Q&A: Empathy’s Role in Designing Work and Campus Environments

As part of the Metropolis Think Tank series, Susan S. Szenasy visited the Boston office of international planning and design firm Sasaki Associates to discuss the role of empathy in design.

Susan S. Szenasy, Lois Stanley, and Vinicius Gorgati, AIA, examine the new demands placed on institutions charged with educating the next generation of workers.

Courtesy Sasaki

On July 23, 2015, Susan S. Szenasy, Metropolis publisher and editor in chief, was in Boston as part of the Metropolis Think Tank series, engaging with the principals of the international interdisciplinary planning and design firm Sasaki Associates and their clients Cambridge Consultants, as well as campus planning professionals from Tufts University and Dartmouth College. They discussed the role of empathy in design and the challenges in designing for work and campus environments. Both are undergoing rapid changes due to mobile technologies, demographic shifts, and systems thinking. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation, prepared by Dora Vanette. Think Tank will continue in 2016, look for more reports next year.


Susan S. Szenasy (SSS), Metropolis: Serge [Roux], how do you understand change in your field of product design, and how do you design differently in the age of digital technology?

Serge Roux (SR), Senior Consultant, Cambridge Consultants: There was a before, when things were static. Now everything is fluid. If you believe in the acceleration of technology, then you can see its trajectory on a curve, but now we’re on the part of the curve that’s slanted, where the pace of change happens faster. Now we are designing for change that you can feel in your lifetime, we’re designing not for something that is here to stay, but for something that will need to adapt.

As an industrial designer I see the artifact as the tip of the iceberg, and the service and the experience as the entire iceberg. You can weave in some flexibility by not being bound to objects, but understanding concepts. And if you put the basis for your concept in the design brief, in the ethos of your system, then you can redesign things that still embody your principles but don’t need to rely on objects or on things that will stay the same for a long time. So we make sure that the design brief is truthful to what people want, rather than to the perception of the designer.


SSS: Sasaki surveys are really interesting to me because of the way you document space use and behaviors—such in-depth research probably would not have been possible without technology.

Vinicius Gorgati (VG), Principal, Sasaki: A powerful aspect of our process is our ability to develop truthful visualization. It’s one thing to collect data on spreadsheets. It’s another to transfer that data into visual information that can succinctly and smartly convey information. The beautiful thing about data is that it’s fact. You can argue about how to read it, but you can’t argue that it’s not there. SR: We work a lot in the medical-technology field, and it used to be about creating a thing—an injection pen, an inhaler, or a blood-glucose monitor—but more and more we realize that this process is an open loop. A doctor will say, “Take this prescription.” Patients don’t follow instructions, and they tell the doctor that they’re not doing better, then the doctor ups their dose or changes their prescription. The doctor couldn’t know the truth because the data, the facts, were not there.

The process of the closed loop is now coming to medical technologies. Now your device is the thing that tells you how to get medication, when to ingest it, and how often. It will remind you and allow you to communicate directly to your doctor. In this way the doctor can create clean correlations between your disease and your treatment, make adjustments that actually are based on facts. This is what we call outcome-based medicine. And so when we talk about service we talk about how medical professionals actually interact with the data without being completely overwhelmed by it. We want them to be able to sift through it and make sense of it. How does a doctor understand data, now that she has a thousand data points a day for 1,500 patients? That needs to be managed. So designing the experience—the iceberg itself—becomes more important than designing the tip of the iceberg, the artifact.

Victor Vizgaitis (VV), Principal, Sasaki: What a lot of this comes down to, both in the outcomes and the processes, is a question of control and empowerment. The goal is to give the ultimate user, on a campus or in a corporate office, control over their environment, over how they choose to work, learn, play, and socialize. Not everyone learns the same way or works the same way. The ability to give people the option of having different ways to perform the task that they need to get done is what leads to good outcomes.

Babson College’s Park Manor West residence hall combines classroom space, amphitheater seating for informal and formal gatherings, and an innovation space for student teams to get immersed in entrepreneurship-focused curriculum.

Courtesy Sasaki, © trentbellphotography


Lois Stanley (LS), Director of Campus Planning, Tufts University: The reality is that today’s students are different from students from my time. They are coming into the classroom with their own tools, and that makes for a very different classroom environment. Most of the faculty adapt to this and realize that they need to work with short attention spans, because there is so much competition for students’ attention.

The job of the faculty is different today than when many of them started teaching. We can help them with the new technologies, as well as providing physical environments that reflect the current realities.

VG: One of our great challenges is doing space analysis, which identifies the footprint of a campus relative to the school’s strategic plan and to the way they want to teach. We often find ourselves in a position of explaining to our clients that they don’t have a deficit of square footage, but rather the wrong mix of spaces. This could be the size or quality of the space, its ability to adapt to or accept technology, and even the ability to be flexible—given that the structures of teaching today are much more complex than before.

