Change driven through empathy

2020 Humanly uses design to educate on real-world problems

2020 Humanly logo.

The 2020 Humanly event for senior-level students in Mount Royal's Information Design program took place virtually due to the pandemic. 

The world is experiencing an avalanche of challenges unlike any in recent times. From health to technology, the economy to education, every facet of our lives has been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, it’s no surprise that some students incorporated what is going on around them in their projects for 2020 Humanly, recently held online. Throughout the fall semester, senior-level information design students used a systems-thinking approach to examine the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), says Ben Kunz, associate professor and acting chair of the Bachelor of Communication — Information Design program in Mount Royal University's School of Communication Studies.

“Through all of this, it’s incredibly rewarding to see how students have grown through these situations," Kunz says. "These information design students have a unique capacity and responsibility to make the complex clear and accessible for people, enabling understanding, empathy and action. More than ever, we need this kind of systems-thinking and changemaking.”

A number of the projects were viewed through a pandemic lens. While some were global in scope, others focused on the local. The students’ visualizations of the challenges are a result of extensive research, interviews and surveys. They synthesized and organized insights from their research into new visual frameworks. It’s an incredibly tough process that requires iterating over and over again, says instructor Kelsey McColgan, but it results in students identifying leverage areas “where small changes can have a big impact.”

Living those incremental changes has been part of Nicole Oviatt’s growing environmental awareness for the past year or so. It was a natural fit for Oviatt and her project partner Victoria Yelle to focus on UN Goal 14: Life Below Water. They framed their work as “How might we reduce plastic disposal in our oceans and increase participation in a plastic-free lifestyle?”

Nicole Oviatt

Nicole Oviatt, above, and classmate Victoria Yelle focused on UN Goal 14: Life Below Water.

“As it appears from a survey we sent out, the 602 responses revealed that the barriers people face when moving towards a plastic-free lifestyle involve convenience, cost, accessibility and faulty alternatives, just to name a few,” Yelle says. “It’s important to see the struggles others face when moving towards more sustainable practices so we can figure out where each barrier begins.”

Shania D’Costa and Asfa Riyaz also had personal connections to their project, which took on Goal 5: Gender Equality and focused on the following research question: “How might we increase the visibility of women of colour and foster an environment of inclusivity to encourage women to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields?” As a woman of colour and a visible minority, Riyaz says the topic resonated with her, as did the ability to tie it to her studies.

“I see design as a means to facilitate change and encourage dialogue on topics that are often brushed aside,” Riyaz says. “Design is the ability to have a visual conversation and in this ordinary world, doing something extraordinary may sometimes consist of something as simple as shifting our thinking.”

The pair heard stories that brought them face-to-face with “some bitter truths,” they said, but the work also inspired them with a “drive to work for change and instill hope within the women of today to become the legacies of tomorrow,” D’Costa says.

“The next generation of women hold the future in their hands, so we hope that our research and work has at least opened that door for dialogue and discussion, which we acknowledge may be difficult, but it's something that is much needed for us to shift our ground,” she says. “Our Humanly project is not the end of a journey, but the beginning of one.”

Asfa Riyaz

Asfa Riyaz and classmate Shania D'Costa took on Goal 5: Gender Equality and focused on the following research question: “How might we increase the visibility of women of colour and foster an environment of inclusivity to encourage women to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields?”

While Humanly is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding projects she’s done, Oviatt says it allowed her to apply the knowledge she’s gained over her four years at Mount Royal. Completing this capstone project alongside everything else going on has benefitted her not only academically, but in her life in general.

“As a person, this has given me a profound confidence as we head into this new world of finding a job and starting our careers. With the added challenge of working through this project solely online, I feel that as both a student and a person, I have the necessary skills to become a great information designer. Not just us, but our entire cohort has created meaningful and impactful projects that educate audiences about wicked problems — and that is a reward in itself.”

Despite the challenges the situation has brought, Kunz says it also provided opportunity for students. They have made the most of it, in ways that they might not have a year ago.

“It’s rewarding to see these students wanting to make a difference: they embrace change, and they want to see change,” Kunz says. “For me, Humanly means seeing these students embrace incredibly challenging issues while utilizing their understanding, empathy and care, both for the people and the environment around them.

“That’s very humanly of them.”

Explore the School of Communications Studies, including information design. Learn more about Mount Royal University and how to apply.

Dec. 14, 2020 — Ruth Myles

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