For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Drexel Students Explore Co-Design and Aging in Philadelphia Communities

By Laurel Hostak Jones

Students collaborate with older adults in co-design workshop

June 16, 2022

“Instead of designing for the user, we are designing with the user,” says June He, assistant professor of Product Design. Through her spring 2022 course PROD T380 (cross-listed as WEST T380, DSRE T580, HNRS T301): Aging & Design, Drexel students worked side-by-side with, and cultivated empathy for, older adults in their communities.

The students, both graduates and undergraduates, represent degree programs and disciplines across Drexel University. Students in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design—from majors like Product Design, Architecture, Design & Merchandising, Urban Strategy, and Interior Design—collaborate with classmates studying biomedical engineering, economics, chemistry, and marketing.

A major component of the course is field-based co-design, engaging community partners SEAMAAC (South East Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition) and the Philadelphia Senior Center. Co-design, sometimes called participatory design, is an approach to design that seeks to actively involve all stakeholders (e.g. researchers, designers,  community members, and organizational representatives) in the design process to ensure the result meets their needs. In the case of Aging & Design, students are partnered with older adult members of the Philadelphia Asian community. In a series of field workshops, these interdisciplinary design teams forged intergenerational bonds and developed innovative design solutions.

“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, whose research direction is in design for aging. She seeks to bring awareness to a population whose voices often go unheard, and who tend to face discrimination, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In preparation for the side-by-side workshops, students in Aging & Design practiced empathic modeling: a method that simulates some of the everyday challenges that people with reduced physical or perceptual abilities experience. Students donned special goggles and gloves to simulate the experience of older adults who may suffer from arthritis or low vision. This practice helped students cultivate empathy and begin to imagine novel solutions to older people’s challenges.

Building Intergenerational Friendships

The first in-person session with SEAMAAC, held at the Wyss Wellness Center in South Philadelphia, was an introduction. Teams of two students were paired with one older adult from the Philadelphia Asian community, and groups were simply tasked to get to know one another. There were language barriers to address; most of the older adult participants primarily speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Two students, Professor He, and one of her research assistants speak Chinese, and two volunteers joined to serve as interpreters. One of those interpreters, himself an older member of the community, became both interpreter and participant in the sessions. The second session focused on storytelling; students and older adult participants prepared questions for each other. Over pastries from a local Chinese bakery, the teams conducted interviews, then shared each other’s stories with the group. Feedback for the early sessions was enthusiastic; the students felt inspired, and the older adult participants eagerly asked when the next session would be held.

In the third session, the teams turned toward a “co-create” exercise. Students prepared a toolkit with images relevant to the older adults—images evoking their hometown, family structures, and cultural touchstones—and collage and art supplies. Asking meaningful questions (“Tell me about your hometown…”; “What foods do you like to cook?”; “What activities do you like to do in the community?”; “Tell me about your family…”), the teams created collages of treasured memories, cultural events, neighborhoods. Through the sequence of mutual introduction, storytelling, and co-creation, the students learned about the needs and concerns of the older community; the community participants, in turn, had their voices heard and included in the design process.

“It’s great for the students to move beyond their comfort zone,” Professor He says. “There’s no way for these people to meet if we don’t create this bridge. They create empathy for each other through the experience.”

Age-Friendly Design Solutions

On May 17, the class returned to the Wyss Wellness Center for a co-design workshop. This time, the student teams, drawing from previous sessions, interviews, and design research, brought early-stage concepts and prototypes to test with the older adults. Using the principles of co-design, the cross-generational, interdisciplinary teams worked together on the projects to identify strengths, opportunities, and challenges of each design proposal.

“Ultimately, this product is for the older adults,” says He, “and the students will present it as a gift to them.” Thus, the participation and input from the older community members is vital toward creating a satisfying product or service.

Students collaborate with older adults in co-design workshopProduct Design senior Khue Dao and chemistry major Uma Patel worked with sisters Ailian and Gina. Through interviews from previous sessions, Khue and Uma identified a common theme: that older adults, particularly those from Asian cultures that emphasize family and the collective, felt a desire to reconnect to their individuality. Interested in providing an outlet for individual creativity, continued learning, and social bonding, Khue and Uma proposed a service based on the “subscription box” model. A goal would be to partner with a nonprofit organization, like SEAMAAC or the Philadelphia Senior Center, to distribute a monthly activity box to community members. Each box would contain materials and instructions for an activity, craft, or personal hobby. Ideally, the partner organizations would host associated workshops or  programming to encourage participation and connection around the activities.

