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Ballot design should be boring

October 20, 2020, 11:15 AM UTC

The last time a vice president from the Democratic Party sought the U.S. presidency, bad design probably cost him the election.

It was 20 years ago that Al Gore lost to Republican rival George W. Bush because he failed to carry Florida, a crucial swing state, in the Electoral College. Gore’s margin of defeat in Florida was razor-thin: just 537 votes. Immediately after the election, thousands of voters in Palm Beach County protested that they’d been baffled by new “butterfly ballots” that had led them inadvertently to vote for another candidate, conservative Pat Buchanan, or invalidate their ballot by marking it twice.

After a month of investigations, lawsuits, and nationwide outcry, rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court deemed Bush the victor. But the true tally in Palm Beach County remains one of American democracy’s great controversies.

Design is sure to influence the outcome of this year’s race as well. What’s harder to predict is how, by how much, and for whose benefit.

Eamon pointed out in this space a couple of months ago that ballot design has come a long way since the 2000 debacle, thanks to the work of institutions like the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Voting Experience Redesign Initiative (VERI), non-profit organizations like the Center for Civic Design (CCD), and design labs like IDEO.

Even so, CCD’s executive Whitney Quesenberry warns in a recent Washington Post article: “Every year we seem to have one or two big, horrible problems that make the news.”

As recently as the 2018 election, more than 430,000 absentee ballots were thrown out because of voter errors—often simple mistakes like failing to include a signature. That same year, almost 25,000 fewer people voted for senator than for governor in Florida’s Broward County, possibly because the box for the Senate race was listed at the bottom-left of the ballot under a translation of the voting instructions in Creole.

This year, with the pandemic raging, ballot design will matter more than in years past because a larger percentage of the electorate will be voting by mail.

The CCD, drawing on years of testing ballots and research into voter behavior, has produced a “field guide” for ballot design. Among its recommendations: don’t write important information in upper-case letters because that’s less legible than a combination of upper and lower-case letters; use a single sans-serif font like Arial or Helvetica; and don’t include political party emblems or other images that voters may not necessarily understand.

Dezeen this week explores how CCD designer Chistopher Patten redesigned the mail-in envelopes for North Carolina to make them simpler, clearer and less likely to be disqualified.

The United States goes to the polls in more than 3,000 counties, parishes, and boroughs. The CCD argues, optimistically perhaps, that “the anatomy of a ballot is fairly consistent” in all. It concedes, however, that ballot appearance is “constrained by legislation, technology, history, custom, cost and other factors” in the different districts.

Graphic designer Alicia Yin Cheng shows just how diverse, and often outlandish, the history and customs of those districts can be in a fascinating book the evolution of ballot, This Is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot. In this interview with the Washington Post she reminds us that, in the early days of the republic, ballots were produced by individual parties and not cast in secret. They were meant, she says, to be “a public display of your allegiance.” They were a graphic carnival of riotous colors, fanciful lettering, and partisan (and often downright racist) cartoons and illustrations. It was not until 1900 that American states, inspired by the voting system of Australia, began administering standardized ballots and allowing citizens to cast their votes in private.

Cheng thinks modern ballots are “boring” and “graphically torpid.” But in the case of ballots, perhaps boring is best.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
— Clay.Chandler@fortune.com

NEWS BY DESIGN

Enzo Mari

Italian industrial designer Enzo Mari died at the age of 88. Seen by some as the forefather of DIY design, Mari opposed consumerism and was an advocate for labor rights; he designed products that he hoped would inspire the workers who manufactured them.

Vote

Related to Clay's essay up top: North Carolina redesigned its mail-in ballot envelopes to make the process easier this year. The new envelopes were conceived by the non-profit Center for Civic Design, simplify the instructions for voters and make the process less daunting for first-time mail-in users.

Able

After a year of conversations and searching, the Ford and Mellon Foundations awarded the first of its new grants for artists with disabilities. Dubbed the Disability Futures initiative, the fund will pay out $50,000 to 20 artists but also pledges to help foster a new creative platform for the disabled creative community.

Hi 5

Here’s a quick rundown of the iPhone 12 launch, which was the subject of last week’s BxD. Besides the punt on 5G, perhaps the biggest change is the introduction of MagSafe charging, which Apple says is better for the environment because it’s one less USB charging cable in the world. But the move to “wireless” charging creates more disparity across the industry and leaves the issue of what to do with old charging cables unresolved.

Space waste

An incoming near-earth asteroid might turn out to be the returning husk of a rocket booster that propelled a NASA mission into space in 1966: a cosmic reminder of how polluting humans are. What to do with the junk humans leave floating around in space has been a favorite topic of Studio Roosegaarde as of late, while SpaceX’s reusable Heavy Rocket boosters could put an end to future homecomings of this sort.

EVENTS BY DESIGN

Dutch Design Week is cancelling the real-world elements of this year’s event in Eindhoven as coronavirus case numbers rise in the city. The online portions of the event will continue, October 17-25.

Swiss furniture designer Vitra is hosting its inaugural Vitra Summit October 22-23, bringing together architects, curators and designers to discuss the future of spaces. The event will be online.

November

Dubai’s inaugural architecture festival, d3 Architecture Festival, will run November 11-13 on the sidelines of Dubai Design Week. The event will focus on sustainability—an existential issue for the desert city.

Canada’s annual graphic design fest, DesignThinkers, is running online this year, November 10-21—the first time in the event’s 20-year history that it hasn’t been held in person.

QUOTED BY DESIGN

“During my long path of graduate education, across four institutions, I have had two people of color as educators. It was really sad to see that very little had changed for younger folks entering and graduating from art and design schools, especially those who may come from lower income backgrounds like myself.”

Says Esther Choi, an architectural historian, artist and co-founder of Office Hours—a non-profit that provides mentoring for BIPOC students in the creative industry. The initiative, launched as an Instagram account, was founded this past summer as BLM protests raged across the U.S.

 

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him tips and ideas at eamon.barrett@fortune.com