So Good Case Study: Colourful popsicle theme helps reach young people with important educational message in 'My Sex Life'

Case Study by Kyle Greenwood, Affiliate Member of RGD, Manager of Communications and Executive Administration, AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT)

This project was selected as a winner in the Not-For-Profit Client-Initiated category of RGD's 2013 So(cial) Good Design Awards.


The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) had created a version of this resource back in 2005 to support its Positive Youth Outreach (PYO) program with the aim of providing practical information on safer sex, self-esteem and relationships to young people living with HIV. ACT and CATIE (a national organization that distributes information on HIV and Hep C) came together sometime in 2012 to update the resource with plans to develop a French-language version and distribute it nationally. 


For ACT and CATIE, the goal was to update the resource and ensure it contained current safer sex information, available treatment options and legal issues related to HIV disclosure. The 2005 resource was pocket-sized (so as to be discreet) and though it was vibrant in its use of colour, it incorporated images of disembodied hands and legs in an attempt to be inclusive of gender, culture and sexuality


When I was brought onto the project, the first information I was given were the proposed specs: 32 pages at 8.5” x 3.75”. It was clear that this version was going to be something different: significantly bigger than its predecessor; it would still fit in your pants pocket but would stand tall and get noticed. With content for the resource written primarily by (and for) young people living with HIV who represented a range of sexualities and gender identities, a clear visual strategy emerged: create something that was representative of this diversity, the audience, their needs and the issues. 



I initially produced two distinct concepts that were based on a creative brief developed in coordination with staff from ACT and CATIE. It was important that the PYO staff contributed to this process to ensure the concept was something young people would respond to.


No one ever said, “We should have popsicles!”. That was a moment of divine (design?) inspiration that came when I was reviewing the draft copy from the editorial team and off I went to make crudely-shaped treats in Illustrator. Visually, it seemed like a perfect match: popsicle as a symbol for choice, flavour, individuality, fun, sex…



While those initial images were created alone, the idea really came to life when I shared it with the group. There was real excitement about the project, which inspired true collaboration, the best thing you can hope for when approaching something new. The editorial team began brainstorming ways to incorporate popsicle-inspired language into the copy and suggested ways that some of the popsicles could, in turn, reflect the language. We got a little ahead of ourselves when we tried incorporating ice cream sandwiches and other dessert imagery, but we eventually scaled back and agreed to keep the popsicle look as consistent as possible.


The draft concept was presented in December 2012. The fonts and cover were essentially in place at the very beginning. Over the next few months, with minor modifications to copy, the design of the resource (both English and French versions) was finalized. The resource was launched in May 2013 (and yes, popsicles were served at the event). We recently did a minor update to the resource and CATIE continues to distribute it across Canada.


Because of the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, it can be difficult for many, particularly those living with HIV/AIDS, to find trusted information that is not only up-to-date, but also accessible and affirmative in tone. As a designer who has contributed a number of visual strategies to HIV/AIDS-related initiatives, I have noticed a strong desire to move away from deficit-based imagery that further stigmatizes or discriminates in favour of communication that promotes resilience and empowerment and encourages people to live their best lives. 


Understanding the realities of people living with HIV and the shift in perspective in talking about HIV transmission and prevention was important for this project, and it was integral that I read and understand the content in order to understand how to best reach the audience through design. 


As is the case with 95% of all graphics for ACT, this project was produced in-house. Because of the complexity of the issues surrounding HIV / AIDS and the changing requirements for materials, the decision was made that the production of campaigns, education and resource materials be completed from within the organization to ensure consistency and the alignment of strategic and visual priorities.


That said, the workload can be significant for one designer given the amount of material produced on a monthly basis, and ACT has been fortunate to have worked with some amazing out-of-house design firms on some projects. When this is the case, it is important to discuss the realities of living with HIV / AIDS with those involved and point out how some visual strategies can actually contribute to stigma. Making sure an external firm understands the context of the material usually results in successful collaboration.



CATIE printed 60,000 English and 12,500 French copies for a total print run of 72,500. So far, we have distributed 12,160 English and 1,500 French copies, so close to 14,000 copies have been distributed in just under a year. ACT distributes the resource in Toronto by providing copies at the ACT offices and sharing them at events or with other community health organizations. The resource is available across Canada by ordering directly through CATIE's Ordering Centre.  


For the designer, success is measured by how well the project is received. I’m happy to hear from ACT, CATIE and the PYO staff that people are visually attracted to the resource, making them more likely to pick it up.


What is more important, however, is that the resource is useful and practical. Even though it was created with a specific audience in mind, the strength of its strong messaging and bold visuals have appealed to a wider group of readers. Everyone can stand to improve their sexual knowledge and the experience doesn’t have to be secretive or embarrassing. For all its candy-coloured gloss, My Sex Life is substantial. While the design lures people in with cheeky levity, the frank content challenges them to take control of their sexual health.


A minor update of the resource was completed in February to include some updated resource information. Plans for further updates will depend on whether there are significant changes relating to issues of disclosure, treatment or transmission - if this is the case, we must ensure we are providing the most accurate and up to date information. 


Designer Takeaways

  1. Be bold. There’s a deep “sea of sameness” with how non-profits market their causes. Don’t be afraid to make recommendations that feature creative and compelling messages that favour strengths over deficits.
  2. Embrace a collaborative spirit. Take the time to go through your own creative process to deliver what you need to deliver, but be open to collaboration as it can only strengthen the overall product.
  3. Stay informed. When working with non-profits, you must take the time to understand the complexity of issues as they relate to the cause. Projects in this case aren't about selling, but rather about reaching people and inspiring them to react, think differently or, best of all, take action. 

About the So(cial) Good Design Awards

Every year, RGD invites submissions of graphic design projects done under the theme of communication design for social good; work with the power to incite action and make meaningful change in the way we live our lives. When we approach social issues creatively, we can make a real difference in the world. The So(cial) Good Design Awards gives voice to the important work designers are doing and can do to change the way we think and act.

For more information on the So Good Design Awards, click here.

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