Shaping a mental health initiative for art and design students

OCAD University & Environics Research


Environics Research applied Social Values insights to help OCAD University shape the design and implementation of a mindfulness program to support the mental health and wellness of creative young artists and designers. Insights from this research study equipped OCAD U leaders with a foundational understanding of student’s diverse needs and motivations, in order to relevantly inform MCI brand positioning and communications that would resonate, and drive program participation based on their Social Values.



Mental health is a growing concern for students in Canada, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Public Health Agency of Canada cites “social isolation, virtual learning challenges, job insecurity, and financial hardship” as key challenges affecting young people’s mental health. To help post-secondary institutions – and particularly those focused on art and design – respond, the federal government is funding an initiative led by OCAD U: The Mindful Campus Initiative (MCI). The MCI will create a comprehensive set of mental health promotion materials for students, including mindfulness training and practice programs, all linked to a peer support network. The project has two key goals:

Help emerging creative artists and designers build resilience and coping skills
Shape supportive campus environments where students, including those from marginalized communities, can thrive
students sitting around in a circle talking



Goal to provide insights on:

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Art & design students’ lived experience, academic journeys, motivations, and unmet needs – all within the context of the late COVID-19 pandemic period;

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Opportunities for – and barriers to – student engagement with MCI;

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The communication strategies and outreach tactics that were most likely to achieve the highest levels of participation and satisfaction.

OCAD U partnered with Environics Research to provide project leaders insight into these goals, to support the success of the MCI launch and rollout.

The research was conducted amongst a diverse set of students, with a focus on creative young adults, and inclusive of those that are BIPOC and/or racialized as well as those from other equity deserving groups like the LGBTQ+ community.

Our approach was grounded in our extensive experience leveraging Environics’ Social Values segmentation solutions, more specifically our Gen Z Segmentation, to enable the OCAD U team leading this initiative better understand this generation and to help refine organizations’ outreach to students, patients, and other groups.

Our Approach


Phase 1: Understanding the student population

We began by conducting a series of workshops with OCAD U stakeholders, helping them to understand the Social Values segments among Gen Z Canadians in general (those born after 1996). The purpose of these workshops was to immerse the OCAD U program leaders into the mindsets of Gen Z and understand the diversity of values that exist within the generation. As the youngest cohort in Canada (apart from children under 15, whom Environics Research does not survey), members of Gen Z are more likely to hold some Social Values that are typically prevalent among younger people. These include values such as Effort Toward Health, Pursuit of Novelty, and Personal Expression. At the same time, members of Gen Z are diverse in their values, espousing varying orientations to Personal Challenge, Rejection of Authority, and Social Responsibility.

To further understand these diverse Social Values – using our segmentation survey tool, we the prevalence of the various values-based Gen Z segments within the OCAD U community, which was used as a basis for the research design in stages 2 and 3. This initial research stage helped to ground OCAD U and MCI leaders in an understanding of the psychographic diversity of Gen Z at large – a valuable first step toward understanding the distinct perspectives and psychographic nuances among OCAD U art & design students.


Phase 2: Laying foundations for tailored communication

Working closely with OCAD University, we recruited students representing the three target Gen Z segments identified in Phase 1 to participate in a series of online focus groups. The discussion was designed to explore the needs, expectations, and motivations of art and design students – especially with respect to how they saw the current or potential role of mindfulness practices in their lives.

The results helped to inform the overall brand positioning for MCI and laid the foundations for effective communication and delivery of MCI’s three program pillars including program design and messaging.


Phase 3: Testing MCI concepts with students

A follow up set of group discussions elicited students’ feedback on and responses to a set of prototypes that reflected early positioning and communications concepts regarding MCI. We recruited for a range of perspectives among students who expressed varying degrees of engagement with and perceptions of MCI.

The entire process was rooted in our Social Values system: Since 1983, Environics has been steadily compiling the largest database of social values constructs and trends in North America. Our annual surveys of more than 10,000 Canadians and Americans allow us to precisely track changes in social values over time and across a range of target audiences. Drawing on this large dataset lets us gain deep insight into specific topics and trends, as well as the motivations and world views of particular groups – whether generational cohorts, users of specific products, or members of particular professions. Social values set the context for the choices people make as consumers, citizens, patients, volunteers, and in other capacities. They help us understand the context within which people develop the expectations and motivations that dictate their behaviors.

Note: The research was conducted between September 2022 and June 2023

Application of Insights

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Help OCAD U and MCI staff continue to implement the program with an awareness of the values diversity that exists among students;

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Ensure that this psychographic diversity is considered alongside other forms of diversity in the rollout of the program;

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Support Canadian art & design post-secondary institution partners in building on insights from the pilot phase of the MCI as they implement the program on their own campuses.

This collaborative initiative led by OCAD University, in partnership with the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, will be delivered in partnership with other Canadian art & design universities: Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts; NSCAD University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

About the client

OCAD University, Canada’s largest and oldest art and design university, is a vibrant community of bold, curious and compassionate artists, designers and scholars who are imagining and creating a joyful, equitable and sustainable world. Located in the arts and culture sector of downtown Toronto, the University is a world-famous hub for art, design, digital media, research, innovation and creativity. OCAD U embraces collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to change-making through art, design-thinking curriculum and research making it a local, regional, national and global leader in art and design. Students benefit from hands-on studio learning in small classrooms and have access to state-of-the-art shops and studios for both traditional and digital creation. Alongside a diverse and supportive team of instructors and peers, students gain employable skills. Graduates work in different sectors such as urban planning, environmental design, gaming, film, animation, publishing, illustration, graphic design, visual arts and arts administration. OCAD U’s School of Continuing Studies offers courses and certificates in areas such as business, marketing and communications; drawing, painting and printmaking; graphic design, illustration and advertising; and interior design, architecture and industrial design. The school also offers several micro-credentials.

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