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Book Review: "Design, Empathy, Interpretation" by Ilpo Koskinen, Reviewed by Jules Rochielle Sievert

Book Review: "Design, Empathy, Interpretation" by Ilpo Koskinen, Reviewed by Jules Rochielle Sievert

Review of Ilpo Koskinen’s Design, Empathy, Interpretation
Review by Jules Rochielle Sievert

Jules Rochielle Sievert has been with NuLawLab since 2013. Jules is currently pursuing an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. at the College Of Art, Media, and Design. Jules was an Ambassador for Health Equity at Policy Link. From 2017-2019, Jules was Creative Placemaking Policy Fellow at Arizona State University through the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. 

Ilpo Koskinen is a respected figure in the world of design research, known mainly for his contributions from a Finnish perspective. In his previous work, Koskinen has explored a wide range of design research topics, including the relationship between design and social responsibility, the role of empathy and interpretation in design, the importance of user-centered design, and the use of participatory design and action research in design.

In his new book, Design, Empathy, Interpretation, Koskinen brings together elements of Finnish design history to explore the relationship between empathetic and interpretive design with the more grounded methodologies of participatory design and action research. He does this to show how these methodologies have been used to create products and environments that are both functional and meaningful, and to highlight the importance of user-centered design, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability.

Koskinen presents a perspective on interpretive design research by examining the historical development of an empathetic design research team based in Helsinki, Finland. He unveils a framework comprising four sensitivities central to interpretive design research: human sensitivity, technique awareness, collaboration acumen, and design proficiency. Koskinen underscores the capacity of empathic design to showcase the potency of interpretive ideas within the design realm. He also emphasizes that this approach complements scientific and artistic methodologies, resonating with the broader design research landscape. In the latter portion of the book, Koskinen broadens his focus to assess the wider implications of the empathic design practices. He explores its impact on research communities that have shifted away from their initial technological emphasis, probing how an interpretive framework can be applied to diverse topics.

Koskinen's approach in this book is to focus on one of these recurring themes, known as the interpretive framework. He scrutinizes how this framework has influenced individual studies and how it continues to impact research in different situations. The key strength of this book's methodology is its meticulous tracking of how this framework has evolved while staying sensitive to the unique contextual factors involved. This method enriches the book's analysis compared to earlier studies, including Koskinen's previous work, which might have missed the contextual aspects when examining research under similar conditions. Design, Empathy, Interpretation, builds on his previous work by providing a more in-depth exploration of the relationship between empathetic and interpretive design, participatory design, and action research. It also offers new insights into how designers can use these methodologies to create products and environments that are both functional and meaningful in the 21st century. Koskinen uses design history to provide a rich and nuanced understanding of the evolution of empathetic and interpretive design, participatory design, and action research. By tracing the development of these methodologies over time, he illustrates how they have been used to create products and environments that are both functional and meaningful. Empathetic design in Finland, characterized by its user-centric focus, dovetails with the ethos of participatory design. Its adaptive nature, informed by continuous user feedback and ecological considerations, mirrors the responsive approach of action research. 

In this new book, Koskinen writes that by 2010, codesign had become the predominant approach for the Finnish empathic group, building on the foundations of user-centered design while evolving into a more collaborative research process. This shift involved relinquishing the traditional authority of the designer and adopting a more egalitarian process. The group began seeing itself as a facilitator of change rather than a driver, emphasizing a democratic methodology that downplayed the notion of designers as experts. Codesign also became more seamlessly integrated into various contexts, such as government agencies, medical settings, or global corporations. Unlike action research, it resonated well with designers, offering powerful tools for managing stakeholders, even though the exact reasons for its effectiveness remained unclear. Koskinen exemplifies the codesign approach with Katja Soini's Living Cycles of People and Buildings project (IKE; 2004–2005). Funded by the Ministry of Environment, this initiative aimed to transform major apartment renovations into a resident-centered process. Soini led a series of 17 workshops that brought together diverse stakeholders to innovate less invasive and costly renovation methods. The workshops effectively bridged industry and government collaboration, expanding the scope of stakeholders involved. Soini's innovative approach involved creating a community of stakeholders with disparate backgrounds and often conflicting interests. She achieved this through a series of workshops, reminiscent of user-centered design, where user data served as foundational material. Participants included inhabitants and their organizations, city and government officials, and builders. Over the subsequent two years, the project instigated changes in national renovation statutes. Government ministers adopted several ideas from the report, leading to 51 government-funded renovation projects and experiments.

