Digital storytelling brings COVID-19 response to life

UC San Diego presents its pandemic efforts in the first immersive online experience for Discoveries magazine.


Every issue of Discoveries magazine presents a singular challenge for UC San Diego Health Sciences: capture the immensity of an academic healthcare enterprise in give-or-take 32 pages. For more than ten years, Traina has helped do just that—then came the pandemic. In 2020, the magazine went on hiatus to focus on daily developments in a year of extraordinary healthcare efforts, which called for an extraordinary issue upon its return.

The 2021 issue came with Discoveries’ first-ever immersive online experience, bringing print and digital together for a retrospective on the university’s monumental COVID-19 response. The project was comprehensive: from caring for the first patients evacuated from Wuhan, to developing testing strategies, equitable vaccine distribution, right up to today’s ongoing fight against variants. The sheer range of stories called for a broadly accessible, encompassing digital experience that brought together all sides of UC San Diego’s mission.

A gatefold timeline in print comes alive digitally as an interactive infographic.


Design and development work hand-in-hand

This issue’s dual platform made expert use of Traina’s uniquely integrated workflow. Collaboration between our creative department and in-house web development team allowed for a cohesive visual language to emerge, using shared elements like shape, structure, image and design patterns, along with typography rarely seen online.

Translational design

“We’d have regular working sessions between visual design and dev,” says associate creative director, Ed Garcia. “We were able to collaborate in real time on how our imagery ideas could be brought to life in digital, then I could translate that look and feel into print.”

“With the printed piece as a guidepost, we were able to break conventions of what people might expect online,” says chief creative officer, Mark Gallo. “Digital and physical are not distinct brand experiences anymore. They have to be holistic and connected in both directions. Digital can elevate stories with video, audio and motion, and it can also be informed by print design. When the two disciplines work together, the impact is amplified and each enhances the other.”

Rich media immersion

The interplay between platforms also made for deeper dives into storytelling, with introductions that read themselves or pull quotes that became full audio and video narratives online—real stories from the pandemic, spoken straight from the source, capturing the nuance of speech and the emotional impact felt on the front lines.

Elevated look,
intimate tone

The voices collected are not just those of public relations reps, lead scientists and the health system C-suite. Voices came from all sides and all areas of the institution, because it took the entire organization to tackle a challenge so great.

With a visual tone that reflects the tone of the content, the site overall is designed as a deep-dive into stirring narratives, and gets personal from the get-go.


Changing times need responsive media

Digital was the right choice from a production standpoint as well. With a project kick-off held in early 2021, just as the first variants were starting to appear, there was no telling where the pandemic would be at publication. Timely content like statistics and even stories themselves needed a format that was dynamic and could be updated as needed.

As for those updates, one might assume that such a custom-designed layout would mean a complicated backend—not for Discoveries. The site was built on WordPress with a focus on ease of use, enabling the client to easily populate future content, essentially building the magazine a new, dynamic platform to connect the audience with rich media.

Digital connections were also essential in the era of remote work, where the magazine’s audience of largely medical professionals may not have been at their usual office mailing address. Custom website analytics from this issue revealed that thousands more viewers were able to access and spend time exploring Discoveries’ content than via traditional print distribution.


Print has a purpose

For all the innovations of the online experience, the printed form still has an undeniable prestige. Physical magazines have longevity in the home, and establish an unrivaled intimacy and sense of belonging with the reader.

With a wealth of content tripling the page count, Discoveries’ 2021 issue is essentially a compendium of the pandemic, designed with the idea of being a quality collectible. “Every issue makes a statement, but this one is especially refined,” says Garcia. “It has the look and feel that such a serious, momentous event deserves, but rather than a dark perspective, it’s something you might keep around, even long-term, for posterity.”

Garcia’s personal highlight of the print production is a striking gatefold timeline that details the UC San Diego’s vigilance throughout the pandemic—an expansive feature that also saw remarkable online interpretation. The issue overall earned accolades as well, including a gold award in the 2021 Finest Awards from the Health Care Communicators of Southern California.

Form follows content

The 2021 issue of Discoveries unites digital and print platforms in a way that speaks directly to the magazine’s essence—connecting the dots and conveying how an academic health system can work in a truly integrated way. COVID-19 may have been an impromptu pressure test of such integration, but the form we developed demonstrates an institution rising to the occasion, capturing how research, clinical and educational enterprises were brought together to serve in a historic moment for humanity.

Let’s move things forward.