In the co-design session, Khue and Uma presented a prototype of one activity box, containing materials and tutorials to create origami flowers and butterflies. By the end of the workshop, table covered in unfinished origami attempts, Khue concluded that the activities within the box would need some tweaks, but that the team had in fact bonded over the challenge of the activity.

“We appreciate their efforts today--It was really hard… for all of us!” said Khue, presenting the prototype to her classmates, to a round of laughter. Khue was recognized as part of Drexel’s Undergraduate Week of Excellence for research in the course, titled Co-Design Research with Asian Older Adults.

Maxwell and Chau’s design proposal, Flori, worked with similar themes of nature, creativity, and relationship-building. Flori (floral + origami) is an origami-inspired planter designed to be built with a friend or loved one; it’s rigged with a solar-powered component that makes the planter dance when the sun hits it. The intention is to delight the user and stir memories of the loved one and the building activity. After teaching Ms. Chen to build the planter, Maxwell and Chau borrowed another participant, Ken, from a different project, then challenged Ms. Chen to teach Ken how to put Flori together. They followed both exercises with interview questions to inform the next iteration of the prototype: What was the hardest part of building this? If you were to build this with someone else, who would it be? If you were to do this with your grandson/wife/daughter, how would you introduce it to them?

Near the tail end of the workshop, when teams were due to present, Maxwell, Chau, Ms. Chen, and their translator had left the space. As it turned out, Ms. Chen had invited the students to visit her vegetable garden around the corner before returning to the Wyss Center to present their prototype.

Adam and Joy worked with Ms. Li, a local seamstress, who revealed in earlier sessions that she enjoyed crafting and spending time in nature. Joy, inspired by another Drexel course, brought in principles of ornitherapy (the mindful observation of birds as an exercise for physical and mental wellbeing). Hoping to present a design that allowed Ms. Li to use her natural creativity, Joy and Adam conceived a DIY birdhouse project. The birdhouse comes together with simple materials and affixes directly to the window of a house, making it easy to hang in small spaces. The side facing the window has a translucent backing, so observers can see birds that may enter the house from inside. For an added aesthetic touch, the birdhouse has space to add potted flowers; in the co-design session, the students brought in potted marigolds, flowers that specifically attract butterflies. Lastly, Ms. Li was encouraged to decorate and customize the outside of the birdhouse.

Architecture student Michael and Economics major Jahnavi proposed a public park or community space in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood. To gather design input and feedback, they brought in a box of LEGOs – a special kit that included elements specific to Chinese culture – and asked her to create a model of a park she’d like to visit. The resulting model included an outdoor teahouse, a small library or social space to share books, and a basketball court or space for physical activity. For next steps, Michael and Jahnavi will talk to members of the Chinatown community for additional stakeholder feedback; they hope to partner with an existing development effort to share their findings.

Students and older participants exchange artwork and prototypes“I looked forward to each week when we got to work with the older adults; they are so passionate and kind. Although there was a language barrier, there was no barrier to the connections we made,” says Isabella Morse, a senior custom design major with concentrations in environmental studies, psychology, and design. Isabella, along with team member Nakhyia Abrams, explored the creation of a service that would allow older adults to schedule time with certified volunteer translators to assist them in settings like doctors' offices or grocery stores, for last-minute assistance, or in emergency situations. The service would aim to overcome language barriers, assist in the completion of daily tasks, and offer opportunities for increased social interaction. “These women inspired me, not only for this project, but to always look at the world through a lens of beauty and gratitude. I will always remember this experience,” Isabella says. On May 31, the interdisciplinary teams and the older adult participants gathered at the URBN Center for an exhibition of the products, solutions, and research processes. Students and older adult participants expressed gratitude towards each other and exchanged final product prototypes and artworks. The exhibition was attended by faculty, staff, students, and members of the public; it was a celebration of the age-friendly, inclusive solutions developed during the course, and of the new friendships that were formed.

The side-by-side project was funded by 2022 Westphal mini-grant. The continuing course and research study in the Fall 2022 term have been funded by a pilot grant from the College of Nursing and Health Professions’ AgeWell Collaboratory. The process will contribute to the development of a new Drexel Empathetic Co-Design Lab, which aims to foster participatory design work with diverse communities. Drexel University received an Age-Friendly University Designation in 2019, which is based on 10 principles that reflect our commitment to embracing generational diversity; disrupting ageism; fostering intergenerational connectivity; innovating through age-related research; and understanding the intersectionality of aging, race, ethnicity, and health disparities.



Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.