To create a campaign to combat record STD rates, Long Beach turns to art students

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In a large white studio in Pasadena, nine art students scrutinized a wall they had covered with cartoon condoms and colorful depictions of chlamydia. They had a health crisis to solve, and one of them had just begun to explain how art was the answer.

Then instructor Dennis Lee cut her off.

“This just looks like design for design's sake,” he said. “Every time you show an idea, you have to reinforce it with insight.”

Tough love and critical thinking go hand in hand on the third floor of the ArtCenter College of Design, in Designmatters, an unusual incubator that pairs art students with complicated social issues. Each class is assigned a real-world big client with a real-world big problem — and given 14 weeks to come up with a way to help solve it harnessing the power of art and design.

Long Beach health officials had come to Designmatters with a vexing dilemma: how to stem an alarming increase in cases of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV in a generation that seems apathetic, far removed from the last-century fears of the AIDS crisis.

STD and HIV cases have increased nationwide and gone up and down California. And Long Beach now has the state’s second-highest rate of chlamydia and third-highest rates of gonorrhea and syphilis. No one factor explains the increases, but health officials point to the popularity of online dating apps, casual hookups and evidence that young people who are busy and otherwise healthy often don’t bother with condoms or routine checkups.

What would it take to change that, to motivate the right audience and raise awareness without shaming Long Beach as a hot spot for STDs?