Identifying a design’s theme and determining the activities to be sequenced from first impression to
lasting impression is a filter rarely discussed among design students and practitioners. There are design
projects students are given that focus on empathy. Students are usually given an emotion, told to
empathize with it, and then turn it into either an abstract design or a plan for a given setting. It is a fun,
worthwhile exercise but out of context with a larger narrative. It is another in a long line of exercises
calling for a designer’s assumptions on the part of the end users.
Determining a design’s theme brings with it two advantages. To a great extent, the identification of a
design’s theme determines first what can and cannot be included in a design and second, with each
subsequent selected activity setting and experience to be designed for the array of potential
experiences is further narrowed. All artists, writers, painters, playwrights experience this narrowing
influence; it is refined again and again with each succeeding written word or brush stroke. You do this
when you tell a story or describe an event. Think about it. You need to go to city hall. While there may
be a farmers’ market on the green between the parking area and the building there are numerous
activities and related experiences that would seem out of place: grocery or dry-cleaning drop-off or pick-
up; ski lift; marijuana dispensary. This built-in narrowing process flies in the face of students’ dilemma
that they could include anything in their design.