When Our Imagination Fails Us: How Design Can Help Us Understand Issues of Scale

Posted inDesign Thinking

Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court just a few months ago. While the decision once again gave individual states the power to decide the fate of abortion, it was clear many would limit its availability to total bans, affecting over 30 million American women.

When we think of over 30 million women, what do we think of? What imagery comes into our minds? Who do we picture in our imagination? 

The scale of 30 million women losing abortion access is too big for our imagination.


It’s easy to make decisions that affect people who we don’t have the capacity to imagine. It’s easy to not think of them or their lives: the events that may lead them to require an abortion, or the effect that this could have on their wellbeing, emotionally and physically. Instead, we think of the idea of abortion, separate from the individual stories.

The less we know about specifics, the less real people are to us; the less we care about them. We think of large groups of people with adjectives, demographics, counts. Lives are distorted and abstracted to become represented through infographics. We don’t think of 30 million iterations of breakfast, 30 million favorite songs, or 30 million dreams people have about their own very individual futures with hope and struggle. 

Earlier this year, a doctor in Indiana was targeted for performing an abortion for a 10-year-old patient from Ohio, who had been a victim of rape. The conservative opposition’s response was to first question the reality of the patient, before ultimately treating it as a rare exception. (Katie McHugh, an OB-GYN in Indiana and board member of the group Physicians for Reproductive Health, told The New York Times: “The situation out of Ohio is in no way unique. This is a situation that every abortion provider has seen before.”)

It can feel like too much to know specifics, lest they challenge our assumptions. It is safer to keep people in unknowable groups, where they exist merely as an idea in our imaginations. The past several years, we have heard the term “frontline worker” more than ever. At first, the primary narrative that surrounded this demographic was that of adulation, because of their continued heroic efforts during the early stages of the pandemic. Since then, the conversation became about the frontline worker as a threat to the corporate sphere, looking for increased wages, benefits, and respect for their contributions to their employers.

The scale of the 30 million people who are deemed frontline workers is, again, too big for our imagination. One company alone could have 200,000 frontline workers, each person of that grand total with their own individual story, dreams, and experiences. If there are 200,021, it’s even easier to round down to an even figure, forgetting those extra 21 people for the sake of communication.

I remember where I was when the first case of COVID-19 was identified in New York City: in Washington Heights, packed in a corral with thousands of other runners at one of the first New York Road Runners, my first race since having a child. I remember the weather being cool, the sky being cloudy, and feeling the energy of all of the runners around me. I remember how I felt grappling with my own unknowns: of starting racing again after becoming a parent, the city’s unknowns of what was going to happen with COVID. The naiveté of thinking, “There is only one case; I am fine in this crowd.” How I drove a good friend there who had a lingering cough at the tail end of a bad flu. 

I can recall when we hit 100,000 deaths in America, and the discussions among my design colleagues about how to represent that enormous scale of loss, but I cannot recall when it was that we surpassed a million. After months of tragedy, that dark milestone doesn’t stand out. 

My own COVID case is unremarkable and forgettable, lost in statistics, somewhere over the 2,500,000 mark in New York City. Perhaps scaled down to a rounder number, making it easier for the sake of communication.

A failure of our neurology is the failure to imagine scale, and we can’t truly empathize with what we can’t imagine. Our brain chooses abstractions, patterns, generalizations, and characteristics over individual personality nuances. Holding ten distinct individuals with their stories is much harder than describing what characteristics they share.

In the psychology book Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data, authors Scott and Paul Slovic call this effect “psychic numbing,” or “compassion fatigue.” The book contains a chapter that is powerfully titled “The More Who Die, the Less We Care.” It describes how studies have shown that even at a scale of two (versus one), we produce less empathy for a given scenario. The more people are affected by something, the less emotion we feel towards them.

This is the most heartbreaking truth of our existence.

This specific failure of our neurology can lead to the failure of our heart, and the failure to act. Despite the contortions of our imagination, 30 million women who now lack access to abortion, or 30 million front line workers, are not living one life. Instead, one person is living one life, and extending that into 30 million iterations adds nuance, contrast, and specificity. The scale of COVID goes beyond the mere numbers of who it’s affected, expanding to memories, loss, grief. If someone was the first or someone the most recent, their story is still part of their life, and part of those who know them. Somewhere after we hit the 1,000,000 recorded deaths, compassion fatigue set in, and society lost count.

