Stepping Towards The Horizon: Engaging Students with Empathic Thinking

Andree Woodcock, Deana McDonagh, Paul Magee, Tim Ball, Sana Iqbal

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


McDonagh and Denton (2000) introduced the term ‘empathic horizon’ to indicate a designer’s ability to empathise beyond the characteristics of their own group, such as nationality, background, age, gender, culture, experience and education. For example, an ageing population requires designers to reach further into their understanding of what it means to be human. Empathy is defined as ‘the intuitive ability to identify with other people’s thoughts and feelings – their motivations, emotional and mental models, values, priorities, preferences, and inner conflicts’ (McDonagh 2008). It is distinguished as feeling with someone, rather than feeling for someone.
Young student designers have little experience with populations unlike themselves. This can be a handicap when they are given briefs which require them to design for ‘the other’ e.g. those who are older or who have disabilities. Without this understanding their designs may fail to meet the needs of target users.
Over the last two years the authors have been conducting a series of short, studio based, low fidelity interventions with design and engineering students to widen their empathic horizons and appreciation of what it feels like to be old. The paper reports on 5 discrete learning interventions which used low fidelity simulation and activity-based learning as a means of increasing empathic thinking in students.
Using student feedback and design outcomes we have shown that such interventions can increase the empathic understanding in some students in the short term (at least) and get them to think more deeply about what it means to be old. The authors believe that experiencing first hand some of the problems associate with old age brings about more profound levels of understanding than the use of persona’s or reading about ageing. In particular we will show how a short, low fidelity immersive experience can result in feelings of isolation, loss of confidence and unwillingness to join in activities. It is argued that these are significant, and potentially life changing moments for student designers, providing them with new insights into the lives of older people. We also discuss why some students may be resistant to this approach, and the need to reinforce empathy in each project the student undertakes.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 12 Sept 2019
Event21st International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education - Strathclyde, United Kingdom
Duration: 12 Sept 201913 Sept 2019
Conference number: 21st


Conference21st International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • older people
  • transport design
  • design empathy


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