Illustration by Beth Anne Kinnaird

I realized I was nonbinary before I identified as a designer.

I was lucky to have a few transgender friends at the time, who I confided in and sort of tested out the proposition of a new-to-me gender identity. “I think I might be non-binary,” I said to them. “How did you know?” “What does it feel like?” I asked. I had never, until that point, considered that I may not completely resonate with the gender I was assigned by my parents as a newborn. I had no idea in those early days of gender exploration how much my experience in society would shift after coming out.

When I had identified as a woman, I experienced other people’s genders intellectually. Many of my queer friends had majored in Women’s or Gender Studies in university, and gender seemed to orbit around language (terminology, pronouns, grammar). It seemed to me that society could just become fluent in this language in order for justice to be served for the trans communities I was a part of. This, of course, was neither true nor probable.

Nonetheless, I did do my part in becoming fluent in the language that would be the most affirming to the trans people in my life. I practiced using they/them pronouns, and asking people their pronouns along with their name, when I met someone new. I learned how to talk about trans peoples’ pasts without misgendering them. The more comfortable I became in that language, the more intimate my relationships became with the people whose language it was. And the deeper these relationships became, the more I started to empathize, feeling my friends’ feelings and experiences in my body.

Empathy is a skill I relied upon daily during my career as a classical singer. In opera, I studied, translated, rehearsed, and eventually embodied the character I would sing on stage. Not only did I need empathy for character building, but also to stay in time with the other singers on stage, the conductor, and the orchestra of musicians that were telling the story with me. However, all of the characters I embodied were cis, straight women. The stakes were far too high to take the time to explore what I might become, as a person. If I were not a woman, how might that affect my career? Could I still handle wearing dresses, pretty makeup, and long hair, if those things caused me gender dysphoria off-stage? Would my colleagues understand, and would I have the strength to teach them who I was?

The risk in developing empathy is that something in another person might resonate with us, causing a deep and unaddressed part of ourselves to shake loose and fall into the light, refusing to be ignored. That is what happened to me.

The more I listened and learned about gender and the life experiences of trans people in my life, the more light shone on the part of me that is, actually, not a woman. Not a man, either. I let myself have empathy, and then something changed. I realized that I was non-binary.

The last opera role I performed on stage was queer. The composer was queer, and she sang in the opera too, as the older version of the character I was singing. That was the first time I had ever felt wholly myself on stage, and it was simultaneously invigorating and sad. On one hand, I had never sung better. On the other hand, when the opera was over, I had no idea when I would again have the opportunity to represent someone who reflected who I truly was. I needed to tell a fresh story, with my body and with my voice, and for me, taking some space from classical singing was the only way I felt I could do that.

Several months after the show closed, I cut my hair and started using they/them pronouns.* I began to find my way as a designer.

Nonbinary people have such a gift to give to the design world, because we are practiced in seeing beyond the primary colors, into the spectrum of light between them.

We have a completely different perspective, as well as the empathy practice that we need in order to develop an awareness of ourselves and how we fit into the world and our communities. There is no script for us. There is only empathy and exploration.

In the world of design, empathy is a hot-button topic. Diversity and inclusion initiatives the world over seek to teach, inspire, and measure empathy, especially as it relates to our productivity at work. I have never met a designer who denies that empathy is important. But is it important enough to slow down a product timeline, or delay a launch? Is empathy only important because it helps us build better products?

The obvious answer is a resounding no. Empathy, like many other attributes worth practicing (courage, integrity, honesty), can lead us to unpredictable destinations – and that is not very attractive to those organizations that primarily value productivity.

When I was slowly building relationships in queer and trans communities, I desperately wanted to belong as fast as possible. I wanted to be recognized, to be the queerest I could be, to be at the center of things. As much as I tried to speed up the process by “learning the language,” showing up to all the dance parties, and smiling at everyone, it could not be rushed. Empathy is the basis of relationships, and it takes time.

It can be painful to be someone who values the practice of empathy these days. The world, and especially the world of work, moves exponentially faster than the speed of empathy and relationships; the 2020 workplace is meant to be maintained by machines, not by humans – its scale is far beyond the human imagination. It is doubtful that our current system of work can be fully humanized; any efforts to do so are more like harm reduction than true transformation. We need to build something new if we have any chance of saving the planet, and our human existence and relationships.

Empathy is hungry for time, and capitalism is eating it all.

Creating space for true empathy in our design practices

In Western culture (and I suspect in other cultures as well), we move at incredible speeds to get more and more done, and to acquire more and more wealth and notoriety. Product design has been made an appendage of the body of tech and capitalist production, although so much of what makes good design and designers thrive is the opposite of what productivity culture promotes. Empathy is hungry for time, and capitalism is eating it all.

Here are a few tips to create space for true empathy in our design practices.

  1. Always insist on taking as much time as possible. In the same way that our current economic system is built to extract as much out of us and out of the earth as possible, we must constantly push back against it in order to make space for empathy (and prevent burnout!). Ask for more breaks, more time “off work,” more deadline extensions, longer project timelines. Learn to remind clients that you are people, not machines – and that that’s why they are hiring you.
  2. Wander outside the scope. Not for the client, but to gain context and inspiration for your own work. Whether you are a researcher or a pixel-pusher, it can never hurt to wander outside the strict boundaries of the project. You will likely find marginalized ideas, knowledge, and even people. It will also help you gain new perspectives and language to talk about what you are building.
  3. Choose collaborators that slow you down. Discomfort, learning, and transformation are all time-consuming, but they’re also absolutely necessary in the development and practice of true empathy. Elect to work with people that you don’t understand or agree with, to ensure you’re continuing to grow as a person, and a designer.

Those that truly understand and value empathy are desperately needed to imagine a better future of work, of technology, and of society. I believe that queer and trans people, as well as those with a love of good user (human) experience design, will lead the way.

Productivity cannot be sustained forever, but empathy is something that is only possible with time – and what makes us better allies to each other over time, as well.

*Not all nonbinary people change the way they look, or use they/them pronouns. There is no “nonbinary haircut” or “nonbinary style”. Here, I’m talking about my own expression of my gender.