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Empathy-Building Activities in Visioning Workshops

November 15th, 2021 | 4 min. read

Empathy-Building Activities in Visioning Workshops

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Our goal is to capture your vision and make it a reality, but for many clients, it is not clear how this process works. If you are starting your first building project, you may be wondering how we will engage your team and what role you will have in the design process.

Visioning workshops are the first step to transforming your ideas into tangible design solutions. Occurring in the pre-design phase, these workshops can involve anywhere from a couple individuals to hundreds of stakeholders. At Neumann Monson, we use several activities in our visioning workshops that help you articulate your goals, explain the needs of everyone who will be utilizing the completed space, and build consensus among your group members. 

Visioning workshop activities include: 

  1. Client-Led Empathy Mapping 
  2. Problem Solving Activities 
  3. Benchmarking Tours 
  4. Visual Listening Exercises 

This article will break down each of these activities and explain how they help create an overarching vision for your project. After reading this, you will understand how the visioning process will engage your team and help you establish project goals. 



Client-Led Empathy Mapping 

Various individuals occupy buildings, and many may be outside your project team or building committee. To better understand everyone’s needs, we may use empathy mapping in our visioning workshops. 

Empathy mapping begins by creating a “persona” for someone who may be using the building.  

For example, on a K-12 school project, you may create personas for teachers, students, administration, and facilities and maintenance staff. Working in groups, you will walk through these individuals’ experiences by asking questions like: 

  1. What are their pain points or the problems they are experiencing? 
  2. What are their aspirations and goals? 
  3. What types of amenities would they need? 
  4. What kinds of emotions are they experiencing? 

This exercise helps you understand the importance of various design decisions by imagining the building from another person’s perspective. It also allows us to broaden our approach and incorporate the needs of as many people as possible. 

Problem-Solving Activities 

Problem-solving activities are an opportunity to build consensus within a group. Typically, we use this activity for large, diverse groups who are utilizing the same space, like religious congregations or commercial clients. 

The activity works by breaking everyone into small groups to discuss a problem they have with their current space. Each group works together to solve the problem and present their solution.  

The activity builds empathy by helping you understand everyone’s perspective. It also helps identify the needs of various building occupants and different ways of approaching the problem. Everyone can share their ideas and walk away knowing their voice was heard. 

Visioning workshop problem solving

Group engaged in a problem solving activity

Benchmarking Tours 

Benchmarking tours are an opportunity to see design decisions in person. The process involves touring buildings that are similar to the one you are planning. On the tour, you are encouraged to express your opinions freely. 

Some opinions may be easy to describe. For example, you might like a color palette or flooring material. Others may be less concrete. Some spaces may simply “feel” right or wrong. Our goal is to understand the “why” behind your opinions and translate these often difficult-to-describe reactions into tangible design solutions. 

Why does a space not feel right? Does it feel closed off and claustrophobic? Is it too large and impersonal? Does the interior design not match your organization’s identity? 

By talking through these reactions, we can create a space that aligns with your values, goals, and tastes. Like other activities, you will talk through your opinions with other members of your organization and walk away with a better understanding of everyone’s thoughts. 

Visual Listening Exercises 

Visual listening activities are another opportunity to respond to specific design choices. With this activity, you will view pictures of various buildings, including the exterior and interior spaces, and express your opinions. 

We use this activity to help both large and small groups share their opinions and establish clear project goals. This activity can also replace benchmarking tours when buildings are inaccessible. 

The goal is to collect first reactions from everyone. If the event is done in-person, you may vote with stickers, placing green dots on pictures that give you positive reactions and red dots on pictures that give you negative reactions. When this is done virtually, votes can be tallied in real-time. 

Ultimately, this activity provides a visual representation of everyone’s reactions, allowing you to reach a group consensus. As with benchmarking tours, you will talk through your reactions, allowing us to translate them into tangible design decisions. 

visual listening exercise in a visioning workshop

Group engaged in a visual listening exercise

Designing with Empathy 

Successful visioning workshops build empathy. By the end of the process, your architect should walk away with a solid understanding of the building occupants and their needs, and the project stakeholders should walk away feeling like their voice was heard. 

The goal is to create an agreement between the architect and everyone who will be using the building. This process of discovery creates a unique, tailored approach to each project—and leaves you with solutions that meet your organization’s needs.  

Want to learn more about the architectural process? Learn how to establish communication with your project manager by reading our guide to kickoff meetings.