‘Public Health Iconathon’ at Insight2



If you look through my most recent posts on this blog, you’ll notice a recent explosion of public health related icons I created back in October during my self-hosted Iconathon.

A summary piece of the Iconathon (above) will be featured at Insight 2: Engaging the Health Humanities at the University of Alberta in May. I mention this because not only am I delighted to take part, Insight 2 is one of the few exhibits that I know of that is exploring the intersections of design, art and health promotion. Moreover, Insight 2 is based in Alberta and, generally, I find that the conversation around design+art+health is limited here in Canada. Here is a quick blurb from their website about the aims of this project:

InSight 2 explores how we can engage the health humanities to help us work collaboratively across disciplines 
and communities, to imagine and design innovative and transformative processes, communications, products, environments, services and experiences that can help to promote our health and well-being.

Based on this description and my goals with the Iconathon, I thought it would be an appropriate addition to the exhibit. Here’s my explanation of how it aligns with this greater mandate:

“Public Health Iconathon” is a visual summary of an ‘icon marathon’ completed in October 2012 in response to the lack of recognizable, universal and usable imagery conveying complex public health concepts. Over a one-month period, twenty-five public health concepts were iconized, with personal Twitter followers and peers of the illustrator involved in helping brainstorm terms to visualize. Icons were created in less than one hour in order to encourage rapid ideation, iteration and prototyping.

The iconathon represents a type of visual design ‘jam’ or ‘charrette’ that I believe is important to incorporate into public health practice. Through ongoing and creative collaboration and a participatory co-design process, we can create new visual imagery in order to expand the public’s understanding of health and wellbeing, and improve health literacy, signage, and wayfinding. The ultimate goal is to create a more robust visual vocabulary for health.

Anyhow, if you’re in Edmonton AB in May, I think this showcase will be a great opportunity to see how practitioners, healthcare users, artists and designers are promoting health through creative and less conventional means. I look forward to seeing the other submissions!

The Art of Type

“Learn the rules first, then break them”

Those are some wise words from my typography prof at OCAD U.

I’m three weeks into my intro to typography course and so far I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m learning a lot and I am developing a much deeper appreciation for the communicative power of type. My understanding of type is a design system that has been created and developed over the span of years, decades and millenia for the purposes of conveying meaning and messages in some sort of organized manner. Type is also something I’ve always taken for granted having grown up with word processing programs and having the luxury of selecting from a vast list of typefaces at the single click of a mouse, from the Swiss-born “Helvetica” to the corporate standard, “Times New Roman”, to the seemingly nonsensical “Wingdings”.

On day one of class, we began learning about the contrasts of type. In no particular order (and extremely simplified here) are seven contrasts we learned about:

1. Size – Scale of type

2. Weight – Thickness of the letter forms

3. Form – Caps/lower case/italics

4. Structure – Typefaces (e.g., Helvetica, Arial, Futura)

5. Colour – Color of the type

6. Direction – Orientation of the type

7. Texture – Leading and spacing

For my first class assignment, my job was to demonstrate one of each of these rules, while keeping everything else constant. This was a much harder task for my classmates and I to complete because of our natural inclinations to creatively play with several elements at once. However, as I quoted my prof above, we were reminded to learn the rules first in order to break them. As a result, this assignment turned out to be a real test in using type alone to convey emotion and meaning.

And so, I practiced and came up with my final seven examples (above) using one of the more versatile typefaces, Helvetica. After a couple of class critiques, I hope the contrast behind each example is quite clear. The order goes: Color, texture, direction, size, weight, form & structure. The quote is from Col. Stefan J. Banach, a man who has brought design thinking to military strategy.

From this assignment though, one thing I have been reflecting on is the notion of “rules” in typography.

Having rules doesn’t necessarily seem to imply there is a “right or wrong” way of doing things, but more that there are principles behind the practice of design that have “worked” over centuries and are instructive to theory and practice. And importantly, these are rules that can be broken, and always are.

In health promotion, we don’t have “rules” per se…there are some guiding and unifying principles, but to me, it’s not as standard or clear. I would describe the rules of type I’ve learned about as “modifiers”, if you will — they are ways to shape the very essence of the design you’re working with through its literal and figurative meaning in order to better communicate with an audience. I found these rules rather instructive and thought about how these elements could be applied to the work I do as a community health promoter. My thinking: Perhaps there are elements which help create a unique aesthetic for each and every health promotion initiative we plan, create, and carry out. Here’s one way of looking at it (and for the purposes of this example, I use “program” to describe a general “design program” we may create for health promotion — an intervention, strategy, process, policy, engagement, etc.):

1. Size – The scale and reach of the program

2. Weight – The impact of the programming on participants and the greater community

3. Form – The activities that comprise the contents of the program

4. Structure – The type of program it is, be it an outreach program, educational workshops, etc.

5. Colour – The visibility of and levels of diversity represented in the program

6. Direction – The anticipated process and outcomes of the program, and the values and beliefs guiding it

7. Texture – The feel and visceral experience of the program as experienced by all involved and affected by the program

When framed this way, I actually find these design principles to be quite a helpful way of communicating a health promotion aesthetic that may not always be immediately visible or understandable in the work we do. In designing future health promotion initiatives, I will have to track my process and see if these principles fit or if there are any others to add to the mix…A good design challenge for myself moving forward.

