Building a Better Ballot

How Design Can Help Save Democracy

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The ballyhooed democratization of design -- the raising of the aesthetic (if not always the utility) bar across an ever-increasing range of stuff -- has given us all much pleasure, certainly. Few could argue their walk to Muji this weekend wasn't sprightlier as they sported $59 Proenza Schouler pants. We've come a long way, and we've come some of that way in an affordable car that is unlikely to explode during a parallel-parking mishap. And while it's not as if looking good and shopping well aren't enough to make most of us perfectly happy, we're clearly seeing more instances of the power of design on a larger, socially relevant scale -- LEED buildings come to mind. (That's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, for the uninitiated.)

But just how big a function can be sorted with thoughtful form? Well, how about democracy by design? If the connection between the two isn't immediately evident, consider that whatever other dark forces were at play, it's certain that bad design on the Florida ballot did its part to chad and butterfly Al Gore out of his rightful four years. Could the right font have averted war?

The American Institute of Graphic Arts (the professional association for design) launched Design for Democracy in 1998 to grease the wheels of government-citizen interaction. After the 2000 Florida horror, the organization focused its efforts on redesigning the election process, including ballots. After applying design thinking to elections in Cook County, Ill., and Oregon, the AIGA got the ear of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. This summer, the EAC accepted DFD's guidelines -- a set of information and interaction design principles for use in all U.S. jurisdictions. "It's fascinating because it shows the power of information design [and] because it actually makes a difference," AIGA Executive Director Richard Grefe told Creativity. "It's been long in coming. Right after Florida, I started talking to people on the Hill and in Washington about this stuff. Well, they didn't understand what the hell I was talking about in the beginning, but in every room there's a Coke can with a nutrition label on it you can point to, and they begin to understand."

The AIGA group has released a book, "Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design," by Marcia Lausen (one of the designers involved in the Cook County and Oregon efforts). Grefe said copies of the book will be sent to members of Congress and to the chief election official in each state. (Grefe also said the group is getting some traction with the makers of touch-screen systems, which are a whole 'nother bucket of clams.)

What are some handy tips on making ballots more democracy friendly? Lowercase letters are a start -- they give a unique shape to each name on a ballot vs. the block effect achieved by the formerly mandated all caps. Since each of the 7,000 local jurisdictions is responsible for ballots, and since designers are likely scarce in the ranks of local-government offices, uptake of the design guidelines likely will not fly through the government bureaucracy at the usual breakneck pace (Grefe predicted that some of the guidelines would be in action by the '08 elections).

In one encouraging example, Oregon brought on a designer -- an AIGA election-design fellow -- to contribute to its election processes. "The secretary of state of Oregon is absolutely delighted," Grefe reported. "They use federal money to pay for this position, and this person not only designs all ballot materials but other stuff in the secretary of state's office. They're one of our strongest advocates in telling other states, 'You've got to do this.'"

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and E-mail her at [email protected].
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