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What role does empathy play in your work? Design Studio

What role does empathy play in your work?

  • 12 read
  • 06/01/2023

Established in 2018, Not Not Smiling, aims to amplify the voices of female and female-identifying creatives, and provide a platform for them to connect and share their knowledge, experience and work. What was once an event that took place once a year to mark International Women’s Day, Not Not Smiling has grown into an annual series of physical events, online conversations and a blog series that provides a platform for even more voices worldwide.

In this series, we ask creatives from around the world, short questions covering topics including the meaning of creativity, inspiration, their processes and how we break the gender bias in our industry.

In this edition, we ask, what role does empathy play in your work?

Mabintou Kolley

Mabintou Kolley

Senior Product Designer, SANS Institute. London, United Kingdom

Empathy is at the centre of what I do. I need the ability to empathise with the people I am designing for, and the people I am designing with, in order to lead well. It’s a quality that I have to possess holistically and I think all designers should, as a lot of our work is in servitude to other and their needs.

Mabintou Kolley is a Senior Product Designer from London. She works in cyber security and was a founder of Forbes features agency, Clamp Digital (2020—2022). Her personal clients include the likes of Adidas and Google. Mabintou has been a judge at the D&AD New Blood Awards, a speaker at several universities and panels, in front of brands such as Nike and Pepsico. She was a winner of the Makers 2020 Women in Software Power List and has also been featured in the likes of Net-A-Porter and BuzzFeed, with her viral commentary being used by publications such as Dazed and TeenVogue, to name a few. Mabintou is currently building Hummmble, delivering digital and physical products within the luxury beauty and fashion space.

Twitter, Instagram, Website

dada duo: a textile brand founded by FLORENCE dagostini and ANA CONRADO

Florence Dagostini

Senior Art Director, Buck. Los Angeles, USA

"I believe that part of what makes us good professionals are the technical skills we develop along our careers. However, there’s also an equally important aspect which is the capacity to connect with the other people who work with us, and being genuinely able to listen. To me, the best professionals I have had the pleasure to work with are the ones who are able to combine excellent technical skills with that ability - which is somehow part of being empathetic.

If you’re able to openly listen to others, it’s because you understand we’re all human beings. We all have limitations, difficulties and that things can get really complex in life and work sometimes. It’s never a linear path and we should be able to accept that in all aspects of both our own, and other peoples' lives.

When you’re really open to listening, you are able to lead a project without knowing all the answers, and that takes a huge weight off your shoulders. You trust the team, listen to everyone’s ideas and together find the answers.

In fact, since I started working for an international company, I have never felt the value of empathy from my co-workers more than I do now. Being a Latin-American single mom, working from abroad during the pandemic has put me through so many difficult situations. I am very glad that I have had amazing people working with me who are empathetic and have given me the freedom to feel vulnerable at times. It has made me realize that we don’t all start with the same conditions; the challenges are different for everyone and I am proud to have been able to make it so far."

Florence Dagostini is a Brazilian designer currently working as a Senior Art Director at BUCK in Los Angeles. She graduated in graphic design but has always been interested in the intersection between graphic and product design. This led her to co-found a personal textile design project, Dada Duo. After graduating from College, she worked as an Art Director at multiple advertising agencies in Brazil, and more recently as Design Lead. Two years ago she joined BUCK Los Angeles as a Senior Art Director.

Instagram, LinkedIn

Left: Possible use diagrams, Reading Space: The Common Room, Lauren Crockett, Nicola Cortese & Stephanie Pahnis; Right: Arts Project Australia, Sibling Architecture. Photography by Christine Francis

Lauren Crockett

Architect, Sibling Architecture. Melbourne, Australia

"My approach to design is informed by a desire to create environments that bring people together and make them feel comfortable to stay for an extended period of time.

I’m interested in the way that spatial planning, form, colour and material can contribute to an overall sense of inclusivity and possibility. This could be by considering the ease of navigating through a space, or finding a place to rest that is comfortable for more than one body type.

I have had the opportunity to learn from different scales of architecture ranging from more experimental installations to public buildings, with a particular focus on designing for differently-abled and neuro-diverse users. I understand that you cannot always please everyone, but in my experience, listening and practicing in a way that is considerate of the world beyond your own body produces more engaging outcomes."

