Does empathy bridge art + engineering?

It takes a special something, a combination of unique experience and compatible disposition, to effectively temper hard sciences with soft ones in practice. Everything may very well come back to user experience, not only in the product (the outcome) but also in the process (the story).

Empathy is arguably a key component of both hard and soft sciences. There are concrete, measurable aspects of it and also elusive, unquantifiable elements that are just as crucial. Does empathizing well transcend the gap between disciplines? Is it empathy that sells products as effectively as it produces them?

Not everyone can do this. This is why surgeons don’t always have awesome bedside manners, why account managers are often technically illiterate and why some of the most sophisticated minds in engineering have no sense of taste in design.

Having been recently steeped in fostering a UX practice among a group of designers and engineers, I came away from the experience humbled by what a tall order it is to nudge people to think in more empathetical ways and also, when we can do so successfully, how it opens doors all over the place.

The challenge is that we all seem to think we have a strong sense of empathy. Empathy is not, however, thinking that everyone thinks the way we do. Quite the contrary. Good UX seems to be much more than user-advocacy. It is the elegant science of applying empathy, arguably one of the most malleable of all human traits (in some) and yet one of the most elusive to find, generally speaking, in both designers and engineers. Just like combining the arts and sciences in practice, empathy may or may not be something we can go to college to learn.

I was fortunate that I grew up in a family of empathetic, talented and self-taught people who were into cool stuff, especially in the realms of art and engineering. They did not distinguish between art and engineering, partly out of intention and partly accidental simply for a lack of formal training, which often dictates that we practice each in isolation. As a result of their influence, I am grateful that art and engineering live and have always lived in harmony in all the rooms of my mind. One cannot reach its full potential on its own, not without the other. In order to execute creative ideas, there are considerations to be made regarding the hidden machinery behind them. In the digital space as in the analog, there is a huge chasm for the majority of us between having an idea and being able to fully execute and/or express it.

Dad was an artist by passion not profession. He was a gifted doodler and storyteller, a natural born salesman, able to tell tales that captivated rooms of people of all backgrounds and ability levels. He was always drawing simple sketches and making connections and seeing trends waaay ahead of the herd. In his free time he constantly restored old boats, bicycles, cars and motorcycles. He included me in each of his projects in intentional ways. He taught me the value (and fun) of being interested in and attempting to understand the hidden machinery behind things.

Tandy TRS-80 Model 1Mom was a gifted musician who instilled music in me and also drove by insistence that technology was a tool that was only going to grow in its significance. It was because of her I grew up surrounded by such, at the time, cost-prohibitive tools – Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (left), Atari’s 1200XL, IBM’s PC/PCjr, Amiga, Commodore 64, MacIntosh, etc. She was an artist, like my dad, in her thinking about the world, the future and its possibilities.

I played music with mom. We always had a HUGE Wurlitzer organ that dominated the living room. Along with an assortment of other instruments, the house was constantly filled with the music we made, especially during the holidays and special occasions. I never learned to read but mom did not criticize me for it. Rather, she praised my ear and encouraged my natural ability of being able to listen to something once or twice and then playing along, tinkering with this or that part of the song’s structure until I improvised something I liked that I felt added something to the arrangement without being too busy or obtrusive. She had an amazing ear, too, in addition to being able to read and play anything set in front of her. She was a gentle teacher who only expected I find the way that worked best for me.

vintage Chris Craft runaboutI always helped dad with his restoration projects. Countless summer hours were spent sanding the teak and mahogany of a vintage Chris Craft runabout, applying 5-6-7-8 coats of varnish to near-perfect grain, helping disassemble or reassemble this engine or that and a lot of cleaning up. Dad insisted we always put things away “better than we found them.” Mostly it was asking a lot of questions, learning to ask even better ones and sticking around for the complete and often highly-detailed answers. He was gifted at figuring things out, troubleshooting and applying a solutions-oriented approach to challenges he created for himself. When he didn’t know something, he was even more gifted at finding someone who knew the answer. We spent mellow weekends sauntering around marinas near and far until we would find a hidden workshop wherein someone true to the same cause was hard at work and pleasantly distracted by our inquiries and happy to share best practices from what they’d learned. I used to sometimes get the feeling these fellow craftsmen had been working their entire lives, waiting patiently to have someone like my dad happen upon their small corner of the world to validate and exult the work they had been, up until that moment, toiling away at thanklessly. Hanging out with dad, no matter what it seemed like at the moment, even standing alone in an empty garage, always led to the notion that somebody somewhere was busy doing something extraordinary.

