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Protests across the U.S. reveal empathy and its enemy

June 2, 2020, 11:10 AM UTC

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In the design community, it is often asserted that the essence of good design is empathy—an ability to understand and share the feelings of another human. Protests engulfing U.S. cities this week reflect a dearth of that capacity in American society, especially when it comes to white Americans’ ability to comprehend and address the marginalization of black Americans.

Michael Ignatieff discussed the clash of empathy and racism in the New York Times last month in a review of American Poison, a new book by Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter. Ignatieff describes Porter’s book, subtitled How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise, as a “learned, well-written but relentless survey of social science studies on racial polarization.” 

He also calls it a “tough read” because it shatters two fundamental illusions of white progressive liberals (of which Ignatieff counts himself one): first, that the arc of American history “bends towards justice” on matters of race, and second, that it is possible for liberals to “empathize” with both the racial pain of Americans of color and racial resentments of America’s white working class.

Ignatieff summarizes Porter’s argument thus: “Empathy…has always waged an unequal struggle against the animus that courses through American history, poisoning both those who hate and are hated. Race has contaminated American solidarity, making it impossible for poor whites, threatened by job loss, globalization and the death of carbon-intensive industries, to make cause with African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and immigrants.” 

Ignatieff ultimately judges American Poison a bracing but unduly pessimistic “jeremiad.” That was before a white policeman put his knee on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and before it became apparent that mortality rates for black Americans in the COVID-19 outbreak would exceed those for white Americans by three-to-one. Today, Porter’s pessimism is harder to dismiss.

Can design or design thinking help reverse this “unequal struggle” between empathy and animus? I won’t pretend to have the answer. But if design and empathy have anything in common, that’s a cause all designers, especially Americans, should join.

Clay Chandler



The artist renowned for wrapping buildings in elaborate drapes died Sunday, at the age of 84. The Bulgarian-born conceptualist’s work included obscuring Berlin’s Reichstag and Paris’ Pont Neuf behind giant drapes of fabric and curtaining a mountain pass in Colorado. Christo died of natural causes.

Off brand

Louis Vuitton men’s wear artistic director Virgil Abloh is facing criticism for his response to the protests sweeping the U.S. Abloh first chastised looters for ransacking shops that he says were part of the community and then bragged of a $50 donation to a charity fund for paying the legal fees of protesters. Abloh’s words and deeds prompted fiery debate over what good he has done for the community.

Rocket man

Space X completed its first manned launch last week, blasting NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley up to the ISS. The mission marked a tremendous milestone for Space X’s engineering team and unveiled figure-fitting space suits, too. Musk says the new suits took nearly four years of design work with NASA to complete.

Rearranging furniture

MASS Design Group has redesigned the restaurant experience, as eateries prepare to welcome back customers following lockdown. Group design director Caitlin Taylor says the return to normal in the industry is “not desirable or possible” and requires a redesign of the "spatial relationship" in our restaurants. 

On trend

Here’s a short, visual look from the WSJ at how advertisers have adapted to the pandemic—attempting to find branding that suits the sentiment of a nation under lockdown.  

In your shoes

PepsiCo’s chief design officer Mauro Porcini is hosting a new biweekly podcast called In Your Shoes, launched by the beverage giant last week. In the first episode, Porcini talks to MoMa’s senior curator of architecture and design.


June: The month-long London Festival of Architecture is running a stripped back event online this year, with the core public program moved to (hopefully) later this year. The San Francisco Design Week, which starts June 16, has gone digital too. Also, London Fashion Week: Men’s would have walked June 12-14. Instead, it will sit online.

July: Christie's is planning a semi-virtual auction for July 10. The "first of its kind" event will livestream auctions from four cities—Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London; D&AD’s New Blood Festival—a celebration of upcoming talent in design—will be running online this year, July 6-10. The digital festival marks New Blood’s 40th anniversary.


In April, IDEO launched the COVID-19 Business Pivot Challenge—a virtual platform for business users to submit their experience on switching tack in the coronavirus pandemic. After collecting close to 700 submissions from over 70 countries, IDEO has condensed its learning into a report. You can read the full report here, but below are five key takeaways for how businesses can adapt:

Revisit purpose. Purpose is the reason your business exists and should be ingrained at your center and should not shift or change, even in a crisis. 

Repurpose capabilities. Take stock of your organization’s existing skill sets and resources. 

Redefine methods. Now is the perfect time to dig deep, ask questions, and pressure test your ways of working to discover what is best for your organization going forward. Businesses who can remain flexible, agile, and lean into ambiguity will be better to navigate the new reality. 

Reinvent engagement. Businesses who pivot to offer goods and services in a safe manner will earn not only business, but trust. 

Reimagine collaboration. As businesses reassess their value proposition and reimagine their offering during the pandemic, many have turned to unlikely partners for support. Collaboration increases resiliency, opens new doors, and brings to light unforeseen opportunities, both now and in the future.