A Culture of ‘Universal Empathy’ in Design at IT Carlow

Hilary Dempsey, and Dr P.J. White

IT Carlow


This paper discusses the development of a culture of ‘Universal Empathy’ within Product Design programmes at the Institute of Technology Carlow. The concept draws from the inclusive, holistic nature of Universal Design and its principles together with a deeply human centric and empathic approach to design learning. Focusing on the undergraduate programmes of Industrial Design and Product Design Innovation, it will offer frameworks, case studies and examples of how this culture and ethos is developing.

Universal empathy transcends four years of the undergraduate programmes and it compliments traditional design skills such as sketching, prototyping and technical detailing. It relies on studio and contextual based learning and ultimately ‘trusting in the design processes’. From first year this culture is initiated when the seven principles of Universal Design are introduced.  These principles are blended with studio based education using methodologies to understanding human behaviours and projects using basic empathic tools. This embedded understanding of the importance of the user creates a foundation for the development of the culture.

By fourth year, humanistic understanding and empathy are deeply embedded within the design process.  The honours degree major projects are a demonstration of an accumulation of empathic learning. A series of frameworks allow students research chosen areas and explore human centred problems within the area. While engaging with this process the students learn to research plan, conduct field research activity and explore and understand findings.  These findings are then synthesised into five potential directions for conceptual development. This project identification process involves a unique framework of identifying real world problems and understanding the narrative around them. Due to the embedded culture of universal empathy these research findings generally embody many of the seven principles of Universal design.