Ballot Reform—It's the Design, Stupid

Graphic designers encounter a fair amount of eye-rolling—some of it deserved—when they champion the necessity of their work outside their professional choir. Passionately defending color palettes, rattling off obscure rules of proper typography—these things often come off as superficial and fussy to the unconverted. On the other side, graphic designers who find their skilled attention to aesthetic detail dismissed as frivolous are all too prone to grumble about middlebrow taste and lowest common denominators. But, but, but … intelligent application of type, line and color does provide a service beyond visual appeal. It can clarify complexity. And I can prove it.

Look no further than the new book "Design for Democracy: Ballot + Election Design," by Marcia Lausen, an elegant examination of how to improve the utility of our nation's varied—and, in some cases, shockingly bad—voter materials. In reaction to the problems brought to national attention in the 2000 elections—when Americans learned all about the troubles with "butterfly ballots" and "hanging chads"—a group of designers led by Lausen (a professor of graphic design at the University of Illinois at Chicago) developed a comprehensive visual system for everything from voter registration pamphlets to instructions for setting up ballot-counting tables. The emphasis here is on a system: their work was not intended to set a national standard but to act as a guideline adaptable to the unique requirements of state and local elections. Working with election officials, they have, since 2000, already put some of their ideas to work in Illinois and Oregon elections.

The book opens with an examination of a painfully bad Cook County, Ill., "judicial retention" ballot from November 2000. Repetitive and confusing, the butterfly ballot is crammed with 73 candidate names in compressed capital letters over 10 pages. The "yes" and "no" options for each candidate on either side of the ballot are lined up in a single center column that lacks obvious connections to the judges' names—it's not a stretch to see how a voter could be unsure whether he or she had just locked in another term for a favored pick or inadvertently helped keep some creep in office.

The Design for Democracy group's proposed redesign of the same ballot lowers your blood pressure immediately. Condensed type is replaced with high-contrast upper- and lowercase letters, and each candidate has his name and the option to keep or dismiss him from the bench grouped in a simple curved box that draws the eye to the punch holes in the center. The redesigners aligned the text to the left instead of centering it. They reduced the various type styles to a handful. They took a complicated task that involved making more than six dozen decisions and turned it into a clear, linear experience. While the actual ballot used in the 2002 election differed in substantial ways (Cook County wised up and ditched the butterfly layout and went with single pages of candidates), it's notable that Design for Democracy's principles held up so well once they had migrated from the desktops of professionals to the hands of election officials: the real ballot from 2002 is clean and easy to read.

Given the imperative to motivate the electorate to vote, it would have been easy for this redesign project to focus solely on the voting experience. Rightly, Lausen and her team look beyond this and smartly detail how to improve all the materials that election officials—and, in particular, volunteers who work only on Election Day itself—need to run a smooth operation. This is the most enlightening part of the book: the rules for an election judge are transformed from a dinky-looking pamphlet to a crisp, tabbed manual, and murky photographs of cabinets become sharp, annotated diagrams of "voting supply carriers," or "VSCs." Knowing these improvements aren't likely to be in place in your town, it's easier to understand the crabbiness and confusion you can encounter with the staff at the local polling center.

There are two significant areas that are glossed over, however: Web design and electronic voting. Lausen points out in her introduction that the book does not "presume to cover every design issue that might be encountered in every jurisdiction." Fair enough, but it's shortsighted not to explore the unique complexities of information flow and hierarchy on Web sites and touchscreens with the same care and attention spent here on printed material. In successful online or electronic projects graphic design is inseparable from interactive design—"human factors" (industryspeak for how a user pokes around an electronic interface) are, at the very least, as important as what font an art director picks. In "Design for Democracy" the layout of Web sites for voter information and electronic ballots is relegated to a total of four out of 186 pages. For Web design only one of the three voter information home pages shown has a visual detail called out—and it's a logo that says "Vote!"

Despite these oversights, "Design for Democracy" is a refreshing use of aesthetics for a common good, and a probable classic for the bookshelves of the visually inclined. The next time you make a sour face at your artsy friend for droning on about "ligatures" and "descenders," don't be surprised if he shoves this book into your hands. After reading it you may save your eye-rolling for your next voting booth encounter with a crummy punch-card design.