Not to be confused with our top 10 election design
guidelines, which are largely geared toward election
officials (though we hear designers find those helpful too), the
intention of this list is to help new ballot designers become more
familiar with the domain of U.S. elections and to set expectations
about what the ballot design process might entail. “Might” is the
key word: though this list originates from a diversity of projects,
experiences will be different everywhere. Contact Design for Democracy to share your
experience and to be connected with other ballot designers. See
design tools and resources for links that offer more
information on many of the following topics.
Ballot production is managed by election officials at state,
county and local levels. Some states exert a lot of control over
election administration; some don't. Some elections include voting
questions ranging from the federal level (e.g., “Who should be
President of the United States?”) to the township level (“Should
Main Street be repaved?”).
Election types vary—Primary, General, Special, Runoff—and occur
throughout most years. Question types may include Vote for One,
Vote for Many, Vote Yes or No, Vote to Retain (keep in office) and
Vote via Ranked Choice. It will help if you can develop an
understanding of your local electoral process.
Ballot types include lever machine, paper for hand counting,
punch-card paper for machine counting (as used in Palm Beach in
2000), optical-scan paper for machine counting (as used for lottery
tickets and standardized tests), and direct recording electronic
(DRE), such as a touchscreen (similar to banking ATMs). Most
jurisdictions are now using optical-scan and/or DRE ballots.
Optical-scan ballots may feature ovals, boxes or arrows for
Elections must accommodate voting at polling places, by mail,
using nontraditional input methods and in languages other than
English. Voters also vary in levels of literacy, quality of vision
and learning style. As with other design challenges, designing with
all voters in mind often yields more usable ballots for mainstream
Voting systems—governing tabulation (vote counting), ballot
generation or ballot user interfaces—exert a lot of control over
what is possible (or easy) to do on a ballot. For instance, voting
systems may govern ballot dimensions, columns and spacing. Voting
systems often represent a major investment by states and counties,
and therefore do not change frequently. The level of cooperation
you have with voting system vendors and ballot printers will be a
major factor in the outcome of your design project.
Elections are governed nationally by the Help Americans Vote Act
(HAVA) 2002, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other
civil rights laws enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice. State
laws provide further governance—some dictate language that must be
included on ballots; some will go so far as to require the use of
all capital letters for referenda or candidate names (in direct
contradiction with best practice
guidelines). Voter intent laws, which govern how a voter's
marks on a ballot will be interpreted, are also critical to
understand. Local legislatures do revisit election laws, but the
cycle for change can be slow.
From printing budgets to required approvals to storage space,
laws and equipment are not the only sources of restriction on
ballot designs. Again, it will be helpful to understand current
local processes—for elections overall as well in preparing for a
particular election. (This understanding will also help you to
identify election media, other than ballots, that could benefit
from voter-centered design or that must change to support proposed
changes to ballots. Ideally, election design should be approached
In light of the unique set of constraints governing each local
ballot, you will rarely be able to apply all best-practice
specifications (e.g., type size for ballot title and other
specifications detailed in Design for Democracy's ballot and polling
place design guidelines for the EAC) to the letter. Keep in
mind the underlying usability goals and the intentions behind each
specification as you make requisite design trade-offs.
The aforementioned Design for Democracy/EAC guidelines are the
result of extensive research with voters, election officials and
experts, and are compliant with national election laws. Therefore,
they provide a good starting point for solving any number of ballot
design challenges. However, once design and instructional language
samples are adapted to meet local ballot needs, further usability
testing with voters is recommended.
As veteran ballot designer Drew Davies says, “Good design is the
easy part,” and may account for about 20 percent of your project
time. For skilled information and interaction designers, the
challenges may lie in discovering key constraints up front,
developing relationships with key stakeholders, determining which
constraints are flexible on what time frames, and getting buy-in on
proposed changes. Do not be discouraged if changes must be made
incrementally—in fact, approaching ballot design with the explicit
expectation that change will come in phases may be most effective,
in both the short and long terms.
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