This piece was written for my design research class last semester, so it’s a little more formal than I would normally write on here (but still not very formal). It outlines my process researching + designing for this project.
When I was assigned the infographics project for my information design class, I had the vague idea that I would do something related to sexual health and/or gay men. While I knew generally what the subject of my infographic would be, I was not quite sure what exact direction I wanted to take it, however I had a feeling that if did more research I would find something that would ‘speak’ to me.
Initially I was working with a set of resources created by the Community Based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health or the CBRC. The CBRC has been a leader for research to improve gay men’s heath and well being. One such initiative has been the SexNow Survey which as you can imagine gathers information on gay men’s sexual behaviours, but also a wide range of other information about their lives. This is important as there is very little data on gay men, and given the history of criminalization, medicalization and discrimination against gay men there are many problems in the community which need to still be addressed.
So I started with data from the SexNow Survey, I went through published reports and picked out information I found interesting and tried to pick out some patterns. I found information about how many people were using the internet to find sex partners or sexual health information, the amount of people who had not tested in the last 12 months, or ever, and the number of people who had condomless anal sex with an unknown or opposite status partner. I found a lot of information, and was ready to pitch my idea to my instructor, when on a whim I looked at one more source which radically changed the direction of my project.
I looked at the BC Centre for Disease Control’s HIV Annual Report for 2013 where I came across two graphs. Figure 1 showing the number of new cases of HIV diagnosed in gay, bi men and men who have sex with men, and Figure 2 the number of new cases in heterosexual people. On first glance things looked roughly equal, but I realized that the scale on the two graphs were different, and that in fact gay men accounted for significantly more diagnoses of HIV each year (see Figure 3 for an area graph showing the totals on the same scale). This really shocked me as there are obviously much fewer gay men than straight people, and while I knew about the history of HIV/AIDS in the gay community, my generation did not really grow up with the same impact from HIV that previous generations of gay men had. I was shocked because in my mind, before seeing these graphs I thought we had reached a levelling off where HIV was concerned. I knew it was a still a problem, but with all our ‘progress’ I figured it now affected gay and straight people somewhat equally. I was wrong.
Shocked, and kind of angry, I showed these graphs to my instructor and basically said, “look, these are different, and that’s terrible! People need to know!” His response was more or less “Yes, you are right that is terrible, but you can’t just point at the two graphs and expect people to get it. You have to tell them the story.” While I did feel that pointing at the two graphs and exclaiming loudly how terrible it was a completely reasonable thing to do, I took his advice and tried to offer people more than that. I hoped to give them a viewpoint they may not have otherwise considered.
I went back and researched more. I found an article called Understanding Syndemics & Gay Men’s Health by Sarah Chown which discusses how marginalized groups are at heightened risk for health inequities due to structural and social factors. This article also led me to a recorded lecture given by Olivier Ferlatte in 2011 where he used data from the SexNow Survey to show that youth who reported multiple types of marginalization were more likely to have psychosocial issues (emotional distress, social isolation, substance abuse, care for depression, care for other mental health issue), and people with multiple psychosocial issues were much more likely to have had condomless anal intercourse with an unknown or opposite status partner. This really spoke to me because in our culture we tend to on some level blame the individual for getting HIV, but the data shows that it is more complicated than that. Society marginalizes and discriminates against people, and then blames them when they make poor decisions.
I showed my instructor my revised plan and he seemed on board so I went forward to figure out how I would show this information. One struggle I had in this respect was the balance between having the information clear and easily understandable, and having it be something really visually engaging. This seems to be a common issue at a design school. Going into a new project as a design student there is often a strong urge to make something look cool and complex for its own sake, but I find it ends up mostly depending on the project content and the target audience to determine the appropriate look. For this project I really worked with the types of visualizations I was using to show the information. In earlier drafts I had more complex data visualizations where the main response from people was often that it looked great, but they had no idea what it meant. Especially given that the content in itself was hard to get their head around, I decided that I did not want to be self indulgent when it came to ‘the look’; I wanted people to understand the information.
Here you can see the final iteration of my project Is it getting better? Marginalization in youth as a factor in HIV transmission. I feel like it was successful in showing the information clearly. I kept the data comparing the number of new cases of HIV on its own to allow people an easy graph to start with, and then I put the data on youth marginalization, psychosocial issues, and condomless anal intercourse, in the box below to act as the supporting information to show people why it might be that gay men are still having such high numbers of HIV infections. My main goal with this was to share this information with people as I do not think it is a subject that many outside of the gay men’s health world are really thinking about, or even I as someone somewhat engaged in it had much idea of.
While I think the project is largely successful, there are some aspects are worth reflecting on. The first goes back to the issue of clarity versus the look. I feel looking back on this there was some room to push the visuals a bit to ‘tell the story’ more. Also I feel like there was a potential to make the new HIV infections and the data on gay and bi youth a bit more visually connected. With that, part of me would like to be able to make a more concrete statement with the information, but at the same time it would be hard to do that without over-simplifying. I also think that there is value in showing people the information and allowing them to come to their own conclusions, since most people do not like to be preached at.
My final reflection on this infographics project is that while I did what I set out to do it leaves me with the question: what now? HIV is obviously a extremely complex issue, and it would have been impossible to have a clear solution for the reader in this project, but hopefully it does get them thinking about it. Especially for anybody who, like me, thought this was not an issue anymore. At minimum this was a really interesting project for me to work on in sorting out all this information, and making it accessible to the viewer. And who knows? Perhaps this is really the preamble to my 4th year grad project where I’ll be able to work with gay and HIV+ communities to help make things a little bit better… Stay tuned.
BC Centre for Disease Control. (2015). HIV in British Columbia: Annual Surveillance Report 2013. Retrieved from http://www.bccdc.ca/resource-gallery/Documents/Statistics%20and%20Research/Statistics%20and%20Reports/STI/HIV_Annual_Report_2013FINAL.PDF
Chown, S. (2015). Understanding Syndemics & Gay Men’s Health. In At The Interface: Exploring Theory In The Practice Of Gay Men’s Health. Vancouver: Community Based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health. Retrieved from http://cbrc.net/blog/01-2013/understanding-syndemics-and-gay-mens-health
Ferlatte, O. (2011). Youth in Sex Now Survey. Retrieved November 7, 2015, from http://cbrc.net/resources/2015/youth-sex-now-survey