Graphic Design to Save Democracy?

Design may not save democracy but it can certainly help where needed. Good design communicates effectively and when a ballot design is confusing to the voter then polling accuracy goes down and democracy suffers.

The Ugly Past

Butterfly Ballot

The infamous butterfly ballot of the elections in 2000 brought ballot design to the forefront of American public discourse. In order to vote for the 2nd choice in the left column you actually had to punch the third hole down. Of course there is an arrow pointing to the hole-punch and most people got it right. But, was this the best possible design to communicate clearly? No, certainly not. Did some people cast erroneous votes? Yes, they certainly did.

The butterfly ballot is not the only example of bad ballot design. In fact most U.S. ballots are needlessly confusing, hard to read, and poorly designed. Even in 2008, the problem persists.

Looking to the Future

An election deserves a clearly communicated easy to use ballot design. The AIGA initiative, Design for Democracy, has created a potential solution. They have put together an in-depth strategy, not only for ballot design, but also for touch screens, and way-finding systems at polling places.

New Ballot

The system details various elements such as typography, legibility, literacy, and iconography. The extended report available for download also includes research results from a pilot test completed in Nebraska and 9 other research events.

Common Sense

Some of the suggestions sound like common sense. Like "use big enough type," or "use clear, simple language." Yet most modern ballots are riddled with fine print and hard to read language like "Do not vote for one more than once," instead of "choose one."

Clear Language

Realistic Implementation

The professionally designed ballots have been sent to 6,000 local officials for the upcoming election. There are however many more polling places that will have the same old poorly designed materials. For these districts Design for Democracy offers 10 design guidelines to help local election officials create clearly designed materials; they are also encouraged to find a qualified graphic designer to help them implement a clear design system for election day.


Clarity, usability, and accuracy are priorities of visual communication. Sometimes bad design might mean you may not sell as many widgets as you should, in the case of an election, however, it may effect who leads the country.

Link New York Times Interactive Feature on Ballot Design
Link AIGA Design for Democracy

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  1. it sucks that it happened. I hope that they can resolve this issue before the next election, esp. considering that it will probably be a close one.

  2. It makes me think of several other things in design (and the public) that we just put up with, because there's no regulation on it. America has some of the most famous designers in the world, yet problems like this still reflect bad design on our part. Sad. But that's why you're here right?! At least you are doing your part to make things better.

  3. Thanks Jason! I hope to do a small part. Not only is there no regulation, but there is no appreciation. Most people don't like or understand art. How can you have a society thriving with beautiful art and design when the majority of it's citizens don't care about it? The answer: fund art education. Hopefully that way future generations will not only create better artists but also better viewers.



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