And before I end off this post, I just wanted to include this gem that my prof showed us at the end of our first class to remind us not to take our typefaces too seriously: A video from College Humor called Type Conference

The Health Promotion Font

Fonts have their own stories and personalities, and have the potential to amplify, diminish, or subvert the message(s) that they are intended to communicate. There is also an incredible power fonts have in their layout, colour, sizing, and overall organization in evoking a particular set of senses or feelings from its viewer.

As a growing and ever evolving health promoter, my experience as a practitioner and researcher has grown over the years: I have learned a lot, have been humbled to work with some amazing folks, and have been thrown into various contexts where I have co-designed health in communities in Canada and abroad. Channeling these experiences and thoughts into some thinking about fonts, I have decided that health promotion as a field is well represented by Papyrus.

According to Linotype,

Papyrus® is the work of American designer Chris Costello, an unusual roman typeface which effectively merges the elegance of a traditional roman letterform with the hand-crafted look of highly skilled calligraphy. It includes an extra set of initialing capitals to enhance its unique style.

If you’re curious, here is an intro to Papyrus, courtesy of Costello. I personally do not tend to use Papyrus (and there are many criticisms of it…yes, there was the whole Avatar debate too), but its textured, rough edges, irregular and wide curves have a very elegant, natural and ‘Earthy’ look that I think suggest something that originated from the ground-up, if you will. The spacing, curves and inflections suggest a calm and collective demeanor. Would you agree?

The Grade School Dance

I’ve been thinking about the state of health promotion and design, and in some ways, it reminds me of a grade school dance, hence the name of this post. Hair styled up, make-up on (or cover up for that matter, because who can forget that middle school acne?), and wearing your best garb, a grade school dance can be quite a nerve wracking experience, especially when it comes at the beginning of the year.

At the dance there are streamers, balloons, low light, and inviting banners to set the mood. You don’t really know all the other students, so at first, you stick close to your peers. The wall flowers stand back chatting amongst themselves, keeping dibs on who does or doesn’t get asked to dance. A few teachers encourage the kids to find a partner, get out on the dance floor, and have a little fun…and you and a few others actually muster up the courage to do so. You walk up to someone, ask politely for them to dance, and move to the middle of the dance floor. Yeah, you might not know how to dance but you go for it anyways, wiping the sweat off your clammy hands before placing them on your partner — that moment of physical contact sparks excitement and nervousness throughout your body. Feeling a bit stiff and arms length apart you look around at the other couples, trying to pick up on their dance cues. Not sure what to do, someone starts to take a lead: shuffle forward, shuffle back.

Your feet may feel a bit clumsy but you repeat the actions: shuffle forward, shuffle back. Double checking that your partner’s face is free of any signs of confusion or angst, you continue with the rhythm. Halfway into the song, you feel slightly more comfortable, relaxed and confident, even going so far as to try out a new step or spin, or even drawing your partner in a bit closer. Over time, new rhythms slowly form and you become more dynamic and fluid on the dance floor. Soon enough, you may even try something different by switching your partner or changing the music.

That’s how I see health promotion and design. It’s new territory, no one really knows what they’re doing, and we still have to get to know each other. It may feel a bit awkward or unfamiliar at first, but with time and experience, things come together more smoothly. The art and skill of dancing takes, time, experience, relationship building, and some risk-taking but it seems that right now is the perfect time to take bigger strides and pull each other closer so that we can find new rhythms, patterns and movements that bring health promotion and design to the next level.

I think this quote from Gordon MacKenzie helps sum up some of these thoughts nicely:

On the dance floor, people are not boxed in, and they manage very nicely to avoid tripping over one another. If we are to achieve the quantum leaps the future seems to be demanding of us, we must risk to leave our containers-turned cages and find the grace to dance without stepping on toes.

Others’ or our own.

– Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Page 97

The Designer vs. Health Promoter – Ready…

d vs. hp

“Ready…” is the first of a visual series I will call The Designer vs. Health Promoter that illustrates some of the major distinctions I see between design (represented on the left) and health promotion (represented on the right). These ideas started with conversations and learning that have taken place over the past year or so. I will let the images speak for themselves.