Data visualization courses immerse students in editorial process through heavy topics

Award-winning motion graphics producer and UNC School of Media and Journalism Reese Felts Distinguished Professor Terence Oliver strives to positively impact his students’ lives by encouraging them to understand the importance they have in the world. Oliver joined the MJ-school in 2010 and teaches courses in magazine design, information graphics, motion graphics and graphic design.

"The main thing I want to convey to you all is the value that you bring," Oliver told his students at the end of the Fall 2018 semester.

Oliver’s courses in magazine design and information graphics are uniquely designed to immerse students in real-world scenarios, allowing Oliver to show students the impact they can have in the industry now and in the future.

A newsroom experience

"MEJO 683: Magazine Design" is designed to give students a collaborative newsroom experience from within Carroll Hall. As a team, students write and design content to contribute to the creation of two magazines over the course of the semester.

In Fall 2018, students worked collectively to create “Home Grown,” a magazine that explored all things “grown” in North Carolina, and “Obscure,” a magazine with a spooky vibe that showcased popular myths and legends.

The course is unique in that it offers students the opportunity to take on leadership positions within the class. At the beginning of the semester, students are able to express their interest in taking on the role of art director or assistant art director for each of the magazines.

Lauren Wilkinson '19 took the course in Fall 2018 and served as the assistant art director for “Home Grown.” Oliver is dedicated to constructing the course in a way that explores the intensity and reality of the editorial process, Wilkinson said.

As assistant art director, Wilkinson said she helped keep her classmates on track and motivated to meet their deadlines. Throughout the duration of the course, Wilkinson said she was able to utilize several skills she’d obtained in other MJ-school courses, such as editing, writing and knowledge of the Adobe creative suite.

Oliver said that while he does take time to teach some new design strategies during the magazine course, the class is really focused on getting students to incorporate skills learned in past classes into one capstone design project.

But Wilkinson gained a lot of new skills, too. In the course — and in her leadership role — Wilkinson said she sharpened her abilities to work with a team and communicate effectively.

The real-world experience this course offers is both informative and eye-opening, WIlkinson said.

“Creating a 70- to 100-page piece of work is something that you can’t wrap your head around until you just do it,” she said.

In the end, all the stress and hard work paid off immensely, Wilkinson said. She left the class able to hold the physical product of the magazine she helped build from the ground up — a feeling she describes as incredibly rewarding.

Erynn Affeldt '19 also took the course in the Fall 2018 semester and served as the art director for “Obscure.” As a student in the editing and graphic design specialization in the MJ-school, Affeldt said she was excited to have a capstone course in print design.

As art director, Affeldt said she worked with the other student leaders to determine the strength of story pitches, provide feedback on story and design drafts, and make sure deadlines were met.

“Being one of the art directors was a really great opportunity to not only learn about leadership,” Affeldt said. “But it also gave me the chance to learn how to work with my peers, give constructive feedback and really pull the best out of them.”

Affeldt said her responsibilities as art director continued after the semester ended because of some conflicts with the printing of the magazine. The experience of working with the printer allowed Affeldt to see a real example of the kinds of challenges magazine designers face in the industry, and enabled her to learn how to be the liaison for a company in the editing process.

Overall, Affeldt said the course required an atmosphere of teamwork and collaboration as students worked in smaller groups for one main goal: the creation of two full magazines, each with a united voice and design.

In order to create that real-world experience for his students, Oliver runs the class in a hands-off way.

“Oliver did a great job at setting the framework for the process and keeping us within that framework,” Affeldt said. “But he really gave us the reins.”

Oliver focuses more on motivating his students through the semester and encouraging them to put their best foot forward, rather than dictating the vision of the magazines and their direction.

“That immersion into the experience allows them to truly interact as they will while out in the industry,” Oliver said. “It also allows them to have true ownership where it’s their magazine. They’ve created it. I haven’t controlled the narrative at all.”

In the past, the course collaborated with "MEJO 656: Magazine Writing and Editing," and writers and designers were able to work together to produce and design content for the magazines. The course now collaborates with advertising students in Professor of the Practice Dana McMahan’s classes to fill the magazines with advertisements.

Affeldt ultimately said the course was a great opportunity for her as an editing and graphic design student in the MJ-school, and she appreciated the opportunity to have a leadership role in the classroom.

Affeldt is now taking Oliver’s information graphics and motion graphics courses in the Spring 2019 semester.

Powerful storytelling

Oliver’s commitment to showing students the impact they can have and immersing them in the real world drives his information graphics course, as well. "MEJO 484: Information Graphics" is designed to provide students with the skills to create clear, accurate, informative and visually attractive information graphics.

And this course doesn’t shy away from hard-hitting, sometimes controversial topics. The course allows students to create accurate and powerful information graphics about tough topics, such as domestic violence, drunken driving, wrongful conviction and adoption. Producing work on these serious topics helps students grow and strengthen their professional portfolios.

Oliver said he wanted to give students an opportunity to research and tell powerful stories through infographics.

“Out in the industry, there’s a balance of a lot of serious stories and a lot of hard-hitting things,” Oliver said. “So I thought this would be a good opportunity to have students come together as a team to put together a magazine package on a serious subject.”

Several years ago, Oliver said other instructors in the MJ-school had incorporated the topic of sex trafficking in their instruction, and Oliver started thinking of ways his classes could collaborate with their efforts.

Oliver had survivors of sex trafficking come to his class and tell their stories, then had his students research and create information graphics on the subject. He continued having students cover relevant topics each semester based on national and international discourse.

“In the following semesters, I felt it was necessary to continue to bring subjects that were topical with what was going on in the world,” he said.

In 2015, Oliver’s students covered sex trafficking and produced an award-winning collection called “Enslaved in America.” In Spring 2019, Oliver is having his infographics students collaborate with The Irina Project, run by MJ-school professors Anne Johnston and Barbara Friedman, to revisit the topic of sex trafficking.

“Faculty innovation and immersive student learning opportunities are cornerstones of the UNC School of Media and Journalism,” said Susan King, dean of the school. “As Terence’s courses prove, when you combine that with engagement around serious issues, it’s a powerful experience and an act of service.”

A lasting impression

With close to two decades of teaching experience, Oliver has taught more than 1,000 students. Oliver is dedicated to ensuring that his students have an immersive and collaborative experience, and hopes they leave his classes feeling confident, encouraged and empowered. 

As the Fall 2018 semester came to a close, he left his students with two final messages: Power through adversity and be your own advocate.

He told them: "You just have to say, 'I'm going forward. I'm not going to be afraid of anybody.'"