Wayfinding, Augmented Reality, and Interactive Visual Storytelling:
Using Design Technology and the Illustrated Postcard to Express COVID-19 Impact on South Carolina Small Business
Associate Professor, Design
With sincere appreciation to the South Carolina small business who participated and to USC for the grant to make this project possible:
This project was granted funds by the USC Advanced Support for Innovative Research Excellence and utilizes augmented reality, illustration, and storytelling to express the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on small businesses in areas of the state of South Carolina.
Even with the best intentions, I could not have predicted (although in hindsight, maybe I should have) how deeply polarizing and politicized the questions I asked would become. My proposal expected dozens of interviews yet I found, within the window of the grant, I was only able to secure interviews with 6 small businesses. Many cited fear of retaliation when they turned down my requests, even some of the interviews in this project expressed concern, asking me to mute my mic while we spoke.
Impacts from COVID-19 will undoubtedly be felt for generations to come, and for people and families who have small businesses the unrelenting impact was sudden, swift, and severe. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation estimates the impact of COVID-19, which now affects every aspect of our society, has globally set us back “25 years in about 25 weeks.”  Additionally, small businesses add considerably to the charm of a city and their character can be considered an essential component of a city’s tourism. Small businesses help make a city attractive to young professionals, families, and can entice out-of-towners to spend time and money in a local economy. In 2019 South Carolina unemployment was at a low 2.6% and the projections for employment growth in 2020 were at all-time highs , but by Summer 2020 tens of thousands of applications for unemployment benefits continued to pour into the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce .
“The importance of small business to local communities is emotionally rooted in buying and selling with friends and neighbors.” 
My thoughts immediately went to the local businesses. I'm the daughter of an Iranian immigrant and small business owner, I simply could not imagine how my parents could have feasibly weathered the storm of health standards, requirements, and political impossibilities raining down on them to stay open.
As the daughter of a small business owner who immigrated from Iran and built a successful, long standing restaurant business out of a single hot dog cart in Washington, DC , these facts resonate loudly with me. There is the impact on the economy, yes, and there is also the impact on the people: the people who own and run the business, the people who frequent and support the business, the people whose homes neighbor the business, etc. These human factors are simply not accounted for in the data we see broadcast daily on the news.
AR is an increasingly used media not just in design, but in everyday life. For instance, Google gives its users the ability to see full scale wild animals from their living room couch . Online retailers such as Wayfair provide customers the ability to visualize furnishings on the exact wall it may be placed in their home .
Over the course of the grant the technology for augmented reality expanded tenfold. History will reflect this tech having experienced a golden age between 2021-2023 with the explosion of AR platforms coinciding with artificial intelligence (AI) advancements.
We use AR for commerce daily and the trajectory of this practice will continue upwards. AR is expected to become commonplace in engaging users in graphic design from marketing campaigns to point of purchase displays in store to environmental design to textbooks  and education. Additionally, wayfinding design, which is often employed by urban planners and landscape and environmental designers, is increasingly embracing the use of AR. The Society of Environmental Graphic Designers (SEGD) is a multidisciplinary community that creates experiences that connect people to place. The SEGD highlights the importance of wayfinding as systems of “designs that guide people through a physical environment and enhance their understanding and experience of the space.” 
The use of bridge technology, or that technology which fuses the physical and digital worlds, keeps us rooted in the present—in humanity—while allowing us to experience the full weight of a moment through audio and visual through more intimate modes of communication: printed matter and our handheld devices.
Philosopher Marshall McLuhan is often referenced in both design theory and practice and famously wrote of cool media and hot media, “Hot media are ‘high definition’ because they are rich in sensory data. Cool media are ‘low definition’ because they provide less sensory data and consequently demand more participation or ‘completion’ by the audience.”  Per McLuhan, as a technology-driven form of visual communication AR may be considered cool media while the traditional postcard printed with hand-drawn illustrations has a mark of human expression and can be considered hot as it is “rich in sensory data”. By combining both of these forms of media, hot and cool, this project explores a more impactful outcome.
While not my intention, much like the impact of the pandemic on our society, this project will continue for years to come. My hope is for small businesses to feel more open to discussing their impact without the assumption of implied politics or fear of retaliation.
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