Towards empathetic design for social change: An autoethnographic reflection on teaching and learning practices in a communication design project



Media & Communications Design


  • collaboration, communication design, social change, ubuntu


Ubuntu philosophy is based on the premise that umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person because of other people). Ubuntu emphasises empathy, respect, and sensitivity as core tenets. Ubuntu principles are part of the teaching philosophy of Design for Social Change (DSC) that we use in our visual communication design course at a university of technology in South Africa. This teaching philosophy seeks to find solutions that will not only foster aesthetically pleasing and functional creative outputs from students but will also address the root causes of social problems and empower communities to create change that is enduring and sustainable.

As academics, we co-created a three-month mental health awareness campaign project with students. This process forced us to question how much Ubuntu and DSC philosophies we were really practising in our teaching. In the project, students reflected on their experiences of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic; we listened and began to realise that we were not as socially aware and empathetic to students' COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 pandemic emotional traumas as we initially imagined.

This paper is an autoethnographic examination of the impact of our socio-cultural positions on our teaching practices as visual communication design lecturers. We critically reflect on our experiences during this project and analyse our diverse backgrounds and their impact on our ability to connect with students and student experiences of learning in a COVID-19 pandemic context.

We conclude that visual communication design solutions are powerful tools for social change and promoting design activism but that academic socio-cultural contexts may stand in the way. Design projects promoting social change should also embrace intentional, collaborative teaching. Lecturers should consider projects that disrupt their own personal bias as this has an impact on their ability to connect with students and their experiences of learning.


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