Reimagining Design Education Through Empathy



Design Education Strategy


  • bell hooks, design for sustainability, empathy, personal values, situated knowledge


This paper will explore my intervention into decolonising design education as a response to bell hooks’ call for a teaching philosophy that recognises empathy and respect as devices for freedom and sustainable world making. By reflecting on my experience as a recent Masters degree graduate, a newly appointed first-year design lecturer and as a design mentor on a youth training programme I will provide evidence that, in the right learning environment, such a pedagogical approach is possible.

My Masters thesis asserted that Design for Sustainability (DfS) was a critical input for preparing students for more ethical practice once they graduate, as well as to inspire and empower them to lead the way as change agents in industry. While the onus was placed on design educators to prepare the next generation of design leaders with the requisite knowledge, skills and tools to make a meaningful impact not only on their profession, but also on the world at large, the findings highlighted the critical need for students to be able to confidently define their role as designers in the world. Students come from diverse backgrounds having experienced varying levels of exposure to, and awareness of the design world. Some students face socio-economic challenges that impact on their ability to meet the basic requirements of the course – attending lectures and submitting work.

For these reasons, I have come to realise that students first need to be primed to engage with design as a problem-solving tool, on a personal level, before they will recognise their potential role as change agents and appreciate the necessity of practicing DfS. In this paper I will discuss the importance of creating awareness among students about how their principles, opinions and desires can affect their design decisions and therefore influence what impact they make on the world around them. Possible ways of achieving this include: tapping into and respecting the students’ situated knowledge; connecting with the students’ personal values; encouraging empathy; and shifting the relationship between lecturer and student to be one based more on mentorship. Moreover, these approaches are seen as hopeful and possible attempts to overcome some of the inherited inequalities and disadvantages of design education in South Africa by foregrounding students’ personal experiences.

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DEFSA promotes relevant research with the focus on design + education through its biennial conferences, to promote professionalism, accountability and ethics in the education of young designers. Our next conference is a hybrid event. See above for details.

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