Design Thursday: Design for Democracy

If you doubt that design matters, think about the ballot you might have cast on this past Election Day—and then talk to Al Gore.

Two years before a blizzard of hanging chads froze Gore out of the Oval Office, a 1998 study found that punch-card ballots—which were widely used in the 2000 presidential election, especially in the two Florida counties that sparked a recount—were seriously flawed, with an error rate of roughly 15%. The study's title was certainly prescient: "Disenfranchised by Design: Voting Systems and the Election Process." Unfortunately, the report's wonky, understated conclusion—"recent research on voting systems demonstrates the need to improve usability..."—was virtually ignored.

But oh, how things changed after the fallout from the disastrous Florida recount. Spurred by a finding that poor ballot design cost Gore anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 votes in Florida—which would have been more than enough to deliver him the presidency—a group of designers from AIGA launched an initiative to "re-enfranchise" voters, through design. Dubbed "Design for Democracy," the effort sought to redesign the entire voting experience, so as to bring clarity to everything from registering to navigating the polling place to casting the ballot to counting the actual vote.

Design for Democracy's crisp, intuitive ballots first tuned up in Cook County Illinois and the state of Oregon. Two years ago, that proof-of-concept effort led Design for Democracy to partner with the US Election Assistance Commission, to begin creating guidelines that will hopefully make balloting and polling-place material more comprehensible for all citizens. Basically, the designers crafted design guidelines for voting materials that can be customized by local designers, election officials, and printers for state and local jurisdictions. Their efforts are now supplemented by a book from Marcia Lausen, Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design, that amounts to an invaluable guide for voter advocates.

Those who equate design with decoration might wonder: how in the world can color palettes and typography create a better-informed electorate? The answer lies in the realization that behind every design is a process—a thought process. And just as unfocused design thinking brought us the debacle of butterfly ballots and chads in 2000, perhaps objective, pragmatic design thinking might make the interaction between the US government and its citizens a whole lot more trustworthy and efficient. A year from now, we'll know the answer, when the 2008 election returns come rolling in.

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