Revelstoke Search and Rescue works with Design Studies students from the U of A to Solve a Real World Problem

Case Study by Gillian Harvey, Assistant Professor, University of Alberta




Design educators have the increasingly complex task of emphasizing the importance of a reflective design practice in the development of a well-rounded designer. This case study describes a unique, collaborative project in which University of Alberta, Design Studies, students worked with a team of stakeholders in changing attitudes and behaviours in a mountain town in British Columbia where deaths from backcountry skiers, out of bounds skiers and snowmobiling have multiplied exponentially. In 2017-2018, deaths from backcountry avalanches skyrocketed, becoming the highest and most preventable statistic in BC parks.   
This project fit into the Design Studies curriculum easily, as many of the client projects that we take on in our final year are problem-based learning approaches. Design and safety work well together. Design education has always been organized as problem-based learning, embedded in projects. As Jorge Frascara, professor emeritus of the Design studies program indicates, educators “tend to teach through projects, rather than through isolated variables, exercises or subjects" (Frascara 2017). As Frascara indicates, we use an exploratory approach to suggest a number of solutions, which, through evidence, we can determine which one is closest to an optimal solution. In addition, current approached to social design education have offered several different approaches to teaching design for social impact such as “small-scale design labs, apprenticeships, bootcamps, online communities, civic hackathons and student pre-professional networks’ (Easterday et al. 2018). 
For this project, the client brief was quite simple:
How might we use playful visual and verbal language to engage avid adventurers in a serious topic?
How could we use the skills as visual communication designers to engage with an audiences presenting options that are engaging, effective, preventative and relevant? 

Project Deliverables

Before the project started, I worked with the stakeholders from the REVSAR team to determine project deliverables and outputs. We determined that students must submit:
  • A written proposal based on their design strategy plan (to be written after the initial meeting with the client). This design proposal should outline the communication vehicles which they would use to communicate the campaign message.
  • The campaign must be translated into one environmental message, a print or social media campaign, a booklet or brochure or other. The pieces must be of sufficient complexity to demonstrate that they were part of a system that will all communicate the intended message.
  • A written proposal was essential to evaluate the designer’s understanding of the audience and strategy to communicate to the audiences. 



Students met with REVSAR to determine the initial strategy. Essential to the success of the project, students considered the uniqueness of their audience who were backcountry and resort skiiers and snowmobilers to develop a key concept that would provide identification to REVSAR and cohesiveness
to the campaign system. In addition, they developed visuals defining typeface, layout and colour, imagery needs, technical specifications of the project. Clients joined our class three times during the process: during the initial meeting where the issue was presented, at rough mockups, at refined mockups and at the final presentation of the work. The winning entry was chosen by REVSAR to be implemented on the Revelstoke ski area in the 2019 ski season. 

Student Work  


Stephanie Ng

Stephanie developed a safety campaign where an educational message was reflected in the images that related to the natural beauty of the Revelstoke Area. Using original illustrations of animals and landscape within B.C., it’s serious and yet playful imagery reflects a serious educational tone. This campaign consists of print and digital media and draws upon the existing rules of outdoor travel as outlined by AdventureSmart. This campaign’s message is translated through an app, trip planner, emergency contact card trip planner.  


Nicole Pernal

Nicole Pernal, developed a safety campaign that prompts people to be realistic about the dangers outdoor enthusiasts face. The focus of the campaign relates to the idea that often our perceptions of what is safe, based on our own cultural context, are typically false. For example, her headings suggest that most people think that stream water is clean, but it rarely is. Similarly, sunny days can prematurely turn into storms. This campaign is translated into digital media and print media in the form of Instagram ads, environmental ads posted on gas stations billboards.

Titus Lo

Titus Lo, whose work was chosen by the client, developed a safety campaign that focuses on prompting people to remember the essential items that every adventurer should have with them going into the backcountry. The focus of the campaign relates to the idea of being prepared. It uses small illustrations to indicate what should always be in your backpack. This campaign’s scope includes a checklist, an outdoor set of signs suggesting what do to if someone gets lost and wall mounted poster for the chalet. The intricacy of this solution lies in the integration of indoor and outdoor messaging which work together to prepare people for what to do in case of emergency.



Lessons Learned


This project in an undergraduate curriculum was necessary and well received, but it was not without it’s challenges.
Firstly, the time that we had to actually work on this project was not long enough. Within a semester-long course, students do not have the time to allow for experimentation and iterative prototyping which is essential to build long term leadership and strategy skills. If time allowed, as part of the design and prototyping process, we would connect with potential audiences to see how effective, understandable and desirable campaign messages were. Involving participants and working with them as experts to test a design solution is a benefit in any design project.
Secondly, enough time must be built into the project timeline to allow for production of final files which can be time consuming. Ideally we would built in time to develop the campaign design and allow the student whose winning concept was chosen to work with the students during a semester so that adequate supervision could be maintained between student and instructor.
Finally, this case study provided an opportunity to work with industrial designers in consideration of the final deliverable.
Next time, an integrated approach between all Design Studies students would be used so that we could have expertise from Industrial and product designers in the productions and fabrication specifications for wayfinding, signage, mapping.