Our Chicago team recently hosted a Metropolis Think Tank discussion exploring empathy and inclusive design, seizing an opportunity to bring this important theme to the table. The conversation revolved around the understanding that design can be a catalyst for creating spaces and systems that dismantle stereotypes and help us connect with and understand one another on deeper levels. Metropolis has profiled the piece online and in print.

We were grateful for the opportunity and to have Natasha Krol (Principal, Mind Share Partners) and George Aye (Co-Founder and Director of Innovation, Greater Good Studio) joined me and Robert Benson (Design Principal, CannonDesign) on the panel.

Both through our panel discussion and the resulting Q+A, the event shed light on projects that exemplify our best attempts to design for empathy, and also areas for improvement in our industry and the greater world. We dove into projects like Rockford Public Schools, Natasha and George’s work with their organizations, and also took a hard look at Chicago – the city we call home. While we were thrilled with the formal event, I enjoyed seeing attendees and presenters connect informally immediately after the panel, forging connections, sharing ideas… hopefully spurring actions that will enrich the future.

For our Chicago team, this is the first of a series of discussion events we’ll be hosting throughout 2019 and beyond. We look forward to sharing our next event topic in the near-term. For a deeper look at our Think Tank discussion, there are photos and excerpts below. Thank you again to everyone who took part and helped make this a success.

Natasha Krol on designing for mental health and accommodations
We know that one in five people will be diagnosed with a mental health condition this year. And, we also know that the number of people who go seek help for mental health because of the immense stigma around it and other barriers to access is quite low. There are many more people than those one in five living with mental health conditions. And yet, far fewer people are talking about it.

Knowing all this, as designers, we need to think about what it means to have something affect so many people, but nobody really talking about it. What does it mean for who can be a designer? Who can thrive as a designer? What if our design processes don’t consider mental health? Do we have anyone in the room thinking about how mental health might be affected in the workplace, or educational space we’re creating? And, then ultimately, what does this mean for power and who gets to hold it?

If we consider mental health, there are a number of accommodations we can make in the workplace, including flexible hours to attend therapy appointments, meeting and e-mail norms to keep stress at certain levels, designing spaces for collaboration and privacy, etc. When you look at the list of possible accommodations, you realize many of these would be good for everyone. Can we shift the discussion to how can we develop better business practices for everyone as opposed to how do we isolate certain individuals who might be struggling? How can we look at work differently as a result of understanding different perspectives and different lived experiences?

Robert Benson on designing for users on multiple scales
Much of this discussion has focused on workplace, and I think a lot of workplace design is oriented on the company’s brand and not the individuals who work there. We approach design fundamentally differently for workplace and in education. We’re designing a new student center for Western Michigan University that’s focused on the students. The university did not want an institutional building. We took a tour of student centers around the country and students were clear they wanted to see themselves reflected in the architecture, media and spaces. We took that to heart and every drawing we’ve done has been posted and shared. We’ve met with students for countless hours, had ongoing discussions and even teamed with a consultant to help us talk with students, and use their language norms. This inherently helps us creating a building attuned to their realities.

If we go back to the workplace side and mental health, we talk a lot about personality types: introverts and extroverts. I think it’s important to design spaces that have nooks and crannies, options, places to find comfortable space for everyone in the workplace. I say this all the time: Our team takes more pride in creating a little space you may never hear about, or that will never be published in a magazine, but where there’s always someone sitting there. We regularly go back to our projects to see how they’re being used, and when we see a space where there’s always someone there, that’s when we think we’ve done something right.

George Aye on rethinking systems and solutions
When we were designing the application process for our Raising Places grant (a mechanism to fund healthier places for children and their families funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), we were very conscious of ensuring the process itself had intrinsic value. It was important to us that if communities applied and weren’t selected, they still took something of meaning from it and weren’t just wasting time and resources. It was wonderful when one applicant reached out and said, we learned a lot about our own community through this process and realize we have more important issues we need to deal with beyond this grant application.

That was rewarding for us. That’s so amazing. That’s exactly right. The fact that we established a process that helped them understand themselves better, regardless of the ultimate grant funding is important. Focusing on the design of the application process, and how it works, and how that experience isn’t just a means to an end, but a tool in and of itself.

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