few times myself and it’s never easy – picking up on somebody’s underlying feelings and gently coaching them to confide can be tricky ground to walk on. But the relief to the one disclosing is worth it and if it helps them remain strong when needed it’s worth the risk.

The problem with Design (not) Thinking

With the above in mind, I’m going to say what a lot of people in industry are muttering quietly or perhaps doing with (innocent) ignorance:

Design-thinkers not using empathy; surely this is an oxymoron? It should be, but it’s also a statement of fact. You see, (almost) all forms of design encourage the practice of primary observation and insight in order to design new intentional value. This is true of industrial design, interior design product design etc. However, with some more contemporary design disciplines such as service design and user experience design, the focus on the human-centricity has become more pronounced. But not always practiced. It’s very difficult to go from being say, an accountant or technologist to a design-thinker. It’s much easier to say you practice design-thinking as a way to wallpaper over a lack of empathy, but in the end it shows in the results of the work and the culture of the team. That means letting go of ego, title, politics and any other governance mechanism that influences you over the empathy that is needed with the end user who needs your help (or the team members you are working with).

In empathic design, contextual observation is a must. That means getting out of the office/studio/lab and into the field. This requires a bit of time and effort and can be challenging to cater for when working in commercial environments and/or with colleagues who are less committed to the principles of design. That is why it’s often skipped and replaced with post-it heavy workshops facilitating only project stakeholders; now commonly referred to as design-thinking sprints/hacks/whatever.

So whilst many in the commercial workspace are rushing to debunk the value of design-thinking, perhaps they should consider embracing the harder parts of it’s philosophy, staring with that old chestnut empathy!

So I make this plea to my fellow designers. In the face of adversary, please don’t be so quick to give up on the human side of your design skill set. Reinvest in empathy and on doing work that helps people; whether it solves a problem or creates an opportunity for them to do better. By using your talent to show others that empathy is a high-value skill and asset, you play the long game of building your personal brand in a way that encourages others to reach or to you and to be open to your ideas and designs. It doesn’t make us designers mental health professionals, but it might just be what stops us from going crazy.

- For all the people who have suffered from mental health.


Design Evangelist. Accenture Interactive (Dubai). Views are my own.

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