One year ago, I presented my graduating thesis project to the world — Exposure: Exposing the Myths & Realities of Living with a Mental Illness. To graduate from the IPFW Visual Communication and Design program, every student must complete a year-long thesis course that showcases what you’ve learned during your time at IPFW while highlighting your concentrations.
Thesis Statement: As mental illness continues to grow as a societal issue, we have to explore a more creative method of how to address and present the problem. The goal of this project is to increase public understanding of mental illness while at the same time allowing people to therapeutically share their stories.
One-on-one interviews have been combined with expressive portrait photography and compiled into a finished print piece, which has incorporated elements of graphic and layout design.
Exposure is the culmination of 18 interviews, 15.6 hours of interview audio, 119 pages of transcribed interviews, 44,355 words, 16 photo shoots, 1,685 raw images, and 164 edited images. Within its pages, this book has stories from individuals living with depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, and a myriad of other mental health diagnoses. There is spoken word poetry about time spent in a mental institution, criticisms of how higher education treats those who are mentally ill, and stories of how mental illness can change someone’s life. There are resources for those who are seeking help as well as eight pages of the American Psychiatric Association DSM-V criteria and information about the mental illnesses mentioned within the project.
With the photography, I focused on the person’s personality and stayed away from harmful and stereotypical imagery that typically associates itself with mental health projects. I included ring light portraits of each person as well—forcing the viewer to look into the eyes of a person who has seen struggle and stigma. I kept the layout design clean to allow the story to flow clearly and not compete with the imagery.
On a personal level, this project was exhausting. People think art school is a breeze, but if you really want to thrive and kick thesis’ butt, you have to work hard for it. We all had to meet with faculty at 25%, 50%, 75%, and finally have a big 100% final presentation. We have to do research and find creative ways to tell the story of our thesis, showcase our own talents, and build a display that will house our project during the final gallery art show. I was also selected to be a part of a small group of students to give a separate presentation to our university’s Chancellor, representatives from ad agencies, and local business owners.
Writing about and listening to stories about mental illness while struggling with my own depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts was really freaking hard. It sucked; there’s no getting around that. Even with the looming deadlines and daily reminders of how close we were to finishing, there were days that I couldn’t bring myself to do anything. I kept kicking myself and asking, “Why would you willingly decide to do a project that is so personal to you? You knew this would happen. Why did you do this to yourself?” Here’s the thing about thesis — you have to spend a whole year working on one project, so you better make that project something you care about and something that is important. So, I had to get through it.
About a week before I was scheduled to give my final 100% presentation to the IPFW faculty, my Mamaw suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Coincidentally, this was also a week before my 25th birthday and about a month before the holidays. The night of our exhibition show, I had a panic attack while driving to the gallery. I was minutes away from the parking lot, but I turned around, drove home, and cried in my driveway for a good thirty minutes before finally forcing myself to drive back and show up for the show. I’m all about humility and staying humble, but the entire process and journey was rough, so I’m proud of what I accomplished and am really glad to be on the other side of thesis.
My final project was a 152-page book, designed magnets with resources, business cards, and a website. Competing against professional agencies and individual submissions, my project won Judge’s Choice, the Gold Award in Collateral Material Publication Design, and the Gold Award in Elements of Advertising for Photography at the 2017 American Advertising Federation Advertising Honors.
We have to keep the conversation about mental health alive. If you or someone you love is struggling, please reach out. You are not alone.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline | 1.800.273.8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness | 1.800.950.6264
Parkview Behavioral Health | 1.800.284.8439
The Bowen Center | 1.800.342.5653