A growing body of research suggests that to uncover key needs and create successful designs, designers must holistically and empathically understand end-users. However, despite the existence of empathy frameworks and guides in design, little empirical work has investigated what influences and results from empathy, i.e. its antecedents and outcomes, at the project level. Further, the distinct roles of affective and cognitive empathic processes are rarely recognized in design, even though they are commonly addressed in psychology research. To begin filling these research gaps, this paper presents a thematic analysis of 10 semi-structured interviews with product and service designers. The designers described a variety of techniques and situations that had enabled them to cognitively understand their users’ perspectives and that had caused affective reactions, ranging from consciously searching for analogous experiences in the designer’s own life to feeling concern for users after observing difficulties in their everyday lives. While cognitive empathy and the resulting accuracy of user understanding was perceived to motivate design changes and thus the creation of more beneficial designs, affective empathy was connected to increased acknowledgement of user problems and motivation to help users. The results describe empathy in a design context and highlight differences between distinct components of empathy.