'Empathic Design' born from Jasmine Burton's experience as an Industrial Design student at Georgia Tech

When Jasmine Burton (BSID'14) gave a TEDxAtlanta talk earlier this month, she was met with complements of her innovative work to improve sanitation and people's lives through design.

Burton designed a toilet that will greatly improve sanitation, control disease and bestow dignity upon underprivileged populations. Backed by her peers from Georgia Tech, Burton turned her project into an LLC., called Wish for WASH.

She makes her work easy to understand: "Sanitation is a story untold. It tends to be the elephant in the room during conversations about global issues, silenced by cultural taboos and disgust, despite the fact that of the 7 billion people in the world today, everybody poops!," she said in her TED talk.

"I speak about my work in a way that is educated but makes sense. It's not super 'designy', using jargon that only makes you sound smart," she said.

Burton does that on purpose. It's part of her "Empathic Design" methodology, an approach to product design that is deeply rooted in the Georgia Tech School of Industrial Design program.

We caught up with Burton before she left for Zambia (she'll be on a year-long fellowship with Society for Family Health and implementing her new design of toilet) to learn more about her design philosophy and how her experience at Georgia Tech played a part in her life-goals.

Georgia Tech College of Architecture: Designers aren't often known for their philanthropic endeavors, but when you describe your project Wish for WASH, it makes effortless sense. Where does that ability come from?

Jasmine Burton: At Georgia Tech, a lot of people on campus don't know what Industrial Design is, even people in the career office. So students in this field have to constantly explain what it is and what we actually do.

Coming from an engineering institute is actually really cool, because ID works very well with all engineering degrees. How my peers and I describe ID is "engineering with emotion" and the reason we started saying that is because the design process we execute and the value that we add is not solely about aesthetics.

We do more than draw pretty pictures; the core of the ID program at Georgia Tech is designing things that actually work and are market-ready. These are valuable skills that we develop in this program. They make our design experience really unique compared to other design schools.

CoA: "Engineering with emotion" sounds a lot like empathy. How did you begin to solidify your concept of "Empathic Design"?

Burton: A lot of this mentality is rooted in my experience at Georgia Tech. I don't think I ever viewed ID as traditional product design, but more like learning about people through the lens of design thinking.

I saw a great opportunity to pursue social impact work through the design skills that I was learning as a Freshmen. Yeah, there's a lot of things you think you know as a Freshman, but it was really great to end up in a studio community that fostered and helped me grow that vision.

Everyone from faculty, to staff, to my peers encouraged me to pursue the work that I was most passionate about, even if it wasn't a traditional career path. The professors provided me with resources and allowed me to tailor projects so that they fit the global health- and humanitarian-focused portfolio that I was trying to build.

Empathic design to me is the concept of empathy, just realized in creative work. The ah-hah moment, when I realized that I was interested and truly passionate about empathy-- that understanding people's problems and solving them through creative work -- happened later.

I was taking the Industrial Design: Qualitative Design Research Methods class (it was one of the best classes I ever took at Tech) and that's where I started to realize that the front end of the creative process is really understanding all of the end user's pain points. Even if the person you're designing for doesn't explicitly know their problems. 

In whatever you're designing, you need to meet the user's needs but you also need to exceed them. Ultimately design can improve their standard of living and empower them to feel like dignified people, whether that's in the first world or in the developing world.

CoA: In your TED talk, you mention calling your mom as a Freshman and telling her that you were put on this earth to design toilets. That's probably not what usually happens for the average Georgia Tech Freshman.

Burton: Something I really struggled with was the stigma surrounding design; that people frequently view it as a superfluous field. To my very core, I believe that design has the power to progress humanity and truly change the world. This is reason why I became attracted to social impact work.

Early on in my ID education, in a sustainability class, we were learning about product life span and how the things that are designed as trend products frequently only last five or 10 years. Then you have to worry about how they're deconstructed or how they're going to decay in a landfill. In that class, I realized that I didn't want to design something that was going to be thrown away.

So I entered into this phase of thinking, "How can I design something that has lasting meaning?" and began exploring what that looks like. At Georgia Tech, I transitioned from having a major in ID to having a mission in life for global health. I identify as a humanitarian design activist and seek to use my creativity to make the world smile.

CoA: Now you're leading an LLC and working with engineers and business people. How did your design education prepare you for that?

Burton: At Wish for WASH, we have about 20 people on the team, mostly undergraduates from different majors, some graduate students and some recent graduates from Georgia Tech. Part of my education was learning the language of people and those lessons relate to the work that I do with my team on a daily basis. I really hope to empower people with my work, to help them find a voice and to realize their own potential, but the same goes for my work place.

It's challenging, there are communication barriers.

You have engineers with a more traditional way of looking at problems who may be more introverted in nature. So I actively work to pull out those incredible ideas from them to engage them in our business conversations. At the same time, the business people on our team have been more extroverted in nature and use a lot of business speak when communicating. It's a melting pot of not just personalities but languages, and my job is to act as a bridge so that everyone can understand one another so we can progress and succeed as a group.

I work to have personal relationships with everyone so that when we have difficulties we can work through those barriers. But I also found that in this role, it's important for me to learn some of the language they use, to show that I am listening and that I care about and value their field even if it is not my own.

Going back to that research methods class I took with Wayne Li, I learned the importance of asking meaningful questions, honest questions and not leading questions. Part of the design methodology I learned is that in addition to listening, you have to observe. You have to be acutely aware of how people are presenting themselves, how they present their problems, how they act.

So I actively work to break stereotypes that come from the barriers between fields, to show my team that all fields and skill sets are valued. That has really helped me and the Wish for WASH culture.

But I also know that the way designers communicate can be really challenging, too! My mom is a pediatric surgeon and when I talk to her she's often like, "I don't understand what you're saying right now." So, I do it, too! Through this experience I've realized how important communication is and how to really internalize the concept of empathy in order to work in any interdisciplinary setting.


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