We have to adapt spaces to account for the old ways of teaching that are still present, but also be open to a new generation of faculty. We have to find the partnership within the institution to enable that shift, and then we have to use creative tools to develop a new set of platforms so that change can occur. We have to be a bit of a magician and a bit of a diplomat, as well as exercise a little bit of mischief to be able to insert those new strategies.

Joanna Whitcomb (JW), Director of Campus Planning, Dartmouth College: At our liberal arts college, we are using data to articulate what’s going on at the campus. This has been really helpful to our leadership. We were the school where BASIC was invented 51 years ago, and the first U.S. institution that required personal computers to be used by our students. So our history has digital roots, and our president is a mathematician who cares about data and technology. But it is our students who, like students everywhere, are most deeply engaged with technology.

We look at the classroom, but classrooms are a small percentage of our total square footage. As we renovate our 250-year-old campus, we are changing those spaces with the help of our architects, students, and faculty. The students don’t like to sit in lecture halls. They like to watch videos in the evening and take quick quizzes and do collaborative work with their teachers. So we’re trying to engage in new ways as we renovate our spaces. This is not happening quickly.

LS: At Tufts we’re not looking for a one-size-fits-all solution for our classrooms because our students and our faculty are all teaching and learning in different ways. What we need are spaces indoors and outdoors that can be individualized. Working with Sasaki, it has been interesting to see how the same four walls, the same furniture, and the available technology can provide that versatility.

We need small classrooms where students can engage with each other. We also need lecture halls, and we need to figure out a way to use them for Economics 101 as well as for guest lectures. How do we make these spaces more interactive? How do we get microphones to students quickly, so that everyone can hear what’s being said? How do we support students who are asked by a teacher to break up into groups? With the help of design we can get there.

When we asked our students about the styles of teaching that work best for them, they weren’t all anti-lectures. Some even said that technology can sometimes get in the way, and that lectures create a direct relationship between faculty and students that is desirable. I think this depends on the situation, and that’s why we need versatility. We know, from listening to our students, that they do want to engage, even more so outside the classroom than inside. So what we’re trying to do is focus on their co-curriculum experience.

Sacred Heart’s Frank and Marisa Martire Business & Communications Center contains both flexible meeting and instruction space and technology-rich classrooms that are active day and night.

Courtesy Sasaki, © Anton Grassl/ESTO

VG: Over the past 15 years, one thing has been consistent with our clients; it’s the sense that learning is not confined to the classroom or the library. So when we think of university spaces, we think about spaces in their totality.

We are also looking at the different opportunities technology can bring to learning, and the different furniture or types of classrooms that support this new way of teaching and learning. In a world that’s more and more reliant on technology for structuring the conversation around teaching and learning, information has come to the fore in a broad and neutral way, and it has allowed us to level the playing field in the conversation around any topic, whether it be student life or academics.


VG: Sasaki’s interest starts at the systems level. When we are thinking about campus ecosystems or talking about our work as planners and designers, we are interested in the broader system. From our perspective the first step in our consciousness is about conservation and ecological thinking, and to treat our office as a laboratory. Our discussions on materiality stretch the conversation about resources, the 500-mile radius, and about yielding experience to a level that goes beyond simply covering a wall and blocking a window. With old buildings you touch the stone, which polishes it over time. Can you do the same thing with drywall or plastic elements? We go beyond materials to the full experience of a place, including the role of natural light in creating healthy spaces.

VV: Health issues have gotten so complicated and so interwoven that if we really tried to address every issue around material safety, we’d be unable to build anything. First, there is physical wellness, which is addressed by things like materials, HVAC, plumbing systems. Then there’s emotional wellness, which may touch on things like access to natural light and views, and the kinds of control individuals have over their environments. There is also social health, and that gets into the collaborative environment, the ability for people to get together with each other to do something that’s not solely work-related, so that individuals can bond and feel they have a stake in what’s going on.

Employees at Havas/Arnold’s new global headquarters enjoy ample natural light within the main atrium and around the open floor seating placed purposefully by the exterior windows on each floor.

Courtesy Sasaki, © Anton Grassl/ESTO

SSS: If we believe in the systems approach and look at the problem as a complex set of relationships, then your role in collaboration with the manufacturer becomes a significant one, because you are all solving problems together, each bringing their own expertise to the table.

VG: You also need a partnership with your client. That is where you move the dial, when you build for experience and for the return on investment at a higher level. Actually, this has been one of the secrets to our success as a practice—this sense of partnership and a shared understanding of success. You apply that to the needs for the learning environment, how to restructure student life, and how to create environments where people are happy to work. It all ties back to the same source, which is the question of how we come together.

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with our sponsors, Bretford, DuPont Solid Surfaces, Sunbrella, Teknion, and USG.

Panelists include: From Sasaki: Victor Vizgaitis, Principal; Vinicius Gorgati, Principal; From Tufts University: Lois Stanley, Director of Campus Planning; From Dartmouth College: Joanna Whitcomb, Director of Campus Planning; From Cambridge Consultants: Serge Roux, Senior Consultant; From Metropolis: Susan S. Szenasy

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