Designing Systems: Stress Culture

Team: Elizabeth Wang, Jacob Paul, Audrey Zheng


The stress culture at Carnegie Mellon University has become such a large issue that the school itself has become renowned for being unbearably rigorous. Every member of the campus community is affected by the Culture in some way, and while it can be argued that the high expectations can lead to innovation, it also leads to unhealthy lifestyles and a harmful group mentality. So many people are suffering alone, yet no one’s talking about it. The only steps that the university takes is a suggestion to go to CAPS, a mental health facility that the university provides with an already large stigma surrounding it. And if you need to talk to someone? You have to wait almost three weeks for a consultation, unless you are at an immediate risk to yourself or others.

If we’re going to address the stress culture, we need to define what the stress culture is. The stress culture at CMU: “on this campus, it’s normal to ignore your stress and pretend that you’re doing fine, the more work that you can do without cracking, the more impressive you are” (Tartan 2012). The parts of the stress culture that we’re trying to address, are the isolation that student’s deal with and the stigma against asking for help.

How can we intervene? We need to start a conversation.

As a community, we need to come together to promote earnest/healthy conversation between isolated individuals that can shift the current mindset and stigma from one that is indifferent towards the stress culture to one that is creates a positive community and a more balanced school experience.

Researching Stress Culture.

Jacob read a few articles about stress culture, at CMU and Columbia, and highlighted key information. One article by the Tartan, was very insightful and powerful, and we ended up using a passage from it to define stress culture. “On this campus, it’s normal to ignore your stress and pretend like you’re doing fine… The more work you can accomplish without cracking, the more impressive you are.” Here is a page of notes, synthesizing information from a couple articles:

Who are we designing for? Why?

We’re planning to design for our peers, the entire CMU undergraduate population. At first we wanted to give the students advice and resources that they might not be aware of, but we ultimately decided to address the cultural issue instead of giving advice regarding mental health — which we aren’t qualified to give. Instead, we want to design for the students because the student mindset is what we want to shift. We believe that if we confronted and addressed the stress culture within the student population, we’ll be able to create a healthier and more positive community that encourages conversation about stress instead of the competitive, isolated experiences with stress that the students currently deal with.

What do we want to convey? Why?

First and foremost, we want people to be aware that we aren’t a counseling service, rather we are going to be advocates that promote awareness about the toxic conversations or the nonexistent about stress. We want to convey to people that healthy conversation within the community about the actual difficulties that people have with stress can mitigate the stress culture and will be able to promote a healthier lifestyle. We are doing this because by intervening in the current system which promotes stress(by students to other students), students will instead promote a healthier approach which will hopefully stop the self-fulfilling prophecy of expecting consistent stress.

What do we want our audience to do? Why?

We want our system components to ignite earnest conversations within the community. We want our audience to leave knowing that their approach and mindset towards the stress culture will help the overall community and, in the long-term, change the way stress is talked about and dealt with at CMU.

Large-scale, flat communication piece:

We want to spark conversation about stress without having it be all about negativity, even though the topic itself can be very negative. We plan to do this by steering the conversation about ways that people cope/relieve stress. The installation will prompt, “What are you stressed about?” and then balance it out by asking other people to post responses to what their peers are struggling with. The problem + consolation pairs will add up to a shared, supportive community installation post.

Hand-held, physical communication piece:

This is the first piece in our sequence. The Poster is a large, high contrast visual piece that will direct viewers to the issue, as well as the website and installation. The Poster will include handouts for viewers to take home and have links to the website and installation.

Digital communication piece:

Our digital piece is multiple videos hosted on a website. It is interactive in that a student that visits the website will input 1. Their school year and 2. Their major’s school. The website will then link them to video responses that other people within the same year and school about what they are struggling with and their personal ways of coping/advice they found helpful.


