When the spring semester started, Professor Ken Harper’s User Experience and User Interface (UX/UI) Design class in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications was studying the impact of climate change in South Africa. Their original plan: to create an interactive website based on investigations and news features produced by the Mail & Guardian (M&G), a newspaper based in Johannesburg.
It soon became clear that the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic would require the full-time attention of the M&G staff, and the climate change project was sidelined. Seeing an opportunity for the students to do something of immediate value while gaining practical experience, Harper suggested that anyone interested could shift focus and devote the remainder of the semester to designing web and social media pieces to support M&G’s COVID-19 reporting. The entire class took him up on the offer.
Navigating a Shifting Landscape
The students’ initial step was to learn as much as they could about the impact of COVID-19 in South Africa. “We create user-driven design. So we had to learn about the Mail & Guardian audience—what problems they are facing and what they would find useful—before we could propose appropriate designs solutions,” explains Talia Trackim, a junior dual majoring in graphic design in Newhouse and English and textual studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. Trackim and fellow junior Kevin Camelo acted as managing editors for the project, taking the lead on communication and building the main landing page to anchor their peers’ work on the M&G website.
“The research process was an incredibly valuable learning experience,” says Camelo, who is pursuing degrees in graphic design in Newhouse and information management and technology in the School of Information Studies. “It pushed us out of our own little bubbles. As our understanding of reality on the ground changed, we had to adapt our ideas and our designs.” The dominance of mobile technology over personal computers, the central role of public transportation in the economy, the dependence of many families on their older generations for childcare, and cultural sensitivities around mental health were among the discoveries that prompted significant shifts as the class project evolved.
Ultimately, Harper says, learning to navigate a fluid situation and adapt to change is the most valuable education students can gain from this experience. “Reality can be messy, uncomfortable and clumsy. You are likely to fall on your face sometimes. But being able to make things happen even when you’re dealing with uncertainty—that’s what’s important.” He stresses that being an adept graphic designer is not just about mastery of techniques and tools, but about knowing which tool will be most effective in any given circumstance and being nimble when conditions change.
Gaining Global Perspectives
The collaboration with M&G is part of a larger pilot project led by Harper, who is also director of the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement, and other Syracuse University faculty and staff exploring new study abroad and service learning opportunities in South Africa. The partnership originated when Paul Botes, M&G’s photographer and picture editor, and Khadija Patel, the editor-in-chief, attended a symposium on equality, privilege and justice held at the Newhouse School in spring 2019.
In Harper’s courses, students explore the intersection of visual storytelling and complex social issues. He advocates for the educational value of international experiences, and in the past his students have worked on projects like Syracuse to South Africa, a storytelling project seeking commonality across cultures and geographic distance, and Free Rodney Sieh and Together Liberia, projects based on long-standing relationships Harper developed with partners in Liberia. “Collaborative working partnerships in international context can deliver the cultural immersion and global perspective of study abroad, even when physical travel might not be possible,” Harper says. And, he suggests, such opportunities might prove especially important as universities seek new environmentally and socially responsible ways for students to gain a global education.
Throughout the project, students in the UX/UI class received guidance and feedback from reporters and editors at M&G and from professional engineers and designers, including alumnus and immersive experience designer Maxx Berkowitz ’11. Now that the students have turned in their final designs, social media cards and visual graphics, two of Harper’s colleagues—senior software engineer Justin Winter and David Kofahl, former senior engineer at TIME and The New Yorker—are volunteering their time to integrate the designs into M&G’s website.
Trackim and Camelo appreciate the insight this project gave them on their future careers. “This was an exercise in designing for people other than ourselves, and really let us experience how user-driven design happens,” Trackim says. “It simulated what we’ll be doing after Syracuse University,” Camelo adds. “We got to work with so many different professionals in the industry and deal with practical realities like a client’s style guide, constraints in coding, and even the challenges of team members being in multiple time zones.”
[This project] simulated what we’ll be doing after Syracuse University. We got to work with so many different professionals in the industry and deal with practical realities.
For Camelo, one of the most meaningful moments came early in the project during a video conference with Botes. “We were in the middle of a meeting and suddenly his power went out,” Camelo says. “But he didn’t let it faze him—we kept focused on the project. I realized then how passionate he was about his work, and how serious he was about what we could contribute to that work. That was a very inspiring moment.”
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