Growing up at home, art and engineering was everywhere. It was like oxygen, around us always: mom’s music and technology and dad’s doodles, parts of things taken apart on tables, hunting for answers and new perspectives. As I listened to mom play, I was constantly challenging myself to play new, more challenging arrangements on different instruments and improvise on them, to communicate back to her. Tinkering with BASIC and COBOL, sharing ideas with her at the table in the kitchen. Even though she was not fluent, she listened as avidly as if she were. As I watched dad draw sketches of plans on a blackboard in the garage, he taught me that art was not always about being decorative, but was also a different way of communicating ideas, and in fact one that could bridge the worlds of art and engineering, knowledge and insight, to broad audiences with diverse learning styles. All the while, it was understood between us – these were all exercises, not facts. It was okay to make mistakes because both of my parents, lacking formal training in any of their respective pursuits, freed us up that way.

Meanwhile, I find it remarkable that, after thousands of years of people refining their formal processes in art and engineering, as separate disciplines, only in recent generations have we begun to formally pursue the idea that both are required for fresh thinking to solve challenges that our thinking created in the first place. A willingness to experiment and make mistakes is also a large part of new successes and being open to what we can do better. Empathy, again, empowers us to recognize what a strength resiliency is in the face of near-universal criticism and rejection of ideas that are not proven or do not provide investors a satisfactory short-term return. Success seems to come from iteration of empathy as a practice – as a way of life, not just a process of creation.

Leonardo daVinci quote about the foot being a masterpiece of engineering and also a work of artLargely because of that, I came to understand that, contrary to what I was being conditioned to believe in school, the worlds of art and design were not, in fact, incompatible with science and engineering and not exclusive to themselves at all. I realized, when combined, you could create things that were amazing that couldn’t be done in either domain alone. But in school, with few exceptions, they were treated as separate worlds, and they still generally are. My teachers told me that I had to get serious and focus on one or the other. However, urging me to specialize only caused me to really appreciate polymaths like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Bran Ferren – people who did exactly the opposite. And this led me to embrace and want to be in both worlds.

So then how do these projects of unprecedented creative vision and technical complexity actually happen? Someone themselves needed a brilliant creative vision. They also needed the storytelling and leadership skills necessary to fund and execute it, and a mastery of science and technology with the ability and knowhow to push existing innovations even farther. What are some recent examples of innovations that combine creative design and technological advances in a way so profound that they will be remembered a thousand years from now? Putting a man on the moon was a good one, and returning him safely to Earth wasn’t bad either. Talk about one giant leap: It’s hard to imagine a more profound moment in human history than when we first left our world to set foot on another.

So what came after the moon? There seems to be a growing movement of combining empathy (also called Human-Centered Design) on solutions big and small, from the Squatty Potty to the smartphone. Soon the majority of people on the planet will have connectivity to the Internet and the idea of connecting everyone to both knowledge and each other will endure. The Internet is an interesting example. So is Toy Story – the first completely digital film that took storytelling to a new level.

So what’s next? What imminent advance will be the next Michael Jordan of inventions?

The Moon, big and low at the end of a roadThe ingredients for the next marvels are all around us, waiting for people with vision, empathy, broad knowledge, multidisciplinary skills and intense passion to make dreams real. These people don’t spontaneously show up. They need nurturing and encouragement right from the start as little kids. We need to love them and help them discover their identities and passions, encourage them to work hard and help them understand that failure is a necessary step towards success, and to persevere. We need to help them find their own role models and give them the confidence to believe in themselves, believe that anything is possible, and just as my parents did when they included me in each their own respective creative worlds, we need to encourage them to find their own path, even if it’s very different from our own.

It bears repeating how important it is to periodically pry them (and ourselves) away from our modern miracles, the computers, phones, tablets and take them out into the sunlight so they can experience both the naturally engineered and designed wonders of our world, our planet and our civilization. If we don’t, they won’t understand what these precious things are that someday they will be responsible for protecting and improving. Nurture empathy. We also need them to understand something that doesn’t seem adequately appreciated in our increasingly tech-dependent world: that art, design and empathy are not luxuries, nor somehow incompatible with science and engineering, even with survival itself. They are in fact what sets us apart from other species, essential to what makes us special. They make this life, in and of itself, a miraculous achievement.

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