By Yves Behar, Special to CNN
Editor’s Note: Yves Behar is a designer, entrepreneur and founder of the firm Fuseproject. One of the most influential designers in the world, he’s know for designing the $100 laptop as part of Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child project. He’s also Chief Creative Officer of the wearable technology company Jawbone. Behar was profiled on CNN’s The Next List.
(CNN) — A friend I grew up with in Switzerland was working at the United Nations on AIDS prevention. In 2007, she called to tell me that the New York Department of Health & Mental Hygiene was considering designing it’s own condom, and expanding the program with a high level of participation by private businesses and public health centers. Back then, according to the NYC Department of Health, “NY remains the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S.” The city has more AIDS cases than Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. combined. More than 100,000 New Yorkers have contracted HIV, and many of them are unaware of it. Condoms are the most effective method of reducing the risk of sexual transmission of HIV. So, the Department of Health launched an initiative to dispense its own condoms for free.
My first discussion was revealing, as they understood that giving away condoms in pink, un-branded wrappers was not going to achieve the full potential of the free distribution. They understood that design could change the paradigm.
I spent some time with the team visiting bars and clubs, pool halls and homeless shelters. From my observation, I saw that condoms were a challenging discussion. Perhaps it is our Puritan roots or simply that sex makes us squeamish. But condoms, despite their ability to save lives, often carry a negative stigma. Once we cut through that stigma, information started flowing. We also understood that the condom design needed to be distinctly New York and appeal to people across numerous subcultures. This program needed to pander to populations at both ends of the economic sphere and in all parts of the city.
We believe an iconic, approachable brand identity makes the condoms inviting. The wrapper is designed to be bold, with big capital letters for the “NYC” contrasted by playful colors for the word “condom”. The dispensers can house 500+ condoms, and it was key that they stand out in a space as an official beacon – not unlike a NY manhole cover or a fire hydrant. This is important because the dispensers both signal a point of access and provide an official and trusted service.
The combination of the clear recognizable identity on the wrappers and the friendly high-visibility dispensers creates an air of openness and acceptance about condom usage, removing any sense of shame or guilt.
On the day of launch on February 14, 2008, I went back to the bars, clubs and pool halls of our early research, and to my surprise the acceptance was immediate. I expected the dispensers to be tucked away in the bathroom areas, but in almost all cases, the NYC condom dispensers were proudly visible at the entrance. I heard customers say to each other “look the NYC condom, let’s grab one.” The dialogue had started, people were talking about it, and New Yorkers were adopting them as their own. The best gift were the results: In 2008, 39 Million condoms had been given for free, and that number continues to increase. In 2012, “there is even an App for that.” New Yorkers can download the free NYC Condom app finder, and the closest dispenser could be just around the corner.