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How pandemic analysis is enhancing OCAD U graphic design education and research

Isabel Meirelles,
Professor, Faculty of Design,
Graduate Studies

Visually communicating meaningful information about the pandemic in effective ways is the challenge now facing all graphic designers, and OCAD University professor Isabel Meirelles wants to help students find the answers.

In the fourth-year Graphic Design Workshop course she will teach remotely this fall, Meirelles will invite students to centre their capstone projects on the social, financial and/or mental health impacts of COVID-19. Part of the Graphic Design undergraduate program, the year-long multidisciplinary course approaches design as a mode of inquiry into contemporary issues. Examining and expressing the personal and public effects of the coronavirus through design, Meirelles says, is how students can become the kind of socially aware designers that our world needs more than ever.

“Focusing on this socially engaged topic provides an opportunity for transformational change in how students think and design as they move into their professional lives,” Meirelles says. “They will be encouraged to think about the implications of the pandemic, and the design applications they can envision to help shape a more equitable and inclusive society.”

After choosing a specific pandemic story to explore, the students will conduct research and interview sources to gather information and insights. Group discussions and short assignments will help them integrate theoretical concepts and critical thinking into their projects. Acting as a facilitator, Meirelles will support them in discovering their area of interest, guiding them in their process, and providing access to useful open-access design resources. Community building in the course is also a priority for Meirelles, who will bring the geographically dispersed learners together through synchronous group and one-on-one sessions that respect participants’ various time zones.

The role of graphic design in articulating pandemic developments is a subject Meirelles is also exploring through research. She is leading a new study on trends in data visualization of COVID-19 information in two Canadian daily newspapers. The research is being funded by a $5,000 Explore Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which was facilitated by OCAD U’s University Research Seed Grant program.

“Pandemic coverage is driven by data—the numbers of infection rates, deaths, tests—and we have seen an explosion of infographics in different types of media all over the world,” says Meirelles, author of the 2013 book Design for Information: An Introduction to the Histories, Theories, and Best Practices Behind Effective Information Visualizations. “However, one of the problems with any data visualization is that we tend to take it as objective depictions of a topic, without considering the ethical implications of the data they represent.”

With the support of a team of undergraduate and graduate students, she will comb through the pages of The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star from January to August 2020 to collect examples of COVID-19 graphics. Her goal is to identify the range of data visualization formats and techniques used, and their efficacy in conveying complex information about the coronavirus. She will also aim to identify oversights and ethical issues, including which populations and perspectives may be underrepresented in these data visualizations.

“We all make decisions about our lives based on these graphics—whether to send our kids to school, go to the hospital, take public transit—so we need a better understanding of who is being counted, and who is doing the counting and for what purposes.”