After a lot of discussion (with ideas ranging from “F*** the stigma” to “Changing the Mindset”), we decided to go with “Is Our Heart In the Work?” as an ironic twist on Andrew Carnegie’s famous saying, “ My Heart is in the Work.” We felt that it was the least preachy of all out idea while also creating that connection of understanding that we are dealing with the stress culture, just like our audience.

Call(s) to Action(s)

“Start the conversation”


We hope to create an experience for our audience to see that there is a way for our CMU community to come together and communicate about stress in a way that is supportive and doesn’t play into the current stress culture (isn’t a cycle of negativity). We hope that this will also promote actions against the stigma’s that prevent people from reaching out and asking for help.

Color Palette


A monospace for the body: Nitti

previous choices: Consolas, Everson Mono

An editable font for the headline: Avenir

When me made a decision to use a monotype, coming to a consensus on which one fit best took some extensive searching. We eventually decided on Nitti, because it looked interesting without exactly emoting the typefaces used in coding programs, like Brackets.

Here are some typesheets

Sketches and Examples of Direction:

Further Poster Exploration:

After looking at the examples of direction that we had, we decided to go with the “glitch” effect. The reasoning behind this is that it warps the text in a way that expresses stress in a more abstract way without giving it a specific definition. The glitch effect also matched up with the fact that CMU is a tech school and every student here uses or is affected by technology in one way or another, especially when doing homework (stress!). The main concern was that we wanted to make sure that the poster didn’t visually imply that we were only concerned with technology, so we had to figure our how to make it a bit more subtle.

First we wanted to figure out a different background color, since the original ‘black’ background color made the poster look too negative, almost scary. We definitely wanted to embrace our original idea of showing stress, then some sort of release, but it was somewhat difficult to show stress without making it look like a horror movie poster.

We ended up using a purple/pink background with colorful shapes/graphics, which helped tone down the glitch effect while also making the overall look more interesting. The circle behind the words also helped the idea of “unity” that we wanted to convey through our message as well.

For the stickers, we decided to stick with “My heart is in the____.”, because while “Start the conversation” is our call to action, it makes a lot less sense without context. We also settled on a square shape, since the circular sticker ended up making our message look more like a NASA advertisement than one that is advocating against stress culture.

After talking to Andrew about the poster, he mentioned that the glitch effect may be a little too strong and ominous, so we toned it down a bit further and prefer it much better when it’s more subtle (and is also now more legible!)

Finished(?) web UI:

After Andrew pointed out that the first page being a form was a bad idea, I changed the UX so that there’s a button leading to the form on the right.

WEBSITE PURPOSE: Give stressed students a safe place to talk about their stress. The website is similar to Quora in that others can reply with their advice/suggestions/comfort words. This is directed toward isolated individuals.

Animation for the home screen of the website:

Finished web UI:

To limit people from giving the wrong answer: Using up votes and down votes like Quora, a way to flag negative comments, and an entire profiling system. Perhaps moderators to read the comments.

Someone with a lot of up votes would have more say. This is to avoid trolls, and a community driven site is more driven.

  1. Build the front end first. Simulate it sending to the backend. (saving it to the local) save to a database and retrieve the conversations from the database.
  2. Build a backend that deal with spammers. From one person. SQL injections.

Finished web UI:


  1. the left and right icons are faded to further emphasize the horizontal scroll
  2. the “JOIN THE CONVERSATION!” button is placed in the upper left instead of the bottom right to avoid confusion (placement next to the “HELP OUT ANONYMOUS CIRCLE” button made them seem connected)
  3. a question mark button on the upper right will lead the user to instructions on how to use the page.


  1. width of browser set to width of the icons section, set overflow to hidden, and blur the sides to create the faded effect
  2. make the clicked on icon larger
  3. use JS to make the clicked on icon centered
  4. change the pointer so that the pointer changes to a “interact with me” pointer on hover the icons.

