Death: compassion and hope in design

Alastair Somerville
5 min readJul 17, 2020


4 sketches of user journeys that cross over between life and death
Preliminary sketches of user journeys that pass beyond life

Good design is often described in terms of recognising constraints. What can be made in this place, with these people, at this time? What can be made with this amount of money before that date?

Constraints are the edges of a territory and humans seek boundaries to create mental maps. This is how wayfinding (the long journeys that have defined humanity’s development) and knowing crossover. Our cognitive maps and our spatial maps are basically the same things.

What is more interesting is what happens when humans consider what is the other side of a constraint and what that means.

Death is such a constraint.

Humans have been watching death for thousands of years and it has had major effects on our minds and ways in which we care for each other.

I’m going to write of three things in this post:

  • Compassion
  • Consciousness
  • Hope

All of them encounter death and all of them create different effects upon the way in which human think and then design.


Humanity is based on its humaneness.

Too much of evolution is framed in terms of strong, individual men using violence against other people and other animals. Men using their intelligence to make tools for better killing: for food, for conquest, for power and control.

This framing ignores how humanity is more crucially founded on sociability and kindness.

Our sociability is demonstrated thru our wayfinding systems. Even now (and this is written in a time of Stay At Home orders and Social Distancing), people will journey miles to be with another person and chat. Research shows how Amazonian tribe members will travel, alone, for days to have a few hours of chat with another person, in another place and then return. Danger to self is no barrier to the need to chat.

Our kindness is shown thru the graves of people buried with broken bones. This point is made by archaeologists, like in this New York Times story. A society that buries adults with serious physical impairments from youth is not a cruel society. Compassion must be shown and care must be provided. Kindness is at the core of humanity as this Irish Examiner article argues.

Yet the question arises: what happens when kindness, compassion and care encounter death. A moment where no amount of kindness, compassion or care can change the loss of life.


Death and compassion seem to be locked together.

A huge amount of life is sentient. It has an embodied intelligence with perception systems that provide a personal perspective and enables an individual opinion. Mind in body, senses in place and sense-making from individual experience.

This raises a question: why bother with consciousness?

Sentience gets most creatures thru life successfully. If Homostasis is the key goal (live, survive and procreate) then sentience gets you there.

So why have consciousness?

There’s a number of researchers in this area. I would recommend Antonio Damasio (Self Comes to Mind in this case) and Joseph LeDoux (particularly his last book, The Deep History Of Ourselves).

There is no definite answer for this but I am drawn to the argument that consciousness drew out of the human experience of compassion and death.

Kindness could not solve death. Death took the cared-for person beyond compassion and beyond conversation.

A human facing a human who cannot speak and for whom no amount of care will help.

A crisis from a sentient creature’s perspective. The constraint of death blocking all the ways in which humans have evolved to be stronger together: sociability and kindness.

Consciousness breaks that constraint by creating the possibility of new spaces for Being that are not bounded by death.

Consciousness enables possibilities of life beyond death. A soul. A soul allows you transcend your own body, your own life, your own time and place.

Consciousness enables compassion to pierce thru the coldness of death. Rituals of music, of burial and of prayer that take sociability and kindness beyond mortal life. The person is dead here but their life stretches backwards and forwards thru time. This links to one unique capacity of humans: Autonoesis. The ability of many people to think of themselves, sensorially and emotionally, in future and past events. Imagination and embodiment linked together. A conscious act of moving beyond the simple sentient sense of being in a body, in a place, with senses and opinions.

Consciousness as unbounding ourselves from the constraints of life thru the experience of witnessing death.


Finally, hope. I am writing both a talk and a workshop on the experience and architecture of hope at the moment. Come to EuroIA and you’ll be able to hear those and many other ideas of hope from a range of experts from across the world.

Hope is linked to consciousness and it is linked to Autonoesis.

We can imagine more than we can do. We perceive our constraints (physically, mentally and socio-economically) and yet we hope for things beyond all that.

Hope (in Western epistemology) is heavily framed by ideas drawn from theology. The hope that Christians, for example, talk of is virtue granted by God for a good after-life.

This is again why compassion, consciousness and death crossover. Hope is placed beyond the individual, beyond the society even, into the hands of God and into Heaven. It’s worth reading Spe Salvi by Pope Benedict XVI for a good summary of this sense of hope.

The places beyond death, that consciousness enabled to place compassion for the people we care for, are where hope is aimed at.

This is problematic for me and any talk I write. Hope is beyond life and beyond us. God is the key.

I do understand how hope may be beyond the capacity of an individual to achieve it. This links to some ideas in the Campbell’s Hero Journey: the hero is transformed by their encounters with other people (new ideas and new skills). Sociability enabling personal improvement and achievement of individual goals (tho mostly for the benefit of a new shared sense of society).

Individuals hope. Communities deliver.

Talking of hope in a conference now, with any sense of using it successfully in design, needs to recognise how often it is placed beyond human life and beyond the individual’s capacities.

Time and community become important things to talk of.


This is apparent in what is known as Doomism in the climate change movement (and which, perforce, links back to Eschatology and Millenarianism of Christian churches). Climate change solutions are beyond any individual’s lifespan and beyond any individual’s personal capacities. We can hope for positive change but delivery is in our communities and with our descendants. The hope we must hold has to be passed beyond ourselves thru time and thru communities. Doomism senses that fear about the constraint of death and feeds upon it. We cannot do anything in enough time, with the people we know so doom and death are the only possibilities.

Doomism is understandable but it is contrary to our evolution of sociability, kindness, compassion and hope.

What I am thinking about, currently, is how to think about hope in terms of people together, sharing what they hope for, using the power of shared knowledge and capability, to achieve things within timescales that are both small and big.

A start

This is just a first post on this issue. I’ll update as I read more and talk to more people.

Also do pop over to my website Hope In Our Hands for more ideas.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX