The democratization of design

XVI.5 September + October 2009
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Design advocacy in government

Richard Grefé

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Most designers and usability professionals can readily identify the weaknesses of the infamous Palm Beach ballot from the 2000 election. And most Americans are now well-versed in the foibles of "butterfly ballots." With national consciousness focused on improving ballot design—and available resources to ensure that it was done properly—why, eight years later, were most 2008 ballots as confusing as ever?

While the days of universally usable ballots may still be decades away, progress has been made. AIGA, the professional association for design, has been working to redesign ballots and elections since 2000 through its initiative Design for Democracy. And the U.S. government, through its Election Assistance Commission (EAC), has taken a major step toward better election design: the EAC accepted Design for Democracy's national ballot and polling-place design guidelines in July 2007.

In this article, we share the story of the two-year partnership between AIGA and the EAC resulting in concrete election-design tools. And we outline the challenges that persist as we surely, if slowly, seek to redesign the U.S. election experience.

back to top  The Challenge

The U.S. government responded to the events of the 2000 election by establishing the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. HAVA requires specifications for voting systems and election information, updates to outmoded punch-card and lever election equipment, and created a new federal agency tasked with election guidance.

This new agency, the EAC, began to execute HAVA requirements in 2003. After ballot design was again an issue in the 2004 presidential election, the EAC prioritized ballot and voter information design reform. Staffed with many former local election officials, the EAC was aware of the challenges and complexity this reform effort would face. For instance:

  • Decentralized control. While the EAC is a federal agency and there are federal election requirements, elections are primarily managed at the state and local levels. Each state or county generates its own election solutions in accordance with local legal, technical, financial, and other constraints.
  • Outdated state laws. State election laws often reflect positive historical intentions but consist of detailed requirements that contradict modern information design best practices or are rooted in outdated voting technologies. For example, some states mandate ballot instructions that even native speakers have trouble deciphering, such as, "Vote for not more than one." Others require that "candidate names be printed in all capital letters," in contradiction with legibility standards.
  • Voter diversity. The U.S. voting population is extremely diverse in primary languages, physical abilities, reading levels, prior voting experience, and depth of knowledge about candidates and issues. This presents obvious challenges for ballot design, such as the need to accommodate multiple languages. But there are also subtle considerations: for instance, non-native English speakers may be resistant to acknowledge that they wish to vote in any other language.
  • Ballot varieties. There are thousands of ballot permutations at each election. Ballots may be paper-based (punch card, optical scan, hand counted), mechanical (lever machine), or electronic (touchscreen or alternative input methods). Almost all are subject to a counting or voting machine's requirements, which vary significantly with vendor and model. And ballot content varies by questions (national, state, county, municipal), required languages, and other factors.
  • Proprietary voting systems. Since election equipment is manufactured by a private, competitive industry, all current election technologies are proprietary (there are emergent efforts to produce open-source systems, but they are in early stages). It is difficult to create a well-designed ballot with much of the available equipment, especially in cases where ballot layouts are database driven. (Some election officials battle their systems to produce usable ballots; more outsource ballot design back to the vendors that provide their equipment.)
  • The rush to reform. In 2000 some voting systems failed for correctable reasons (inadequate paper quality, overfilled chad receptacles); other pieces of equipment (lever machines) were becoming antiquated yet still producing low error rates. However, HAVA funds were quickly invested to replace older equipment—the perceived culprit—resulting in a missed opportunity to subject new systems to rigorous design requirements and codifying a new generation of systemic design challenges. (The rush also resulted in the premature rollout of electronic systems, leaving the medium conflated with security and accuracy concerns, both warranted and unwarranted.)
  • Limited election budgets and other back-office concerns. Elections must be low in cost, accurate, and quick to be counted, though these three objectives often compete. For instance, fixed postage and printing budgets along with limited storage and processing capabilities may dominate ballot-layout decisions, leaving guidelines recommending 12-point type and visual instructions by the wayside.

back to top  The Approach

AIGA's Design for Democracy initiative was established in 1998 in order to advocate for the value of design with legislators and assemble and empower designers working in government. Seeing a critical need, the organization turned its attention to election design following the 2000 presidential election. Then AIGA Chicago chapter president Marcia Lausen and her design students from the University of Illiniois-Chicago (UIC) began work on their local Cook County election materials. After developing a relationship with County Clerk David Orr, the team of students and professionals proceeded to design solutions not only for ballots but also for voter-registration forms, polling-place signage, and voting booths.

