The Clashing Colours of Kindness & Fashion

Just how can empathy for the user enhance your creative work?

Words by Pak Lun Chiu

As a psychology specialist, I was once questioned if a psychologist could ever be a ‘Creative’ – what does a psychologist have to do with the everyday life of fashion and design? I understand why I’m asked this question. Reflecting on my previous life, my world looked very different from that of the creative industry. It was about working in hospital wards, empathising with people’s struggles, helping them to pick up and restore their broken dreams. All of this was done in a clinical setting, surrounded by a sense of over-cleanliness and an air of antiseptics. Not the floral-scented world that Maison Dior portrays, nor did it resemble the legendary experiments between Alexander McQueen and the milliner Philip Treacy, where the vision of savage and beauty flourished into an aspiring couture reality. I was left wondering if this person was actually right. Did I really have nothing to give?

Kindness, as discussed in my previous article, is what psychologists can first and foremost offer. Through immersing ourselves into users’ lives and extending empathy towards their experience, we can help with understanding the needs and desires towards a product; beyond its physical aesthetics and components. This brings a different way of enhancing creativity in fashion. By grounding our designs with human values, e.g. the personal significance an item holds and how this interplays with our feelings, beliefs and how this creates meanings in our lives, it provides more opportunities to translate artistic creativity into commercial and financial success. This is where psychologists through kindness become a creative force.

Christopher Kane Image by Christopher Kane,

On the surface, the idea of understanding the market could seem like common sense. Why we need psychologists to do this and how this can be done professionally gets the industry’s head scratching. My research has revealed that one of the major obstacles is to help creatives see users beyond the immediate sales. For a designer’s everyday work, there is little space and time to interact with the user – let’s say she’s called Fiona – beyond the weekly sell-through and analysis. This weekly sales report lingers in the background of the design process, swaying designs towards a repetition of best-sellers just because of the dollar signs that users represent. In effect, there is limited time to understand Fiona and her friends beyond their purses and wallets, to empathise with their needs and experience, bringing these lessons back to the table. Blaming the design team would be missing the point. Quite the contrary, most professionals have yawned their tiredness out loud for living up to the chase, compromising their creative passion for the sake of business survival.

In the current times where the market is increasingly uncertain, with no guaranteed strategies for success, it seems more timely than ever to consider a better relationship with users – empathising with Fiona seems just right to help with uncertainties in the creative process.

”It’s not easy to come up with innovations season after season, but it’s definitely harder if the financial pressure keeps on growing.”

Nara Lee Image by Nara Lee,

When asked about the possibility of including the user in the design process, some professionals have expressed a concern that users would just tell us what they had before. This judgement seems reasonable considering the unwaning sales of repeated/permanent pieces, together with the similar kind of selfies that users like to share. Do they really understand the artistic values and the creative talents that designers have spent years to gain? It’s like asking some guy to sit in the film director’s chair and make an art-house movie.

Researchers have made a distinction between the use of Leadership Creativity and Adaptive Creativity in fashion. Whilst the former is related to the notion of divergent thinking; to reset the current paradigms and deliver trend-breaking innovations (think Savage Beauty by McQueen, Adaptive Creativity is about design innovations that respond to consumer demands within the realities of finance and technology. With this distinction in mind, user empathy would not threaten the artistic ‘Leadership Creativity’ per se. Through a deeper understanding and user insights, empathy will enhance the use of Adaptive Creativity and ensure ideas resonate with the user’s needs. This then becomes a source and a foundation for applying the artistic elements, as there is a more precise eye on what the market is longingly missing, and a chance to identify future ideas that users have not yet realised.

To appreciate what kindness and empathy have to offer is to acknowledge the varying kinds of creativity within a design process

To think kindness may clash with our creativity is to ignore the extra splashes of colour that users will add. The commercial circumstances have made user empathy that much more difficult. However, by shifting our priorities beyond the monetary value of users, and by using psychology to ignite a meaningful dialogue and conversation, showing kindness would enhance creativity further, making it highly valuable for the current design system.

Daniel Sannwald Image by Daniel Sannwald,


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