19 May 2010

Design, empathy and understanding

NEW YORK -- Last night we had dinner with Bob Greenberg, founder of R/GA, Sam Farber, founder of OXO, and Patrick Whitney, dean of IIT's Institute of Design. All three men are successful because they take time to understand their consumers.

Sam Farber's story is worth telling because it's a great example of human empathy. In retirement he saw his wife struggle with utensils that could handle cooking but were themselves hard to handle if you suffered from arthritis. From this experience he came out of retirement and founded OXO, a line of easier-to-use kitchenware.

Whether you're designing a product or marketing one, it is absolutely critical to have empathy toward and understanding of the people to who you're selling. I've posted before on consumer understanding and some of the ways we can all gain it through our own daily initiatives.

Ethnography, the study of human society, is much more of an applied science in marketing today. Many clients and agencies recognize the value of ethnographic research and there are firms and consultants capable of helping them. These endeavors require significant time, money and patience -- but the payoff can be huge.

Whether you commit to ethnographic research or simply find your own ways to connect with consumers, empathy is critical. The most inspired designs and ads all started with a simple act of listening and understanding.


  1. Gee I was hoping for more dish on Bob Greenberg. He can be quite quotable at times. Or so I've heard.

  2. Try this: He can take apart and rebuild a Triumph motorcycle with his eyes closed. I always forget how mechanically talented he is.