Designing Spaces, Inspiring Empathy


How do you teach empathy? Perhaps you can’t teach it but you maybe can inspire it. Empathy requires putting oneself in a position to understand another person’s experiences and ultimately their needs, and in any classroom that is no simple lesson to learn—but it is exactly what Interior Architecture Professor Sarah Sherman is attempting to do in her Graduate 5 Healthcare Studio.

“In order to design a healthcare facility a student must deeply understand the users of the space,” Professor Sherman explains.  She emphasizes that the design of healthcare facilities provides a unique opportunity to affect people at a critical point in their life.

As a requirement of the studio, Sherman created a series of learning experiences to foster empathy. Tours of various healthcare facilities, Q & A sessions with outside consultants, and provocative films were used as a way to start this substantive dialogue and empathetic design process. Local professionals and healthcare practitioners visited with the Graduate Design Studio to interact with students on topics ranging from Hospice Care to Mental Health and finally Preventative Medicine.  Students were exposed to the needs of those suffering from mental and physical ailments.

Guest speaker Ryan Hill, a Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Science at FIU, discussed the issues concerning depression and suicide.  His insight on how his patients would benefit from an empathetic design gave the students a lesson that they would not learn anywhere else.  Hill also discussed one of the most prevalent traumas a college student could face; untreated depression leading to suicide. By relating medical topics to an issue that is closer to the students, Hill hoped to motivate them to invest in empathetic design.

The second guest practitioner was Sylwia Hodorek, Ph.D., Post-Doctoral Resident in Counseling and Psychological Services. She instructed the students about often overlooked conflicts regarding mental health and illness, and explained how many patients can be return to being productive and healthy members of society through the process of counseling.

The final guest was Betty Rice Bel, Senior General Manager of  VITAS Innovative Hospice Care, who exposed the students to the phases of hospice design projects, in addition to sharing what hospice care involves. Although a difficult topic for most students, the goal was that a better understanding of hospice would result in more empathetic designs.

As the talks concluded and the books closed, the Graduate Design 5 Studio students left with more than a learning experience about paint and carpet.  They were exposed to the pain and discomfort of illness, but hopefully also learned, by infusing their designs with depth and empathy, how they could inspire hope and healing.

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