Lauren Crockett is an architect at Sibling Architecture in Melbourne, Australia. Her expanded practice includes teaching, writing, publishing and events programming within the architecture and design field. She believes that diverse new formal outcomes can be generated when designers look to other cultures, to other ways of living, gathering and working, to other disciplines, and to other abilities.

Along with her peers and collaborators, Nicola Cortese and Stephanie Pahnis, Lauren co-founded independent architectural publication Caliper Journal and designed and curated “Reading Space: The Common Room,” a temporary public library that occupied Gallery 3 of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). The collective archive of their writing, teaching and spatial projects can be found here.

Instagram, Website

Izzy x Disney: A collection created by Ailbhe Keane

Ailbhe Keane

Founder & CEO, Izzy Wheels. Dublin, Ireland

"When I create designs I try to imagine how the person who uses them will feel when they wear them. I try to understand how they will interact with it and how it will feel from their point of view.

I put a great deal of love and care into all of my work. I created a brand called Izzy Wheels where we design colourful wheel covers for wheelchairs. I want users to feel positive emotions and excitement when they put on their wheel covers."

I truly believe that creating work with empathy at its core is what will make your designs meaningful and memorable.

Ailbhe Keane is the founder and CEO of the award-winning company Izzy Wheels. She has a passion for art, design, and business. In 2021, she received the EU Prize for Women Innovators, an award that celebrates the women entrepreneurs behind Europe’s most game-changing innovations. Ailbhe grew Izzy Wheels from her kitchen table into a global brand shipping to over 60 countries, working with 100 world-famous artists and designers, and collaborating with world-renowned brands including Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Barbie and Hello Kitty. This has culminated in over 20 national awards, a BBC documentary, a place on the prestigious Forbes 30 under 30 list, and most importantly, it has provided an outlet for expression and individuality to wheelchair users all over the world.

Instagram, Website

Phoebe Smith's musings on empathy

Phoebe Smith

Creative Strategist, Previously Unavailable. Auckland, New Zealand

"Human Connection > Creative Ego

Empathy keeps human connection at the forefront of creativity, ahead of your ego—it challenges you to push the limits of your imagination in a way that truly connects with the human experience. It enriches creativity with wisdom, and a conscience.

Personal Relationship > Rational Transaction

Empathy stops for the one as much as the masses, using care and curiosity to create for connection, not transaction. It notices the nuances of normal and offers value based on personal truths—seeking permission to create meaning beyond the boundaries of a rational exchange.

Leading Culture > Copying Culture

At a macro level, empathy ‘reads the room’ of the world and understands how we can create for cultural needs and desires. It stewards the power of its potential—asking how we might impact and lead culture, not by fitting in, but by being what culture hungers to become."

Phoebe J Smith is a creative strategist deeply motivated by the power of human connection. It’s the underlying driver for her innovation and brand strategy work, and she believes it’s the secret for any business and brand hungry to make a meaningful impact in the world. She currently works at Previously Unavailable—an innovation, branding, and venture studio in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, New Zealand. She holds a masters degree in design specialising in human-centred design, and has worked across visual design, advertising, and design education in New Zealand, China and Los Angeles. In her spare time you’ll either find Phoebe pondering what the world needs, or having a dance jam in her living room.

Instagram, Website

Elena Boils' representation of empathy

Elena Boils

Freelance Illustrator. London, United Kingdom

I remember reading something that the poet, Mary Oliver, spoke about in recognising the beauty in interconnectedness of everything. That, not only is everything connected, but that we are connected to everything else. In a way, this is a true source of empathy and it inspired me to make this piece.

Elena Boils is a freelance illustrator based in London. Born in Mexico where she grew up, she studied illustration at Falmouth University in Cornwall. She has worked with a number of clients with a heavy focus on interiors and editorial design. Her style of colourful image making explores the theme of spaces, by combining rigid formal shapes with figurative lines.

Instagram, Website


Through Not Not Smiling, we have worked with a number of charities local to each of our offices that support and uplift women. This year, we are delighted to be supporting:

Young Women’s Trust in London who are working to achieve economic justice for young women.

Hour Children, a leading provider of services to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in New York State.

Women’s and Girl’s Emergency Centre (WAGEC) is a feminist, grassroots organisation that supports women and families in crisis and advocated for social change in the community. They are based in Redfern, Sydney and work on the lands of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation.

We will be sharing more on each of the Charities across our blog and social channels soon. Please be sure to check them out and support their work if you can.

Not Not Smiling