_FEATURE Product Design

Designing for, and With, the Community
Students experienced co-design during an experimental participatory course that tackled inclusion, community and aging.

_June He

He is an assistant professor of product design in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

How do you design a product for an end user who is nothing like you — who comes from a radically different generation, culture and way of life? Answer: Design with the user.

In a course titled “Aging & Design,” Assistant Professor June He built a field-based, co-design curriculum that encouraged students to study end users who are unlike themselves, in a setting that fosters relationships, empathy and participation. “Co-design” is a format that involves all stakeholders, ensuring the result meets their needs.

In this case, the students were partnered with older adult members of the Philadelphia Asian community.

“By connecting older adults from Asian communities and interdisciplinary Drexel students, we are creating an inspiring and enriching experience for intergenerational and cross-cultural participants to connect and communicate,” says Professor He, who studies design for aging. A pilot grant from the College of Nursing and Health Professions’ AgeWell Collaboratory that funded the course will also inform a new Drexel Empathetic Co-Design Lab, which aims to foster participatory design work with diverse communities.



Students Adam Netburn and Joy Iaconianni worked with Ms. Li, a local seamstress who enjoys crafting and spending time in nature. The students conceived a DIY birdhouse to encourage mindful observation of birds for physical and mental well-being. The birdhouse is made of simple materials and affixes directly to the window, so observers inside their home can watch birds enter the birdhouse.


Students Khue Dao and Uma Patel identified a common theme during their conversations with their community design partners: Older adults from Asian cultures that emphasize family and the collective felt a desire to reconnect to their individuality. Dao and Patel proposed a “subscription box” service. Each box would contain materials and instructions for an activity, craft or personal hobby. Their concept included the idea of partnering with a community organization to distribute a monthly activity box and host workshops or programming.


Students Maxwell Niehaus and Chau Nguyen proposed an origami-inspired planter designed to be built with a friend or loved one; it’s rigged with solar power that makes the planter dance when the sun hits it. The intention is to delight the user while building relationships and memories through shared activity.


Architecture student Zhengdon “Michael” Zhu and economics major Jahnavi Kalyan proposed a public park in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood. To gather design input and feedback, they brought in a special LEGO kit that included elements specific to Chinese culture and asked their community co-designer to create a model of a park she’d like to visit. The result included an outdoor teahouse, a booksharing space and a basketball court or space for physical activity.

The course attracted Westphal design students as well as graduates and undergraduates in biomedical engineering, economics, chemistry and marketing. They prepared for their interactions with the older adults by practicing empathic modeling — a means of cultivating understanding of someone else’s physical challenges — by donning special goggles and gloves to simulate the experience of an older adult who suffers from arthritis or low vision.

Teams met with community members at the Wyss Wellness Center to get to know one another through exercises, shared stories and interviews. The students learned about the needs of the older community; the community participants, in turn, were heard and included in the design process.

“I looked forward to each week when we got to work with the older adults; they are so passionate and kind,” says Isabella Morse, a senior custom design major with concentrations in environmental studies, psychology and design. “Although there was a language barrier, there was no barrier to the connections we made.”

Eventually it was time for the students to draw on knowledge from previous sessions, conversations and design research to produce early-stage design concepts and prototypes, which they tested with the older adults in a final workshop.

Using co-design principles, the students and community members examined the design proposals to spot the strengths, opportunities and challenges of each.

“Ultimately, this product is for the older adults,” says He, “and the students present it as a gift to them.”