The struggle of producing empathy at scale comes into play in all arenas of life, including in work. As a designer and consultant, my teams and I work to guide executive decision-making, particularly in moments of transformation. While it might be easy to care for one person, it is much more challenging to care for 500… 10,000… 200,000… or more employees at a company.

Our neurological shortcomings do not mean we can’t communicate in a way that produces emotion at scale. The fact that we struggle to understand emotion at scale shouldn’t stop us from communicating this information— knowing this should inform how we communicate about it. 

How communication can compel our imagination

When we communicate with emotion and specificity, we imbue meaning and memory, helping people better understand a fuller picture. For example, we know powerful stories of real people help bring numbers to life, which makes storytelling one of our greatest tools. In my work at the consultancy SYPartners, this sometimes looks like highlighting individuals within various parts of a company, who often voice disparate perspectives. It can be first-person audio, hearing directly from people in their own voices tell their own story, with details that make it vivid and memorable. It could be through a book with more long-form storytelling, highlighting people who relate to the subject at hand. It could be through digital experiences where you surprise a viewer by uncovering new perspectives. A number of our clients have said that these stories have made them see a situation in a new way, one they thought they understood previously.

When I think of stories that have stayed with me, I think of reading an article about an anonymous woman in Texas who has three children, and was pregnant with her fourth at the time of publication. After fleeing domestic violence, she worked her way to earn $36 an hour to support her three children, but was terrified that having a fourth child would cause her to lose her job, and not be able to support any of them.

When I think of frontline workers, I think of Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls, who sacrificed seeing his family for a year while living at a bus stop in Staten Island to organize the company’s first successful union drive.

Stories like this are what people remember, not the numbers that surround them. Statistics show scale, and stories demonstrate meaning.

How imagery and experience can move us to meaning

The experiences and stories built into art can also help us understand scale. For example, Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg illustrated the enormity of loss with her design for the COVID Memorial in Washington, DC. Each flag represents the COVID-related death of a single American, and also contains a note from a loved one. The volume of flags displays the scale, while the inscriptions on each flag tells us what they mean. In this chapter of the pandemic, many flags have been moved to the states where the individuals lived, letting states own the memorialization. I wonder how each of us will remember the losses, great and small, from this period.

We see the gravity of war through installations like the Tower of London’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, a design Paul Cummins and Tom Piper created to commemorate the beginning of World War I. It takes its name from a poem a soldier wrote during the war, and the splash of red around the tower consists of 888,246 ceramic poppies that each represent a serviceman who lost their life in WWI. I wonder, after seeing this representation of loss, if we look at war the same.

Photo by John Cox

We see the humanity of a single child struggling to find home through Little Amal, a traveling, oversized puppet by The Walk Productions, Good Chance, and the South African Handspring Puppet Company. While Amal’s walk around the world symbolizes the journey of all refugees, this approach focuses on creating empathy for one, with the hope that it can then be felt for all. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are currently 89.3 million people who are displaced, 27.1 million of whom are refugees, while the remaining 53.2 million are displaced to other parts of their home country. I wonder about the displaced people who may not be represented in these ambitiously round figures; if their stories are worthy of being counted.

Photo by Cecilia Payseur

A focus of my work is to help people understand different perspectives outside of their own, to see a more complete picture of reality, and to be moved by what they learn. It’s really what we all need, as citizens, neighbors, and people. If we can feel empathy, we can act with empathy. We can see the humanity behind the numbers.

While statistics are less likely to stay in our mind, personal stories and vivid experiences make an impact because we can relate to individuals, not numbers. Design, storytelling, images, and experiences can all counteract our brain’s instinct to generalize, abstract, and limit our capacity to feel. Knowing our limitations can improve how we can communicate. 

The more we share about a person and their life, the more we can see them as real— perhaps as real as someone you know and love, who is as real as you are, reading this, or as I am, writing this.


Sue Walsh is a Principal of Design at SYPartners, where design and strategy are used to help clients through various moments of transformation. She previously spent almost a decade as a Senior Art Director for Milton Glaser, partnering with him on all aspects of design. She is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts MFA Design and Continuing Education Departments, and has given workshops and lectures across industries. Walsh has written about design for Fast Company, The Observer and Modus by Medium. She believes that design is limitless, as it shapes our understanding of ideas, culture, and the world.

Header photo by Paul Bergmeir.