After prototyping the animation into the website, we discovered that it went too quickly, but we still wanted it to loop—so we made the end tag a bit longer while also having the words “is our heart in the work?” last a bit longer as well:

Interactive Installation Inspiration:

For our installation, we decided to move away from the projection idea and go towards a large physical print piece instead. We still wanted to use the piece to bring together the CMU student body by having them “create” the piece together. When we chose the catch, we came up with an idea to give people a chance to voice what their heart is actually in; “My heart is in_____.” When developing the color scheme earlier in the project, we experimented with what this might look like.

Different color schemes (w different colored sharpies)

Using a red and green to emote the emotions of tests, this is what the installation might have looked like.

Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” Installation

Our TA showed us Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” installation, and we decided to embrace the direction of large-scale poster with a simple fill in prompt. “where their heart is”. The idea is to bring together the community by letting every be a part of and view the different passions different individuals hold that aren’t work. From here, we developed the purple, yellow, pink and blue color scheme, worked that onto this.

Teasing out the details of how this installation would work was not easy. We initially imagined using individual stickers to place on a board, and ask people “What really stresses you out?” and “How do you alleviate that stress?” But, this fill in the blank installation became our primary piece.

, but we felt that would look kind of redundant and it would be better to stick to a “fill in the blank” installation.

First draft–sticker idea

We also decided to change the message to “MY HEART IS IN___”, since grammatically, it would open it up to more answers.

We reached out to some people who work at the UC, Christie gave us an email, and they offered to clear the bulletin board for us to post this poster. Before installing this, we though that an artist statement should accompany the poster. Jacob wrote and typed up this description:

Andrew Carnegie once famously said, “My heart is in the work.” To some students, this phrase is emblematic of their commitment to academics. Yet, to many students these words represent a pressure to prioritize their work over their mental and physical well being. “On this campus, it’s normal to ignore your stress and pretend like you’re doing fine… The more work you can accomplish without cracking, the more impressive you are.”

For the final project in our graphic design studio, we are addressing stress culture at CMU. Dialogue on stress culture too often approaches the topic with concern for the quality of the student’s output rather than the quality of their lives. We want to shift focus away from work, and celebrate the individuality of the student body. Really ask yourselves, what are you most passionate about? What is your heart in? Your friends? Food? Soccer? Fortnite? Its okay if it isn’t work.

We still wanted to create an installation that would also invoke conversation (similar to the website, but in a physical space) so we created another installation that would serve as a sort of message board for members of the community to write down what they’re stressed about and how they deal with it. Other members of the community can then “react” to the posts by using response stickers. We decided to use response stickers since we felt that having written out responses would result in similar responses that may reinforce the negative stress culture at CMU.

First draft of response stickers with a “response” circle (decided not to use since repeating questions seems redundant)
Mock-up of our message board installation

Updated animation for the website:

Final Animation for the website title screen

We also tried out a glitch version, and while we thought the effect looked cool, it ended up having too much going on in the beginning.

Scrapped glitchy animation

Finalization of Poster and Sticker:

During the finalization of the poster, we had to figure out a way to implement the date and place of our interactive installation while also finalizing the visuals. We ended up deciding on using double gradients while adding a couple extra textures:

Final Poster

For the sticker, we decided that we wanted students to individualize it since it would serve as a reminder for them that there’s more to life than work, so we created a blank space so users can fill out “where their heart is.”

Finalized Sticker
All the stickers cut!

Implementation of Large-Scale Installation Piece:

Results of the Installation

Somehow we were able to reserve a space on the bulletin board at the University Center and implement our installation!

We got a couple joke answers, but most of them were very honest. A few broke the constraints of the installation and addressed the quote itself while others wrote about how they feel about the stress culture. We weren’t able to interview any of the students that interacted with our piece, but we are very happy with the results.

Final Web Walk Through

This is what the website would look like to a student visiting it for the first time. The students first watches Elizabeth’s gif, reads the call to action, and then clicks on a mouse that brings them to an interactive page of icons representing other students. Afterwards they are prompted to fill out their own hardships and how they overcame them, thereby joining the community.

Final Process Booklet:

We decided to make a little booklet that goes through our entire communication system!

Implementation of Conversation Installation