When the pandemic hit, information seemed to be everywhere–sometimes conflicting and issued at random from multiple sources, outlets, organizations, and officials. But clear and direct communication, in particular to the vulnerable communities that needed it most, was hard to find.
“I saw the scramble happening,” said Penina Acayo Laker, College of Art assistant professor and founder of the Health Communication Design Studio (HCDS). “We were not prepared for the repercussions of COVID-19, and it was quite interesting how attention was cast on communication in general: where is it coming from; do people trust it? I could clearly see the role communications design could play in getting the right information or disinformation.”
Acayo Laker’s design career has focused on community-based practices and global health. Her award-winning work in Kenya used iconography to help communicate ailments associated with the spread, prevention, and treatment of malaria. Other aspects have focused on developing secondary-level design education programs in Uganda that could advance health communication design.
“The field of design is uniquely positioned to bring clarity to the complexity of public and global health systems,” Acayo Laker explained. “Design research methodologies are rooted in a human-centered approach that can generate solutions that are culturally relevant, equitable, and sustainable for the communities being served.”
With travel at a standstill during the pandemic, Acayo Laker knew there was an opportunity to make a local impact.
She quickly partnered with the Brown School’s Health Communications Research Laboratory (HCRL), founded and directed by Matt Kreuter, Kahn Family Professor of Public Health. The HCRL had received funding through the NIH’s Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL), which was seeking to support community-based research projects directed at populations that had been the hardest hit by COVID.
“We decided to join forces and see in a year’s time what we could do to highlight the very real health disparities in St. Louis and to address and alleviate some of those issues,” she explained. “Out of that came the HCDS.”
Then a team of one, Acayo Laker quickly brought others on board. Claire Wild (BA21), who was taking a gap year before medical school, jumped in to help build a studio infrastructure and hire students. Christine Watridge (BA22) now works full-time as the HCDS project coordinator.
There were eight distinct projects in the first CEAL funding cycle, and a need to create focused and relevant design solutions within all of them.
For the Vaccine Ambassadors project, the team has created vaccine holders and conversation cards, distributed in the city and county, designed to help recently vaccinated individuals persuade members of their social group to receive their shots. In the Outreach through Organizations initiative, printed materials focusing on social safety nets, COVID-19 testing, and vaccinations were developed and then delivered directly to households by regional response teams. The iHeard project surveys St. Louisans weekly to track the prevalence and believability of information in the community and provides responses to combat incorrect information. HCDS offers clear and compelling data visualizations to help understand and dissect this trending health news.
These projects are all about listening carefully to community members and the organizations that serve them, designing solutions together, and then creating high-quality, effective resources for the partners to use,” Kreuter said. “Penina and her team do a great job of filtering every piece they design through the perspective and experience of the user. They are always asking how they can make a solution easier, simpler, clearer, better, more responsive to the intended recipient.”
Aayesha Ejaz (MFA-IVC23) created survey illustrations for the RADxUP project, which is studying the benefits of including visuals related to the COVID testing decision process when communicating about when and how to test. She’s one of 16 students who have worked for the HCDS over the past year.
“Creating within a community-engaged process was so valuable and fulfilling,” Ejaz said. “Through a user test, I received direct feedback about my designs and could better understand the messages people were taking away from my work.”
“The Studio has created a culture of deep thinking and support, and it has paid off for our partners and the students who work with us,” Watridge said. “My time working with Penina as a student and now as an administrator has taught me so much about interdisciplinary academic research and community partnerships.
As for the future of the Studio, Acayo Laker sees myriad possibilities. “I would never imagine a year ago that this is where we would be; the scale is really encouraging,” she said.
While she wants to continue her globally-focused work, she also recognizes there are many viable and promising partnerships on campus, with colleagues working in dissemination and implementation, linguistics, and more.
“Our goal is a faculty/student/ community collective that uses a community-based participatory approach to address the most pressing public health issues, locally and globally. We are seeking partners that value that approach as well as understand the importance of involving design in the initial conversation and plan.