Their work in Chicago caught the attention of John Lindback, Oregon's director of elections and future National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) president and Design for Democracy advisor. Since voting is almost exclusively by mail, clarity in election materials is essential in Oregon; Design for Democracy was commissioned by the state to work on a similar set of materials. In 2005, following its work in Oregon, Design for Democracy partnered with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop the first national ballot design principles. Later that year, the EAC sought out Design for Democracy as a partner in the research and design of national guidelines for HAVA-compliant election design.

In September 2005 the EAC awarded Design for Democracy a major research contract to identify a series of voluntary guidelines and samples for ballots and voter-information materials. Goals for the project were: to make voting more trustworthy, efficient, convenient, practical, and gratifying; to establish a visual language with a uniform, vendor-independent vocabulary to support local production of voting materials; to expand the body of knowledge and library of best practices shared among election officials and designers serving citizens; and to offer pragmatic recommendations grounded in the realities of diverse polling environments, citizenship, legislative imperatives, and production environments.

To meet this last goal, the project focused on attainable, near-term recommendations rather than blue-sky election design reform. The research team selected the most common and ubiquitous voting equipment: optical scan and direct recording electronic (DRE). Their study was limited to traditional input methods, since alternative modes of interaction (e.g., via audio or blow straw) tend to be very manufacturer specific. The voting materials studied were limited to those at the polling place on Election Day, from identification signage to voting instructions.

With this scope in place, Design for Democracy embarked on a two-year, iterative, user-centered design project—led by Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall, Elizabeth Hare, and a strong advisory board—to develop the EAC's "Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections."

The Design for Democracy project team developed original ballot and voter information material prototypes, based on prior work in Illinois and Oregon and using generic sample language from NIST. Many alternative versions were designed to enable isolated study of color use, iconography, graphics, layout, content organization, simultaneous presentation of multiple languages, and accommodation of character sets from multiple languages.

Prototypes were compliant with relevant national legislation and guidelines (HAVA, the Voting Rights Act, ADA guidelines), informed by existing research (from NIST, the National Institute for Literacy, the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project, and others), generalized in accordance with an inspection of sample ballots and local regulations from throughout the U.S., and infused with the lessons of international ballots—especially in support of low-literacy audiences.

The prototypes were evaluated, refined, and reevaluated to meet the goal of delivering rigorously informed and pragmatic recommendations. Evaluation took place over eight months and across seven states in both urban and rural locations.

Primary research activities included: election observation; field interviews with election officials; and informal interviews with poll workers, election staff, and voters at primary and general elections. The team also conducted usability evaluations with more than 60 voters, revealing voters' thoughts and behavior during task-based interaction with ballot and information material prototypes.

Experts were also enlisted to guide prototype evolution. A series of reviews and studies was conducted with experts and advisors in language, literacy, learning, translation, government, usability, accessibility, and election production. Due to difficulties in directly engaging the four largest domestic manufacturers of commonly used election equipment, the team relied mostly on experts and samples to understand technical constraints. One manufacturer, Elections Systems and Software (ES&S), was involved as part of a pilot study

The work culminated in pilot testing during the November 2006 general election in Nebraska. Seven thousand voters used Design for Democracy's voter-information materials and optical-scan ballots featuring real content during an actual election. The three-month collaboration with Nebraska election officials leading up to Election Day also provided insights about how regularly assigned election officials and vendors—along with the existing production timeframes, budgets, and vendor contracts—would accommodate the emerging design guidelines.

From this research program, the project team developed guidelines for the design of election materials—in the form of samples and best practices—as well as for election production processes.

back to top  The Solution: Editable Samples and Sample Specifications

The Design for Democracy team applied best practices to each type of voting material and anticipated common variations for each type. The components of these samples and variations are broken down and specified to provide a design system that can be applied beyond the samples themselves. This same sample set is available in editable form to be adapted for local content, laws, and voting equipment constraints.

Polling-place voter-information materials that meet and exceed HAVA requirements are offered in one and two languages. The collection features layouts for wall postings, tabletop information and binder pages, and materials including polling-place identification signs and poll-worker nametags. Many samples can be produced on a desktop printer and used without adjustments.

Ballot samples—including optical scan ballots, full-face DRE ballots (all options visible on a single screen), and rolling DRE ballots (touchscreens)—articulate design systems for election information (jurisdiction, election type, date), ballot instructions, ballot navigation, and ballot questions (contests, retentions, measures). The optical-scan specifications are applicable to other paper ballot formats, such as absentee and emergency. The DRE designs address language selection, completion indicators, and on-screen help. (To view samples of the recommended ballot designs, visit

back to top  The Solution: Design Principles

Design for Democracy and the EAC identified the election design best practices that both inform the provided samples and may be applied to other materials. They echo general best practices in information and interaction design and are tailored to address recurring issues found in election materials. For instance, across election media, well-designed artifacts should feature: legible text; clear and simple language; support for process and navigation; and functional use of images, color and contrast, and elements of hierarchy. Ideally, all these recommendations would be followed, but given the constraints, election officials might make tangible improvements by initially working with one or two.

back to top  The Solution: Design Process Guidance

Without an adequate planning and development process, including the appropriate subject-matter experts, it would be difficult to apply the best practices and samples toward ballot reform in particular. Design for Democracy and the EAC were compelled to go beyond the design artifacts themselves and offer recommendations regarding design process and contributors.

For instance, as in other design projects, it is important to develop relationships with and understand the objectives of all production stakeholders in advance of the election production cycle. In elections, key stakeholders may include government officials, voting equipment manufacturers, printers, writers, designers, and legislators.

It may also be necessary to advocate that election production plans be adjusted to include the appropriate contributors, steps, and realistic timelines. Plans should take into account the fact that voting does not start and end on Election Day with ballots and informational materials, but comprises many voter touchpoints and modes of interaction; voter-education and poll-worker training materials may be impacted by decisions made about polling-place materials and ballots, and vice versa.

Election design contributors such as simple-language experts, information designers, interaction designers, usability experts, language translators, and cultural experts may need to be recruited to augment existing election production teams—or at least to inform state and county ballot templates. Given the complexity and stakes of election design, it will be most effective for local jurisdictions to join forces with experienced contributors who are well versed in advocating for user (voter) needs while understanding administrative and technical constraints.

back to top  Applying the Guidelines

The official EAC-Design for Democracy partnership concluded with the establishment of pragmatic election design guidelines and samples, and their distribution to 6,000 election officials in January 2008. Yet, given the local constraints associated with election design, these tools are far from self-service, especially where ballots are concerned. Design for Democracy has continued to assist with distribution and adaptation of the national guidelines through several ongoing efforts.

For instance, AIGA established an Election Design Fellows program in Oregon and now also Washington. Through funding from HAVA, Design for Democracy recruits and mentors these term communication design staffers as they adapt and apply the national guidelines in accordance with legislative, technical, and budgetary requirements in their respective states. Design for Democracy also provides and presents a shortened set of design guidelines intended for state and county election officials who do not have access to professional design and usability guidance; officials in Texas have experienced tangible improvements by applying just some of these guidelines to their commonly used election forms. And Design for Democracy collects before and after examples where counties have had success improving their ballot and election materials; these case studies help demonstrate the value of engaging in election design, share successful approaches to making incremental improvements, and expose the limitations and the range of current election systems.

Additionally, the program engages in ongoing advocacy work focused on systemic change. Since the EAC project, Design for Democracy has had more success in talking directly with manufacturers of election equipment, such as Hart Intercivic and ES&S, which have shown genuine interest in raising the bar on election design. And we have tried to reach national and state legislators by distributing the book Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design and contributing to other advocacy resources, such as the Brennan Center for Justice's "Better Ballots" report.

Certainly, Design for Democracy's guidelines for the EAC are not an end point. The guidelines are grounded in current voting technologies that continue to evolve. Their focus is almost entirely on the polling place, and they do not address the full complement of voter touchpoints and potential alternative voting experiences. Some additional research has been conducted resulting in EAC reports on poll-worker training (which has critical impact on the voter experience) and alternative voting methods, as well as a Nielsen Norman Group report on election websites for the PEW Center on the States. Even with these steps, more work is needed from the design and research communities as well as from government and private industry. AIGA Design for Democracy will remain involved in election-design reform for the long haul, helping to ensure that citizens are rewarded for participation with convenient, clear, and trustworthy voting experiences and election results that accurately reflect their will.

back to top  Acknowledgements

Thank you to the dedicated election officials who make voter experience a priority despite many competing demands and to the heroic project team members who entrusted me with their story. Please see our EAC project case study at for full acknowledgements and sources.

back to top  Author

Jessica Friedman Hewitt is managing director of AIGA Design for Democracy, which demonstrates the value of design by making critical civic interactions more understandable, efficient, and trustworthy. She also runs the initiative's ballot and election design program, helping states, counties, vendors and legislators use AIGA's election design guidelines. Previously, she directed user experience research and design teams in the agency world, provided user interfaces for emerging software solutions at IBM, and cochaired Chicago's SIGCHI chapter.

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Before (back): November 2004 After (front): November 2008. King County election officials applied the Design for Democracy/EAC guidelines to improve the general election ballots for Premier optical scan equipment.

UF2Figure. Before (back): November 2004 After (front): November 2008. According to Sherril Huff, elections director for King County Elections, "Our ballots underwent a significant transformation by just removing capitalization, left justifying the text, and using pictures instead of words and the results is a more informed electorate."

back to top  Sidebar: Design Advocacy in Government

The opportunity for design advocacy in government resonates with most designers who believe passionately that there should be a public interest in good design. It would seem the new administration brings all of the requisite interests: familiarity with technology and social networking; effective and consistent branding; commitment to transparency, clarity, authenticity, accountability; and, best of all, change. Yet, as a profession of many disciplines, what should designers be advocating for in Washington? And what are the most effective paths to get the word out?

AIGA is firmly committed to advocating a policy statement that values good design and encourages its use in government services for citizens. Underlying this commitment is the belief that design can play a critical role in strengthening democracy, since democratic participation relies on trust. Trust is built from communications and experiences and design can strengthen the communications and experiences between government and the governed.

Most of these communication points stem from a few programs: voting, taxes, Social Security, Medicare, census, immigration, customs, vehicle registration, and licensing. AIGA, in the aftermath of the 2000 election confusion in Florida, launched Design for Democracy to pursue redesigning the election process. Our stated goal is to see effective design where the government serves the citizen directly. Currently, we are transforming the effort into "government clear and easy," with an emphasis on service and experience design.

There are two ways to accomplish this. One is to work with different administrative or cabinet departments, hoping to find a sympathetic ear. The other is legislation. However, design, as a profession, simply doesn't have the leverage to develop freestanding legislation on design issues. Instead, designers have a chance to ride the wave of reform legislation and focus on adding language to major reform bills to illuminate the need for experience design to serve the public interest.

For instance, one might be able to convince a member of Congress to add a short sentence or two to a proposed Homeland Security bill, stating an emergency alert system "... will be based on comprehensive and effective experience design processes." Then, in the bill's report, where the background and explanation of the legislative intent are outlined, a few paragraphs can be inserted to explain what an effective experience design process entails and who is qualified to oversee the process. Those small additions provide a mandate that administration departments can then use to influence research and implementation.

How do we do write that language into legislation? Every designer should begin building a relationship with his or her senators and congressman. This involves finding ways to build access and to make the issue of design's role in the civic experience important to the legislator, using examples from his or her local constituency.

Remember, all politics are local; it may actually be easier for you to influence Washington from your local district than the Beltway.

Develop a clear statement of what you want to ask for. The goal is to get your member of Congress and his or her staff to understand why this issue is important to constituents. Ask for help in placing language in legislation in order to serve the public interest.

Create a local version of the broader issue statement. Build an advocacy packet of examples of effective interaction and experience design and local needs. Place the design community in context within the local community (e.g., how the design profession impacts local competitiveness, economic growth, and innovation, and how large it is).

Research your congressional delegation to learn about interests, committees, and priorities. Look at the interests of your congressperson's spouse, key aides, or major donors to identify potential allies or messengers. The more you know about the member of Congress, the more effective you can be in developing an effective angle for presenting information. If you can encourage a trusted source to emphasize the issue, do so.

Send a letter about the issue, citing local examples, to the member of Congress, with copies to the local newspapers' op-ed pages. Provide a template for community members to write in support of the cause. Each letter should be different, but the message should be clear and consistent. Twenty letters on one subject can seem like a landslide to a congressional office.

Meet with interest groups in your community to ask for their help. Local community groups may be willing to endorse your efforts and write their own letters to congressional delegations (e.g., AARP, League of Women voters, and immigration groups). If you have been successful in working this issue with the local government, get local officials to write letters to the member of Congress as well.

Tap into your congressperson's donor network. If possible, attend a fundraising event for the member of Congress and find like-minded people in the audience to mount a campaign.

Lastly, request a meeting with the member of Congress or the local staff to discuss his or her position on design-related issues. This is usually easier in the local district than in Washington; often, the most senior local staff person is more important in advocating what is important in the district than staff members in Washington.

And with that, you have initiated a career as a certifiable citizen advocate!
        — Richard Grefé |

About the Author Richard Grefé is the executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design. He has been active in leading Design for Democracy and previously was responsible for legislative strategy for public television and radio in Washington.

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