Empathy, or
experiencing the other
The eigth edition of the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne places prospective at the centre of its programming, exploring the major issues of society, and revealing through design the innovations which will influence our life tomorrow. The Biennial is founded on the principle of calls for applications, and a confrontation of the points of view of invited curators and exhibitors: it cultivates a non-permanence - and sometimes even a certain impertinence - by offering for each new edition different places to visit, and different curator's standpoints to discover.

The choice of the theme of empathy results from an intuition, and a collective reflection. Many philosophers and sociologists consider there is an urgent need to re-think a society based on increased respect for the human community. Perhaps, at a time where we are lacking forms of utopia, where society seeks to shape an identity based purely on principles of reality, at a moment when each of us has just to make do, could not empathy be the bearer of hope for a society which is more sensitive and more attentive.
Empathy proposes an alternative vision and shape of the world, thanks to this capacity to comprehend and to understand the feelings and emotions of others. This notion is relatively absent from views and teaching of design, whereas it constitutes a central theme of the work and thinking of the discipline. And empathy possesses an extraordinary investigating force. Is it a skill ? an attitude ? is it a pertinent form of knowledge ? how to reconcile empathy with creation ? Should we forget ourselves to respond to the needs of others ? What then is the role of creation? These interlocking questions can provoke passionate debate at a precise time when practices are being developed to find ways of placing the individual and his uses at the centre of innovation.

The Biennial cannot avoid questioning the place and the role of the designer in this process. Empathy is a dialogue between a creator and a user. How can the designer comprehend the needs of each and everyone of us, and respond to universal expectations ? How can the designer become a mediator in complex systems such as our cities ? How can he create an empathy with the visitor to the Biennial to allow him to inhabit his personal universe ? What is the relation between the designer and the brand he works for ? To speak of empathy is also to speak of aesthetics. Whatever the standpoint, aesthetics is what incites an intimate comprehension of the other, be he the visitor of the exhibition, or he who creates it.
We will see how digital design is entering our daily environment, with the aim of creating closer relations between people, and to what extent it is desirable to build empathic links with machines. Certain exhibitions will look at our new rapport with the artifact, resembling more and more the relations we hold with living things.

Design is one of the vehicles for comprehending the choices and debates facing society. Are there ways of viewing our world other than the hyper-technical solutions we are proposed ? Perhaps - and this is the hypothesis that I advance - we have a more ready access to the complexity of beings and things by empathy, than by a more rational approach. In this empathic capacity there resides something immediate which offers a rapidity of comprehension, and singular responses to complex issues. The danger would be to make a recipe or a method from it, with the risk of assuming control over others. The capacity of empathy is a form of knowledge which creates profound links with creation. The designer feels and perceives; his work is not just cerebral; all of his senses are mobilized. It is one of the treasures of design: to produce singular forms of knowledge which speak differently, and say different things about the world.

Elsa Francès
Director of the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne.