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  • 01.25.17

How Design Can Help Eliminate The “Tampon Tax”

The nonprofit Period Equity aims to expose socioeconomic issues around periods, with help from an eye-catching identity from Paula Scher.

Twenty-five years ago, Laura Strausfeld was walking out of a pharmacy in New York City when she glanced at her receipt and noticed something strange: The tampons she bought had a sales tax, but her chapstick didn’t. As only a lawyer would, Strausfeld went home and examined the tax code in New York state. Chapstick, she found, was considered a “medical necessity,” and therefore exempt from sales tax. Menstrual products were not.

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That exclusion of tampons and other menstrual products from tax exemption is now known as the “tampon tax,” and it’s one of the most visible issues Strausfeld and the writer and activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf are tackling with their organization Period Equity. If you’ve heard of the tampon tax over the last few years, it’s because of these two—and the work they’ve been doing with other activists to change legislation, state by state, on the tax.

Now, with the new nonprofit, and an eye-catching visual identity by Pentagram’s Paula Scher, they are hoping to bring even more exposure to an issue that has until recently remained largely invisible.

Injecting some wit and levity into what is, at its essence, a pretty dry tax code issue was a core factor in the visual identity. Before the pair approached Pentagram for the branding, they were going by the name Menstrual Equity. Scher immediately nixed it. “The minute you had the name [Period Equity] you had permission to be lighthearted,” she says. While the term “menstrual” has a medicinal aftertaste, periods lend themselves nicely to graphic playfulness.

The tampon tax is only a small part of Period Equity’s larger effort to make period products more accessible and affordable for all women. Other issues include making sure women and girls have access to products in developing nations, or at lower incomes. A major facet of their work is just educating people that this inequity exists. By comparison, the tampon tax isn’t the biggest or most important challenge when it comes to menstrual equity, but it is the easiest to communicate, making it a strategic starting point. The alliterative “tampon tax” is catchy and easy to remember. The tax elimination is relatively benign and bipartisan, and it’s hard to find issue with.

Plus, the ridiculousness of the tax is easy to illustrate: Just compare menstrual products that many women use every month, as a matter of necessity, to other products in the 40 states that have a tampon tax. For instance, in most states Viagra, condoms, toilet paper, and many food products go tax free. In Georgia, add to that tattoos and piercings. In Indiana? BBQ sunflower seeds make the cut.

Scher and associate partner Courtney Gooch came up with a concept for the branding that put the wordmark in between two big red dots on a white background. The allusion is unmistakeable, but the execution is bright, clean, and modernist. The type is New Rail Alphabet, a legendary font designed by Margaret Calvert in the 1960s for all of the British Railways signage. Copy like “Periods are not luxuries. Period.” plays around with the theme, too. It’s serious enough for lobbying and legal filing, but it also feminine, loud, and fun—which is important for an issue that has long been stigmatized and deemed inappropriate to talk about in public.

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In September, New York state signed a bill into law that eliminates sales tax for period products in New York City, and similar legislation has passed in Illinois and California. Strausfeld and Weiss-Wolf will continue to help fight the tampon tax in other states nationwide, but they stress that there are much bigger issues to tackle menstrual inequity. Even if the scope of the organization ends up extending beyond periods, Scher built in the option for a quick name-switch: to “Equity, Period.” On the macro level, that’s exactly what they’re after.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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