Picturing Obesity: Drawing on Cultural Imagery to Trigger Positive Behaviour Change

Li, Jingyi
Yap, Leong
Item type
Research Project
Degree name
Master of Design
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Auckland University of Technology

Picturing Obesity is a practice-based research project. The focus is on visual-storytelling informed by the Chinese approach of reducing and potentially eliminating the increasing obesity problems in China. Illustrations are the main graphic medium by which to communicate knowledge and meaning, and preventive measures to the audience. A review of the previous literature highlights that there are already a great number of websites, books and articles on obesity and unhealthy eating. In spite of this, China, as in many other parts of the world, is experiencing an increase in the problem of obesity. This suggests that these sources are not effective in curbing or limiting obesity, especially in China. Therefore, this project takes a different approach, by harnessing Chinese New Year Art, Nian Hua (年画), to communicate with the Chinese audience. Nian Hua is an auspicious art form that has been in existence for thousands of years, possessing culture, history, nostalgia, and celebrating the Chinese belief and auspicious meaning that the Chinese people welcome and desire.

This design project is not just about graphic design or visual communication. It is about understanding and insight into the Chinese psyche and their emotional attachment to the importance and tradition of the New Year Art. However, visual communication alone may be insufficient to resolve the complex problems that contribute to poor eating habits and obesity.

It is essential to rethink our preventive design strategy if we are to minimise the plight of obesity. Therefore, this research project adopts a Human-Centred Design Approach with the purpose of understanding the physical, psychological and behavioural problems that are challenging the affected population. Picturing obesity is more about using a visual narrative as a “change-agent” to trigger a change in bad habits in food consumption, which has been growing in modern China. The one-child policy, Western fast foods, and an increasing middle-income society is responsible for much of the problems of obesity in China. Information alone is not sufficient to resolve the problem.

A multi-disciplinary approach using the areas of art, science and the humanities should thus be applied to the project to ensure that the knowledge used to inform the design is scientific and correct, therefore supporting an evidence-based design outcome. Some relevant humanities theories and principles, such Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Fogg’s Behaviour Change Model, and The Four-Pleasure of Design Model will be used in this project to obtain knowledge and insights to inform preventive design strategies.

A mixed methodological approach ensures a robust and reliable outcome. Mixing science and humanities allows for a full understanding of the medical aspects of obesity, the nutritional value of food, and the psychology of people’s behaviour regarding junk food consumption. Art allows for the usage of a trial and error process (or heuristics) to determine the best preventive outcome informed by scientific and humanistic principles. Visual storytelling adapted from the imageries of the centuries-old Nian Hua, informed by the humanities and designed through a heuristic process, constitute the main design approach and practical outcomes of this research study. During the early concept design and development stages of the project, I discussed with my previous undergraduate university professor Zhang Jun. While this comprised a very brief interview during the early stages of my design, she provided some helpful advice.

The primary purpose of the project, therefore, was to answer the research question:

What are the causes of excessive eating and how can a holistic, visual storytelling approach involving art, science and humanities be explored to prevent obesity?

In this project, the emotions and beliefs associated by the Chinese people with the Nian Hua were used to develop an obese child, an obese young lady and an obese young man as the three key iconic characters to be used to communicate with the young population in China. The communication carried out predominantly through visual storytelling is both serious and humorous. It was the author’s belief that this would attract attention, be revered and auspicious, and generate good results. Besides, another fearsome character was developed, The Door God, as a very symbolic Nian Hua representation that will have a significant influence on the visual storytelling. All these characters would be useless should they not be continuously applied and seen to remind obese people of the pros and cons of certain foods, nutrition, and healthy eating habits. Therefore, this project created various ideas for applying these seven characters to various products, signage and posters to continuously remind people about the importance of healthy eating. A variety of concepts are presented here. They are applied humorously to drink bottles, hoodies, ribbons, socks, towels, greeting cards, calendars, lunch boxes, teacups, phone cases, bags and some office supplies.

Chinese Obesity , Chinese traditional art , Nian Hua , Illustration
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