Remember the butterfly ballot, that travesty of information design that led Jewish retirees to vote for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore?
Marcia Lausen has never forgotten it. In fact, butterfly ballots were on her mind even before the Florida fiasco of 2000--her hometown of Chicago used them, too. A local election that year deciding the retention of judges offered no less than 10 solid pages of confusing information, with the punch card running down the middle.
Lausen is spearheading a project called Design for Democracy, an initiative of the American Institute for Graphic Arts, a national professional organization for designers. As director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Lausen enlists her graphic design students to work on projects that will improve the voting experience.
The project's work is finding fans across the country.
"My life hasn't been the same since November 2000," Lausen says. "I think nobody's life has been the same, but mine because I got myself involved in election design reform initiative."
It's hard for non-designers to understand the importance of work like this, Lausen says. "I have spoken with very smart people involved in politics who, when I tell them I'm involved in election design, they say, 'What are you going to do, put flowers on the ballot?'"
She wants the people in charge of the voting process to stop looking at design as decoration--it's not the icing on the cake, it is the cake. As she puts it, "It's not creativity; it's legibility."
The project has broader goals than overhauling election materials: AIGA members are working to improve forms, literature and signage related to emergencies and evacuations, immigration, IRS wage and salary reporting, medical information, and travel and transit. And within election design, ballots are just one part.
But that Chicago ballot was Lausen's first step. She and a group of fellow designers took on those 10 pages and drafted dramatic improvements--even though the butterfly ballot was still in place. "We realized if we said, 'You need to change the technology' that no one would listen to us," Lausen says. The Chicago Tribune published the results.
There was little response at the state level, but tremendous positive reception at the city and county level, which is where election procedures are decided in the United States. "We've never really succeeded from the top down, but we succeeded amazingly from the bottom up," Lausen says.
Even with that positive reception, however, the redesign that took less than a week took two and a half years to implement. "This is when we learned that ballot design is dictated by law," Lausen says. "And it turns out that lowercase letters were illegal in the state of Illinois." State legislators eventually changed the Illinois Election Code by striking the word "capital" from the description of how information should appear on the ballot.
To educate the politicians, Lausen created a set of rules to guide the design of election material--these are legislators, after all; they like rules. (For the full text of these rules and other election design guidelines, visit www.designfordemocracy.org.)
1. Lowercase letters are more legible. (Most people think all-caps indicate text is important, but lowercase letters offer visual clues to help decipher the information faster.)
2. No centered type. (It's decorative, and requires the eye to travel to a new spot at the beginning of each line.)
3. Each decision about how something appears visually has meaning or should have meaning. (The number of different point sizes, say, should be dictated by the different levels of information.)
4. The most important information should be presented as black type on a white background, because it is easiest to read.
They also replaced photographs with simple diagrams to convey instructions, and used color in a more deliberate way: red for instructions, blue for information. The designer's view has clashed at times with that of the officials.
"I quit, once, this project over the color red," Lausen says. "We wanted this warm and friendly red, and the county clerk went back and showed it, and they voted on what they really wanted. This is the thing about democracy: It's quite messy, and if you vote for things, you get what you get. I've learned to be more tolerant and to be proud of what we call significant improvements."
With the participation of Chicago and Cook County election officials, the redesigned ballot was put in place, and the project went on to produce redesigned poll worker instruction books (larger font sizes and simple diagrams) and signs promoting voting in a variety of languages, reaching the 5,000 polling places in the greater Chicago area.
Now when she goes to vote, Lausen sees poll workers using the book her students created. And she knows the redesigned ballot had an impact, thanks to the research of a political science student who charted voter participation and demonstrated a dramatic increase. "We really have proof that improved design increased participation in this section of the ballot," Lausen says. "That's not something that designers often have."
So, besides garish red tape, what kind of resistance has Design for Democracy encountered? Not the kind you might expect. Lausen says political resistance has not been ideological. It's had more to do with people preserving their own power: Appointed officials are less motivated to change the system than officials who have to win re-election. The election staff and poll workers have been eager to do a good job, she says.
It's the vendors, who manufacture the ballots and other materials, who are standing in the way.
Case in point: Lausen invited UIC industrial design students to collaborate with her graphic designers to improve the voting supply carrier, a supposedly portable box carrying all the forms, ballots and other materials needed at each polling place. The result was lighter, friendlier, with wheels and handles, requiring only one person to carry it. Under the old system, it took 45 minutes for a poll worker to assemble all the forms and material from that box. Redesigned molded plastic trays, pre-assembled, require a mere 27 seconds to set up.
But neither the carrier nor the trays have been manufactured. "The election officials say, 'Yeah, that's great, we want that,"' Lausen says. "And the vendors don't want anything to do with us. So it's going to take some people wanting to break into this industry and make some new offerings."
That could begin to change, thanks to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provided money to states to improve voting technology and included language about improving communication. Thanks to HAVA, punch-card ballots (including those nasty butterflies) are a thing of the past. Of course, touch-screen electronic voting presents entirely new design problems. "You've probably seen some electronic voting screens that are just as bad as those original punch-card ballots," she says. Design for Democracy is redesigning those, too.
HAVA led to the creation of the Election Assistance Commission, which has been working with Design for Democracy. "Now we've finally got the top-down thing, and states have money they have to spend on improving their technology." Now, she says, companies like Diebold and Sequoia "are paying attention. And the Election Assistance Commission is giving its endorsement of this work and it'll become standard."