“I search through fillers like a prospector digging for gold,” she said. —Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli
In Stargirl, the heart-wrenching young adult novel, Jerry Spinelli creates the quirky character of Stargirl Caraway, a free-spirited girl who, in one word, cares. She attends strangers’ funerals. She knows everyone’s birthdays at school. She cheers for opposing sports teams and sits with lonely old people. She sends greeting cards anonymously and leaves flowers on doorsteps without any notes.
At one point early in their romantic friendship, Leo asks Stargirl how she always knows what’s going on in people’s lives. She tells him that she reads bulletin boards and local newspapers…obituaries and birth announcements, wanted ads, and especially the fillers in newspapers, the stuff that is dumped into a layout to take up extra space and is rarely read.
She then invites Leo on a card game: watching someone for fifteen minutes and guessing what kind of greeting card that person could use.
A game, but like reading the fillers, these are exercises in empathy, where every detail suggests some story, fitting into a larger whole that belongs to everyone. And, perhaps, it is a quest for questions, rather than answers. What do we not know today that’s in front of us?
It is one form of design research, one that bridges us closer to the people around us, because it challenges us to see opportunities where we can do good.
What problems are plainly visible (in a newspaper layout, on a bulletin board, in the world) that everyone else ignores? What sorrows are you blinded to because you are so fixated on your own problems? How can you offer to help?
Sometimes, it turns out, just letting someone feel that their struggles are seen with supportive kindness is enough. And if so, why would it matter if we take credit?
What would happen if we all cared and supported each other entirely, “as is,” in any moment? What would happen if we daily sought and accepted the real news—the truth—of everyone we deeply care about?
And what would happen if we could be generous enough to design, write, and deliver the greeting cards they need? We might realize our signatures inside would almost always be irrelevant.