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ThomsonAdsett on the importance of empathy in design

ThomsonAdsett on the importance of empathy in design


How can we quantify experience and what is its value? How clients and their users experience a space is vital to the success of architectural projects. Here, ThomsonAdsett’s group director of education and communities, Chad Brown, details how including clients in the design process goes hand-in-hand with an architects’ ability to problem solve, meet budgets and complete projects on time.

The architecture industry has a firm foundation in creating experiences for people. Historically, time was the key method that enabled architects to gain an empathy for those using space. Architects spent a lot of time with clients and users to gain an understanding of their needs and experiences. Designers would then apply their skills and creativity to translate a client’s needs into a physical form.

Contemporary processes have reduced the available timeframes on many projects, with fast-track programs the norm. As a result, the architecture industry has embraced ‘stakeholder workshops’ which enable designers to be in a room with a diverse group of people who have an interest in the project.

Unfortunately, many workshops held by architects rely on the dynamics of the group, with often the views of a few being heard over the rest.

In 2013, we began a journey to deliver our workshops differently. In collaboration with community consultation group, Surroundings, we undertook a series of workshops for our Hummingbird House project (Queensland’s only children’s hospice).

At these workshops, we brought together:

  • siblings of children with life-limiting condition
  • parents of children with life-limiting conditions
  • parents that had experienced the death of their child
  • clinicians
  • volunteer
  • undertakers
  • religious and spiritual representatives
  • our designers

We structured the workshops around individual exercises and sharing. This enabled us to create a safe place for everyone to share their experiences. There was laughter and tears, and in a relatively short period, the designers developed a high level of empathy for users of Hummingbird House.

When issues were raised, no one was looking to provide solutions. Instead, the ThomsonAdsett team was there to listen. This process resulted in a series of clear individual experiences. Our team then reviewed the learnings obtained from the workshops. Thereafter, we began to imagine a designed experience that would make all participants’ lives better.

The rigour of our workshop process elevates these critical emotional issues to sit equally with other traditional measurable project-related outcomes.

The key elements of our workshops involve:

  • Including a diverse group of users at the same table. The sharing that occurs with the users is often as valuable as the information the design team takes away.
  • Workshops are not about finding the solution. This needs to be communicated so that expectations can be thoughtfully managed.
  • Workshops are structured into focused exercises to deliver sharing around specific themes.
  • Designers need to be at the table to hear firsthand and actively participate and share their own experiences – this enables trust to develop.
  • Workshops can be about the big picture and detail. We structure exercises in the workshop to suit.
  • Themes explored are about experience and not limited to functional outcomes.
  • We use open questions.


The design solution for Hummingbird House is a direct result of this empathy and human-centred design process. We have successfully translated this process to large university projects, corporate office refurbishments, and school master plans.

We immensely enjoy this process and the honour of getting to know our clients and cherish designing great environments for them to enjoy.


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