Hanging chads were not the only problem with the Florida ballots at the center of the Bush-Gore election fight in 2000.
There was also a layout problem that had thousands of voters punching holes for both Gore and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan — invalidating the ballots and possibly costing Democrats the election.
It may have been a bad moment for our democracy. But for AIGA (formerly the American Institute of Graphic Arts), a professional group for designers, the crisis put a spotlight on a long-running argument: design plays a vital role in government communications, in the very functioning of our democracy.
Marcia Lausen, director of the University of Illinois-Chicago's School of Art + Design and professor of graphic design, was near the center of a new AIGA push to improve ballot design.
The group's designs have been put to use in parts of Illinois, Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington state. And in 2008, the organization partnered with the US Election Assistance Commission to distribute national ballot and polling place design guidelines to 6000 election officials across the country.
Lausen, author of Design for Democracy: Ballot + Election Design, will deliver a lecture at the RISD Auditorium on September 24 at 7 pm on her ballot design efforts and, more broadly, the way artists can engage civil society. The event is free and open to the public.
The Phoenix caught up with her for a Q&A via telephone before her appearance. The interview is edited and condensed.
WHAT DID THE 2000 ELECTION TEACH US ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF BALLOT DESIGN? There is not really any design in elections. It's a profession — it's a set of operations — where there is a lack of awareness that the information placed on a ballot is a design process.
So basically, we had this example of poor layout. The words "ballot design" were on the covers of newspapers across the country. And so it allowed us as a profession to step forward and say, "hey, this is what we do. You need us in this process."
The professional association, AIGA, had been trying to get language into legislation around government communications for some time — that design plays a role. But we had this [new] opportunity, because of the visibility of this particular ballot.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BALLOT DESIGN PRINCIPLES YOU IDENTIFIED? We sort of honed it down to 10 principles of ballot design, which are really general principles of information design.
We call it "asymmetrical alignment" — flush left-rag[ged] right alignment, rather than centered alignment. Centered alignment of type is decorative, causes you to have to read each line from a different starting point.
Lower-case letters are more legible — that's probably the easiest one. People make the mistake of thinking you put things in all caps it makes it important, but because all capital letters make rectangular shapes they don't give you clues to readability, legibility, and so you don't see those shapes of words, you just see rectangles.
Every change in type style should reflect a change in meaning. You want to limit your type styles, weights, and sizes to the absolute minimum. So you begin an exercise in information design like this: using one weight, one size until you can convince yourself you need another.