Can Introducing Open Source and Co-designing Opportunities in Design Curriculum Help Grow a Culture of Empathy? How Open Are You?

Presented by: Moira Gannon Denson, Stephanie McGoldrick

“Open design not only forces designers to think about their profession, role, attitude and competencies, but also challenges design educators to scrutinize their educational system” (Hummels, 2011, p.167). When we discuss intellectual property in the classroom, we assure our students that we value their individual solutions to creative problem solving. But what happens when we take design outside the classroom and ask our students to enter the world of co-designing and open source design? In 2013 and 2014, two interior design faculty at different institutions experienced this approach when they and their students attended the United Cerebral Palsy’s (UCP) Life Lab’s Enabled By Design-athon. The three-day event focused on accessibility and usability for all, utilizing technology, product design and prototyping. The heart of the event was team empathy exercises, where participants were invited to engage with individuals with varying disabilities and simulate their daily challenges. After completing the simulations, the teams developed a realistic inclusive design solution. Each team pitched its ideas to a panel of experts with solutions ranging from assistive bathroom accessories to playful crockery for dexterous dining. Participating in these immersive experiences sparked the idea of incorporating similar design challenges and empathy activities into the faculty’s programs using two methods: large scale on-campus design-athons and small scale empathy activities in design studios. The goal of the varied activities was to help their students better understand user needs. According to Thomas, J. & McDonagh, D., it is extremely valuable when training young designers to, “take them outside their comfort zones, by seeking to develop empathy with the end user for whom they are designing. Empathic modelling offers designers the opportunity to develop greater insight and understanding in order to support more effective design outcomes” (2013, p. 1). In this presentation, the faculty will share successes and challenges to immersing students in co-designing and open source design and working with design professionals, persons with disabilities, health professionals, and students at other institutions to solve a problem. One success was how students’ approach to leadership was enhanced, as they took ownership over the school-wide design-athon events and served as facilitators, bringing what they learned to their own communities. A student participant said, “I was excited and felt more comfortable since I had already experienced it once.” Incorporation of the empathy activities into design studios also changed the students’ views. “This exercise made me view people with these limitations in a new way… experiencing something very similar made me understand much more closely how difficult their everyday lives are” said one. Through, “the empathy exercises I was able to feel personally connected, which inspired me to push a little harder in trying to find solutions to the difficulties I experimented with (which I didn't before).” As these two faculty members discovered, entering the real world through community based design-athons, where the user’s needs are front and center, can help build a culture of empathy and collaboration. When taking students outside the classroom and asking them to enter the world of empathy exercises and co-design, their design approach evolves, their outlook changes, and they come away with an experience that alters them as a person and as a future design professional. As student participants shared, “I understood it [Universal Design] in a more personal way since we had an opportunity to collaborate with people with a range of abilities who depended on good design to make their lives run smoothly,” and the Design-athon “opened my eyes to accessibility and changed my way of thinking about design and how it can be used to accommodate everyone, no matter their ability.”


  • Clarkson, J., Coleman, R., Keates, S., & Lebbon, C. (Eds.) (2003). Inclusive design: design for the whole population. London: Springer-Verlag.
  • Hummels, C. (2011). Teaching attitudes, skills, approaches, structure and tools. In Van Abel, B., Evers, L., Klaassen, R., & Troxler, P. (Eds.). Open design now: why design cannot remain exclusive (162-167). Netherlands: BIS Publishers
  • Sanders B. N. & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. CoDesign, 4:1, 5-18. Retrieved from
  • Thomas J. & McDonagh D. (2013, June 1). Empathic Design: Research strategies. Australasian Medical Journal. Retrieved from
Join Renew Instagram Twitter Facebook LinkedIn
image widget