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ArtCenter Project 'Us.' Explores Masculinity And Men's Role In Family Planning With Male Contraceptive Brand

by Rudy Sanchez on 07/21/2020 | 4 Minute Read

The onus of family planning and birth control typically falls upon women, and to date, the only male contraceptives available come in the form of a vasectomy or prophylactic condoms. The former is often a permanent solution, while the latter is unpopular for a variety of reasons, including comfort and sensation. 

Of course, work on a contraceptive for male use is ongoing, with some in clinical trials, including research institute LA Biomed's topical gel along with a contraceptive pill. Working in partnership with the research group, student project Us. imagines the branding for a family planning line of products which affects male fertility but places the responsibility in the hands of both partners.

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Conceived by Boston University and ArtCenter alum Sidney Rhee, Us. moves beyond the stereotypes and assumptions surrounding birth control and sexual wellness products for both genders and takes the opportunity to emphasize partnership and the shared role of family responsibility, aligning the new cultural and societal trends that see men participate more in child-rearing.

“This project is more than a product line for men’s health. It creates [an] opportunity for conversation and awareness about gender and sexuality,” Sidney says. “Us. creates a bridge between men and women to understand one another better and to debunk or at least question the expectations we place on each other. With Us., I also wanted to show that pharmaceutical products could be functional yet light-hearted and attractive.”

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Editorial photograph

Blue and black colors are often associated with the male gender with pinks and reds tied to femininity. It would be easy for a brand of male birth control to lean on a blue-dominated palette to scream, “Hey guys, these are the contraceptives you’re looking for!” Us., however, opts for a gender-neutral and eye-catching yellow. The color is also a nod to a significant inspiration for the brand—the emperor penguin.

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For those that missed the 2005 Oscar-winning documentary March of the Penguins, the emperor penguin is a highly social, flightless birds with distinctive yellow plumes around the neck that lives in the frigid Antarctic. The emperor has adapted physiologically and socially to the harsh conditions of their habitat, including living and hunting in colonies of thousands of birds, developing a unique way of breeding and chick-rearing.

“The emperor penguin is the brand’s spirit animal, which represents nature’s most endearing role reversal of courtship and breeding," Sidney says. "After female emperor penguins lay their eggs, the males will then nurture the eggs for months in the freezing cold. In the meantime, the female penguins return to sea to replenish their energy."

Editorial photograph
Editorial photograph

“Both the custom logotype and color palette borrow inspiration from the penguin," she adds. "The thickened serifs of the ‘U’ in Us. represent the male penguin feet that must cradle the egg carefully for months. Two penguin heads come together to form beaks in the ’s.’ For the color palette, the brand’s primary color comes from the yellow accent on the emperor penguin’s beak and neck.”

In recent times brands have improved in marketing to women, being more inclusive and representative in branding and promotion, such as Dove. Sadly, you can't say the same for some men’s products, where antiquated and monochromatic portrayals of the “ideal man” still abound. Rhee wanted to move away from those male tropes, recognizing the diversity that also exists within men.

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“In my own experience as a design student, I would come across George Clooney and James Bond on a myriad of mood boards for projects in transportation, packaging, and entertainment design," Sidney explains. "With Us., I wanted to change the narrative and provide a neutral product that serves and acknowledges the broader range of ‘man.'"

For Rhee, the project wasn’t only an opportunity to gain practical design experience, but also for valuable lessons, and it highlighted the value of mentorship. 

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“[Us.] serves as a key moment in my career at ArtCenter, to pursue a topic that I was passionate about and receive a great deal of support from my instructor, Gerardo Herrera. It was a taboo topic that I was hesitant and scared of pitching, but his encouragement to push further and pursue this topic gave me permission to be myself and share my point of view,” Sidney says. 

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“He made me feel valued as a designer, regardless of being a student. This project also showed me that you can’t call it a day by writing down what you think is a great idea in a notebook and saving it for later. Anything is possible, with discipline and constant effort to see it through.”

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