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Design students fight HIV/AIDS in South Africa

| Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Robert Sedlack, associate professor of visual communication design, and a group of students from Notre Dame’s Department of Art, Art History and Design are creating a campaign to help HIV victims in South Africa by designing resources to inform and educate local communities.

“We’re in a class called ‘Design for Social Good,” senior Colleen Hancuch said. “The idea is that design can be an effective communicator and the ideal method for education and problem-solving. The big project we’re all working on now focuses on the task of creating an over-arching campaign to address the issue and stigma of HIV/AIDS in South Africa.”

Sedlack said the relationship between Notre Dame’s design program and Johannesburg, South Africa, was first established in April 2011 in response to xenophobic attacks. Since then, Sedlack has led two groups of design students on spring break trips to Johannesburg.

“Last spring break, one of the things we realized was that the current HIV/AIDS situation in South Africa is not unlike HIV/AIDS was in the United States in the early 1980s,” Sedlack said. “The assumptions once someone gets HIV are really misguided.

“Many people think being HIV positive is a death sentence. The population just doesn’t have access to the information that, in my opinion, they should have access to.”

This semester, Sedlack assigned the 13 students enrolled in “Design for Social Good” the project of using design to better inform the people of South Africa about HIV/AIDS and help change societal misconceptions about the virus.

Senior design students Holly O’Hara, Keri O’Mara and Samantha Lessen designed their project to focus on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), the medication given to individuals diagnosed as HIV positive. (Editor’s note: Keri O’Mara is Graphics Editor at The Observer)

“In order for this medicine to be effective, people are supposed to continue taking it for the rest of their lives,” O’Mara said. “Problems occur when people run out of their medication and never go to refill it. In South Africa, the ARVs are free, so it really comes down to just taking the initiative to go and get more pills.”

O’Hara, O’Mara and Lessen said they are trying to address this problem by designing a wallet-like accessory in which HIV victims can carry their daily doses of medicine in calendar-style pockets.

“According to our contact, right now South Africans use plastic bags to carry around their phone, money, and other important things,” Lessen said. “The design we’re currently focusing on is kind of like a wallet that will have a foldable calendar with zipper pouches for their monthly ARVs. We hope it will allow people to carry everything that’s important for their lives — such as money or a phone — in one place. Because the ARVs would be carried with these other essentials, we hope it would show their value as something that’s important for the rest of their lives.”

The students in Sedlack’s “Design for Social Good” class said the curriculum helps integrate their design skills with social concerns.

“I think it goes along with everything that Notre Dame tries to instill in its students,” O’Hara said. “Get an education, learn your skills and then use those skills to better the world.”

Two other groups’ projects target the social construction of gender in South Africa by designing and implementing after-school programs for elementary and high school-aged female students. Another group is working to make a booklet to hand out to people once they are diagnosed with HIV.

“Hopefully our campaigns will give an element of hope and the possibility of continuation of life, which I think a lot of people struggle with upon diagnosis,” Lessen said. “We’re hoping our actions can help minimize that fear.”

Sedlack plans to organize another trip to Johannesburg over the upcoming spring break so that design students can begin to implement some of their projects and adapt them to fit the South African culture as necessary.

“I think it’s easy to think of design just as advertising, sort of just feeding into the commercial world,” O’Hara said. “That’s really the point of this whole class: to expand that idea and to get us to think that we can do so much more with design.”

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About Katie Galioto

Katie, the Observer's current Managing Editor, is a senior majoring in political science, with minors in Business Economics and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She's a former Walsh Hall resident who now lives off campus and hails from Chanhassen, Minnesota. Follow her on Twitter @katiegalioto.

Contact Katie