Louise Hildebrand

We're All Human After All - The Creative Case For Empathy

by Louise Hildebrand


Human interaction and user experience are becoming ever-increasingly important elements in our approach to creative work. It isn’t good enough, anymore, to rely on data and quantitative research when generating work that ultimately needs to speak to human beings. We need a deeper understanding of those humans. We need to cultivate a new way of empathetic thinking.

We spend every day in meetings, in brainstorms, behind our computer screens and in strategy sessions finding innovative ways to help out clients deliver on their business objectives.

That’s what we do on the surface, but it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re in the communications business, and that ultimately we’re speaking to real humans. Our end users, the reason we exist, are people with emotional lives, who have children, ambitions, disappointments, heartbreak and who also forget to buy dental floss every single time they go to the shops.

The advertising industry is perceived to be a cold, ruthless place where cunning marketers make it their mission to think of ingenious ways to con innocent consumers out of their money at every opportunity. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Being cognisant of the fact that we are humans who make things for other humans is the key to successful creative work. By fostering a culture of empathy we can build better relationships with clients, colleagues and most importantly, our audiences. Ultimately, we can then deliver higher quality work that has meaning and value, which are the markings of great campaigns.

A Move To Outrospection

This isn’t a new idea. In the last 10 years we’ve seen a shift from an ambitious, inward-facing, personal development culture to one that Roman Krznaric calls ‘outrospection’. We’re looking to create work that has positive impact and sustainability; work that leaves a legacy. This thinking is linked to storytelling as a powerful means of getting humans to care about an idea, brand or product.  

More so than ever before people want to be better people. We’ve realised that it’s not enough to just make cool stuff and put it out there, it has to make a difference. Wired’s World in 2013 report noted that in advertising land there is increasing talk about “empathic brands” that respond to their customers’ needs and make them feel socially connected. New research suggests that creativity is enhanced by concern for others’ needs, and a willingness to walk in their shoes. Although the evidence is clear, it still hasn’t bled into the way we think and work enough.

Seung Chan, a Korean-American designer and director of Realizing Empathy, believes that innovation, creativity and transformation are all side effects of our desire and ability to empathise and connect with others.  

The ability to viscerally imagine and understand the experience of others can be applied to the creative process but should, as easily, be applied to any working environment. Proper empathetic engagement helps one appreciate and therefore anticipate the behavior of others.

Creating For The Human Condition

By adopting a warmer, more humanistic approach to business, especially in the creative industry, we have a unique opportunity to affect change in a way that really means something to people. To truly understand our audiences we need to empathise with them as individuals; and that’s how we will build great creative work.

Do you agree? Are we still simply creating for the faceless masses? Do we need to now try to instill a dramatic empathetic overhaul when it comes to our work? Whether you’re a designer or not, let us know in the ‘Make a comment’ block below.

About The Author


What's really interesting is that, I think, empathy has more or less always had an association with greatness. David Ogilvy, for instance, made it clear that advertising was about the prospect, and not the business. Famous authors - most of them anyway - are such because we are able to associate with them. As you said, it isn't a new thing.

On a related but different matter: you have to wonder if there isn't too much of the same thing out there. Is that why consumers are looking for sustainability, why they want more value? Being spoilt for choice, it seems, has turned out to be counterproductive in terms of personal value. Post-recession consumer trends suggest that people will rather go for the boutique retailer who sells things made by hand or grown with a bit of TLC, instead of mass produced junk from corporate monoliths.

Personally, I can see an increasingly frustrated consumers; there may come a time where there's a conflict between the lives we choose to live, and what we have to do to survive. What will happen then? The separation of society as a whole into micro-societies where there's one butcher, baker and candlestick maker, as it was in pre-industrialised times? (I'm just fantasising aloud here, 'scuse me). Interesting times.

Posted by Leo on 2013/01/16

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.

The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

Posted by Edwin Rutsch on 2013/01/30

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