The Empathy-Embedded Studio: A Human-Centered Approach to Healthcare Design

Presented by: Lindsey Fay, Allison Carll-White

The Council for Interior Design Accreditation’s (CIDA) Future Vision report (2014) identifies human-centered design as a key theme for interior design education and practice and has included it as a new standard beginning in 2017 (CIDA, 2017). The Future Vision report calls on designers to use evidence-based design to inform design thinking, explore ideas in collaboration with others, and test new approaches in the design process. The end goal is to help students develop a “comprehensive understanding of the human experience” and empathy towards others (p. 6). Empathy plays a significant role in human-centered design and focuses on the people for whom we are designing by constructing ideas that are both emotionally meaningful and functional (+Acumen, 2014). According to Zoltowski, Oakes, and Cardella (2012), “Human-centered design involves and values stakeholders throughout the design process rather than checking for ‘user-friendliness’ at the end of the process” (p. 29). To illustrate the integration of empathetic design into the classroom, students participating in an annual healthcare design studio were engaged in a series of experiences to help meet this CIDA future objective. These experiences were integrated through various stages of the semester and informed the design of a pediatric cardiology unit. The project resulted from a multi-disciplinary pre- / post-occupancy evaluation of a cardiovascular unit that has brought together team members from the design, communication, and healthcare fields. Student participation in this collaborative project stimulated their innovative thinking and allowed them to draw from multiple perspectives to support design solutions. This presentation will describe the processes used, including empathy icebreakers, site visits, observations, stakeholder engagement, end-user interviews, and personal reflections to gain understanding. To better understand the effectiveness of the experiences as empathy builders, qualitative and quantitative measures were captured by student reflections in both written and verbal formats, student surveys, and an assessment of the ability of the final design solution to respond to user needs. As noted by Carmel-Gilfilen and Portillo (2016), “When students began to put themselves in the position of the patients, staff, and family members, truly understanding what they thought, felt, and saw, they were able to connect on a deep level (p. 137). Reflecting on the observational experiences, one student noted, “Getting to watch how nurses, doctors, and techs interacted within their environments helped me understand why what we are doing is so important, and how we can better design these spaces.” (Funke, personal reflection, October 2014). To further demonstrate these connections, students annotated their final designs to illustrate how their numerous forms of research were integrated into the solution and responded to the people for whom they were designing. In the student survey, 75% indicated that they strongly agreed or agreed that the studio experience had helped them gain empathy. In the future, the profession will seek designers with a more inclusive understanding of the human experience and who are skilled in new approaches to design. Empathetic design provides the framework in which a more personal analysis of user needs can be achieved while still considering the functional and technical aspects of the built environment. Students fully engaging in empathetic design gain a connection with end users rather than basing designs on preconceived ideas or assumptions (Zoltowski, 2012). The integration of empathy-building experiences across the semester offers students a deeper connection with the design process and a more comprehensive understanding of human-centered design.


  • +Acumen. (2015). An introduction to human-centered design. Human-centered design. Workshop Handout. PlusAcumen.
  • Carmel-Gilfilen, C., & Portillo, M. (2016). Designing with empathy: Humanizing narratives for inspired healthcare experiences. Health Environments Research & Design, 9(2), 130-146.
  • Council for Interior Design Accreditation. (2014). CIDA future vision 2014 [Press release]. Retrieved from
  • Council for Interior Design Accreditation. (2017). Professional standards 2017. Retrieved from
  • Zoltowski, C., Oakes, W.C., & Cardella, M.E. (2012). Students’ ways of experiencing human-centered design. Journal of Engineering Education, 101(1), 28-59.
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