by EMILY CHAPMAN
During the 2014 spring semester, the art department began a collaborative project with General Electric’s Menlo Studio called the Menlo Project. The Menlo Studio is a design think tank and corporate leadership training site located in Waukesha, Wisconsin, that focuses its work on design empathy.
According to “Empathy on the Edge: Scaling and Sustaining a Human-Centered Approach in the Evolving Practice of Design,” by Katja Battarbee, Jane Fulton Suri, and Suzanne Gibbs Howard of IDEO, a global design firm, design empathy is “an approach that draws upon people’s real-world experiences to address modern challenges. When companies allow a deep emotional understanding of people’s needs to inspire them — and transform their work, their teams, and even their organization at large — they unlock the creative capacity for innovation.”
General Electric uses design empathy by creating themed environments for MRI scanners, which makes the experience for children who are scanned much less upsetting, according to Josh Anderson, Mount Mary University art instructor and Marian Art Gallery director.
“By creating a themed environment, the rate at which children used to be sedated (80 percent of the time) for scans has been reduced to almost 0 percent,” said Anderson. “This is called human-centered design – making the user’s experience a top priority.”
Students in Mount Mary’s art department classes are creating a number of projects that incorporate design empathy, inspired by the Menlo Studio’s work.
“Each class will be working in a direction that is specific to their discipline,” Anderson said.
“We decided that storytelling is a fundamental way to discuss empathy. Each group was charged with creating an environment that communicated a narrative or fragment of a story,” says Anderson.
The project began in Anderson’s three-dimensional design class. Four different groups with three students in each group focused on how design empathy can be shown through storytelling.
Their designs began with a large, three-dimensional vignette. Then students could use any other materials of their choice to create a story. Each group had to incorporate a live model as part of the finished piece.
“The result was a fantastic variety of directions that hopefully give tangible form to what many viewers have experienced in their own lives,” Anderson said.
The completed designs were photographed; the images will be displayed in the long hallways of the Menlo Studio.
Sophie Beck, a Mount Mary undergraduate who worked on the project, said the experience was challenging.
“I am a graphic design major and am used to working with 2D pieces, so I was definitely out of my comfort zone when working on the structure,” Beck said. “It challenged me to look at shapes and the way they are perceived through a photograph differently. It was interesting to see how our work translated into photographed scenes.”
Art classes, such as two-dimensional design and fiber fabric design, will complete the Menlo Project later this semester.
Michelle Dabel, a Mount Mary senior double majoring in art therapy and fine arts, said she was struck by the project’s recurring theme of empathy.
“It’s a part of who I am,” Dabel said. “It’s a part of what I think we all need to be more aware of.”