Art + Design Students Create Condom Dispensers for Chicago Public Schools

Two of the three condom dispenser prototypes
What does it mean to design a product, packaging and public health campaign that could potentially change social behavior?

What does it mean to design a product, packaging and public health campaign that could potentially change social behavior? Can design encourage safe sex practices among high school students today? How can design help lift the stigma for teens and condom use?

These are some of the provocative questions faculty members and students specializing in information, graphic and product design at Columbia College’s Art + Design (A+D) Department are tackling for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative. The initiative was launched by the city of Chicago’s Office of Adolescent and School Health (OASH) in the Department of Public Health, in partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Through this initiative, A+D has developed condom dispenser prototypes currently installed in two Chicago schools as part of a pilot program. By fall 2014, one of the selected prototypes will be manufactured and installed in 24 schools.

A+D is frequently approached by Chicago-based companies and organizations for help with designing products and innovative design solutions for various uses; however, Columbia College’s design project leads for the adolescent health initiative—Kevin Henry, associate professor, and Tao Huang, assistant professor—were immediately drawn to the idea of collaborating with the city and CPS and developing a design that could have an important social impact. The appeal for the project was also strengthened by the depth in which the students could get involved in a full campaign, from concept to distribution. College-age students were also not too far removed from the mindsets and issues current teens face. So, they brought a unique perspective to the project as well.

Initial concepts, some of which were futuristic and aspirationalInitial concepts, some of which were futuristic and aspirational

The project started in January 2013, with 25 students from two Information/Graphic Design classes and 10 students from a Product Design class, developing concepts that would meet the city’s needs: affordable, achievable and easy to pilot. They sketched out and built numerous concepts and models in digital and life-size formats through various materials like cardboard, sheet metal, plastic and plexiglass. Mark Klein, A + D adjunct faculty member, worked closely with the students through production. The students also developed a marketing campaign that would appeal to teens and encourage condom use.

“The city could have installed traditional condom dispensers, but they came to us to find a more creative solution that would consider the less tangible, yet critical issues connected to the overall health of society,” said Henry. “Our project team of students asked themselves how they could change social behavior by lifting the stigma attached to condom use.”

A few of the A+D students have been involved in every phase of the 18-month project, from research and design to development and integration. Students Sam Shapiro and Korey Brisendine, both seniors, will graduate this month, and both can say they have “worked as consultants for the City of Chicago” prior to graduation, through this project. The two were paid coordinators for the student project.

Art + Design students Korey Brisendine (left) and Sam Shapiro (right) present condom dispenser prototypesArt + Design students Korey Brisendine (left) and Sam Shapiro (right) present condom dispenser prototypes

“The most exciting part of the design process was presenting my ideas to the Chicago Department of Public Health,” said Shapiro. “The condom dispensers are now being integrated into the schools, and I can’t wait to see the students interact with our design. I hope it will make a positive difference in their lives.”

According to the city, Chicago ranks first and second in the nation, respectively, for the highest rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia infections among young people. Chicago also has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, one and a half times the national average.

Real-world experience in their field is nothing new to A+D students in the program. Recent projects the A+D department have been involved with include: the Museum of Contemporary Art, where students provided concept seating designs for the elderly to encourage them to visit; Marbles the Brain Store, where students developed toy concepts, several of which went to market; and Chicago Architecture Foundation, another current project conceptualizing apps for an upcoming exhibition titled Chicago: City of Big Data.

The condom dispenser program and student work have also recently been featured on local public radio WBEZ-FM’s public affairs show Afternoon Shift:Teens Take Lead on Free Condoms.

Additional story in The Columbia Chronicle.