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Innovation Day: Teaching Empathy and Design to Kids

At the core of human-centered design is empathy or the ability to understand the people you are designing for. So when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center invited us to share some of our design and innovation practices in their inaugural Innovation Day last weekend, we naturally decided to focus on empathy as a theme for the Artefact Innovation Corner, a station where visitors could practice coming up with ideas and designing solutions to a global problem.

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Our challenge was two-fold. The global development problems the Foundation is working to solve are complex and multi-faceted and do not lend themselves to easy solutions. But in addition to the complexity of the problems, we had to take into account our audience – a wide range of visitors, including many families with elementary school kids in tow. We had to make the topic of empathy understandable to the children while providing parents with the tools to continue and extend the conversation at home. We did it following some basic empathy principles:

We made it relatable

We decided to focus on the story of Skarla, a kid that suffers from a disease that can be easily prevented with a vaccine. Picking a challenge that kids could immediately relate too – being scared of shots or visits to the doctor – helped them get straight into creative mode!

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We highlighted the parallels

In our materials and prompts as well as in our conversation with the kids and their parents, we emphasized what we have in common with Skarla. Questions like, What would you tell Skarla to make her feel better? and Could you make Skarla a toy that makes her less scared? unleashed their imaginations.

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We revealed the process

Empathy is a big word. But teaching kids empathy should not be difficult. To help parents continue the conversation at home, we developed a brief set of Empathy Tips and conversation starters they took home.

More than 1,200 people stopped by the Visitor Center this past weekend. We hope most of them left with a better understanding of how empathy can lead to innovation with more powerful and immediate impact. If you missed it and want to start an empathy discussion in your home or classroom, you can download our Innovation Day materials here.

For more in-depth discussion on empathy and design, check out our white paper and our free toolkit.