Designing for Empathy Workshop

Empathy allows us to draw upon real-world human experiences to improve our understanding. For PosterFest: Design for Good 2019, AIGA Miami recently hosted a half-day workshop focused on building empathy around complex issues in society.

PosterFest 2019 focuses on the HIV crisis in South Florida, seeking to spur compassionate conversation, inspire community engagement, and combat stigma through a unique design challenge built around empathy. In Miami, approximately 26,110 people are living with HIV.

What is Empathy?

To help designers engage and learn to communicate about HIV, we invited local public health experts, individuals impacted by HIV and design professionals to participate in a panel. Our panel included:

  • Melissa Blundell-Osorio, Director of Education at the World Erotic Art Museum
  • Harris Levine, a partner at Ker-twang
  • Karen Iglesias, Health Education Supervisor for the STD/HIV Prevention and Control Program in the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County
  • Ashley Richardson, Education & Prevention Specialist for CAN Community Health
  • Aquilla Lee, Community Member
  • Suzanne Jewel, Founder, The Mindful Entrepreneur

Suzanne Jewell, the panel moderator, opened with a definition of empathy. Unlike sympathy—feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune—empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.


“Let me

hold the door for you.

I may have

never walked

in your shoes,

but I can see

your soles are worn,

your strength is torn

under the weight of a story

I have never lived before.

Let me hold the door for you.

After all you’ve walked through,

It’s the least I can do.”

Morgan Harper Nichols

Questions to Ask

Sharing stats, stigmas, and personal stories, panelists offered insights into the needs and challenges of those living with HIV and at risk. For the design challenge, panelist Harris Levine recommended reframing questions such as:

  • Rather than ask, “How can I cure AIDS?”, ask “How can I bring to light resources that many individual with or at risk of AIDS may not know about?”
  • Consider how you can change the perspective of one individual who may not normally relate to another. “How can I change the perspective of someone who is X and who doesn’t think they can relate to Y?”

He continued, “You want to use empathy as a tool, a way to do your job well and truly understand people. We can change people’s perception with design if we understand where they are coming from, and bring awareness with design.”

No Particular Look

As panelist Ashley Richardson explained, HIV is not limited to a particular look. HIV can be transmitted through unprotected sex, needles, or even breast milk from mother to child. So anyone can be affected by HIV—no matter your age, race, socio-economic status, or lifestyle.

Finding Inspiration in Historic AIDS Awareness Posters

Following the panel, Zoe Welch, program manager at The Wolfsonian–FIU, presented ten posters for inspiration. The Wolfsonian houses a collection of 3,600 International Aids Awareness posters that span 1985–2010 across more than 80 countries. Exploring these, we gained a better sense of how designers can use empathy to translate issues across different countries, languages, and the distribution of the disease.

Exercises in Human-Centered Design

During the workshop, Jennifer Marin Jericho (AIGA Baltimore), Jen Ford (AIGA Gainesville) and Rebecca White (AIGA Miami) introduced us to the mindset of human-centered design. They discussed how posters encourage us to think, “How might I be able to contribute to a specific problem or situation?” It’s an extremely versatile, cost-effective medium that helps us reach people we may not normally be able to normally reach.

Jennifer and Jen lead us through a series of design-thinking exercises to develop powerful storytelling and empathy-building tools that allow us to create more impactful communication. We were encouraged to embrace the discovery process, rather than fall back on our own unconscious biases, and use our different and diverse backgrounds to provide unique perspectives.

“Great ideas are behind a brick wall…you have to remove brick by brick to reveal something great.” Jennifer Marin Jericho, AIGA Baltimore


Breaking into small groups, we created “personas,” invented characters who could benefit most from the messages in our posters. For each persona we dug into questions such as:

  • How can we reach this person?
    • Note: fear can cause people to stop listening or ignore the problem, so it’s important to consider solutions that aren’t fear-based solutions.
  • What is this person thinking before and after viewing the poster? In what context will they see it?

We then created empathy maps, thinking about each persona and situation, finding common themes and grouping them. Sketching out layouts, type, images, and messaging, we presented designs built on empathy:

  • Becky: Empower Becky to take things into her own hands and empower herself.
  • Carla: Shift Carla’s perceptions that protection is a man’s responsibility and move past barriers to get tested.
  • Mary: Help Mary take personal responsibility to educate herself and talk with her children in a safe environment.
  • Carlos: Encourage Carlos to learn more about what it is to be HIV-positive and resources within the community.

In closing, we were reminded that, while we may not be able to change someone’s mind right away, it’s all about the days and the weeks afterwards. It’s about nudging someone just a little bit closer to comprehension, and compassion.

PosterFest Is Almost Here: Join Us

Mark your calendar and make plans to join us for PosterFest 2019! The free event features a keynote and conversation, a pop-up exhibition, interactives, and digital displays, and takes place on Saturday, April 27, 2:00–6:00 p.m. at The Wolfsonian–FIU (1001 Washington Avenue Miami Beach, FL 33139). View more details and RSVP online.

Photography by Isabel Castro

By AIGA Miami
Published April 8, 2019
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