Two additional influences emerge from the book: the profound impacts of the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California and the visionary contributions of Grant Kester. 
Grant Kester commands a prominent position in contemporary art theory, specializing in relational aesthetics, socially engaged art, dialogical art, and community-based practices. His particular interest lies in art forms that actively engage in direct dialogue and collaboration with specific communities or interest groups. His book, "Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art" (2004), meticulously dissects various interactive and community-based art practices. Kester asserts that these participatory art forms herald a novel, more inclusive model of aesthetic experiences, fundamentally shifting the perception of art away from conventional object-based analysis toward one firmly rooted in shared dialogues and collective experiences.

Koskinen describes how a research trip to the ArtCenter College of Design (ACCD) was instrumental in breaking away from the constraints of user-centered design. The ACCD is a revered institution that has consistently nurtured exceptionally talented individuals who have ascended to leadership positions across a spectrum of creative fields. Its unwavering commitment to a rigorous curriculum and the cultivation of innovation has yielded a cadre of graduates who have left an indelible mark on the realms of art, design, and associated industries.

Koskinen and his colleague, Tuuli Mattelmäki were particularly impressed by the Super Studio, a yearlong research class that emphasized design imagination over social science methods. Moreover, the ACCD's emphasis on fostering interdisciplinary collaboration and exploration has sent ripples throughout the creative world. Koskinen and Mattelmäki were particularly intrigued by the Super Studio's distinctive approach, which diverged from conventional social science methods and instead hinged on the power of design imagination. This unconventional pedagogy is evident in one project aimed at uncovering how people perceive nature in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. In a departure from the ordinary, students undertook an ingenious experiment: they adorned the windows of select homes with transparent film and equipped participants with markers, tasking them with capturing the essence of the natural sounds they encountered. The results were a symphony of diverse observations, ranging from the soft cries of babies and the playful barks of dogs to the rustle of the wind and the presence of coyotes in the distant foothills. This compelling example provides profound insights into how the Super Studio boldly challenged the conventional demarcations between design and research. It underscored that these students were not confined to the use of conventional social science methods for mere data collection; instead, they leveraged their design acumen to forge innovative pathways for comprehending the intricacies of the world around them.

Ultimately, Koskinen argues that design interpretation is about understanding the meanings that users associate with products and environments. He believes that every product or space tells a story, shaped by cultural, social, and individual narratives. His interpretive design methodology takes a deep dive into these narratives to understand how users interact with products and environments and what they mean to them. He defines design empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of users, arguing that empathy is essential for design interpretation, as it allows designers to see the world from the user's perspective and to understand the meanings that users associate with products and environments. For Koskinen, empathy in design is a deeper engagement with the user’s world, encompassing the immediate needs and the cultural, emotional, and social contexts that shape those needs. It’s about immersing oneself in the user’s environment, experiencing their world, and translating that experience into design solutions.

Building on Koskinen's definition and application of design empathy, which highlights the reciprocal nature of interpretation in design, it becomes evident that this approach lays the foundation for a more profound connection between designers and users. This connection extends beyond the initial design phase, permeating the entire product lifecycle. Designers, armed with a profound understanding of how users engage with their creations, are better equipped to iterate and refine their designs to align more closely with evolving user needs and desires. For Koskinen, interpretation is a two-way street. On the one hand, designers interpret the world of users, trying to understand the stories, values, and meanings that users attach to objects and spaces. On the other hand, once a product is out in the world, users interpret it, creating their own meanings, stories, and emotions. Koskinen emphasizes the importance of this cyclical interpretive process in design. By understanding how users interpret products, designers can create solutions that are more aligned with user narratives, leading to products that are not just functional but also meaningful. In Koskinen’s view, empathy bridges the gap between designers and users. It facilitates a dialogue where designers become active listeners, absorbing nuances that might be lost in traditional design processes. This empathetic approach ensures that the final design outcomes are functional and emotionally and culturally resonant.

In Design, Empathy, Interpretation, Koskinen presents a captivating and thought-provoking book that taps into a wealth of historical knowledge and research. This book not only fills gaps in what we know but also weaves a compelling story, making a significant contribution to the field of design research. If you're interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Finnish design philosophy, this book is both insightful and essential. What sets it apart is that it seems to be the first publication entirely dedicated to thoroughly exploring the evolution of design research. It does this by conducting a deep dive into a single, user-centered design research program. Providing a pressing, contemporary application of his methodology to current crises, Koskinen highlights that we are at the precipice of an environmental disaster and urges that it is urgent to address ecological concerns, stating that interpretive and empathetic design are now challenged to expand their focus to include post-humanism. This approach in design research aims to understand human identity in its intricate web of relations with technology and nature, inviting us to think beyond traditional anthropocentric views and consider broader ecologies and non-human entities. Koskinen concludes the book with an impassioned plea for the enduring relevance of interpretive design research, highlighting its critical role in the ever-evolving landscape of design and research.


Design, Empathy, Interpretation: Toward Interpretive Design Research
By Ilpo Koskinen 
MIT Press
Open Access and $35.00 in Paperback

 October 27, 2023