How can design influence the tools of democracy?

One of AIGA's goals is to demonstrate the value of design to business and the public. And while designers are comfortable in asserting this with great conviction, AIGA is constantly looking for ways to demonstrate this value by doing valuable things—and by valuable we mean to those who require convincing. What is more valuable to our society than the tools of democracy?

AIGA Design for Democracy aims to demonstrate that information design, which makes the complex clear, is critical to achieving the expectations citizens have for the civic experience.

The primary season highlights for citizens nationwide just some of the simple challenges to voting in a way that instills confidence that their choices were effectively cast. Leading up to the epic election contest of Super Tuesday and the many more elections ahead, AIGA Design for Democracy has worked at the local, state and federal level to improve the voting experience through effective design.

AIGA began its Get Out the Vote awareness campaign in 2000, commissioning posters that were distributed nationally through chapters, bearing the tagline: “Good design makes choices clear.” Twenty-three thousand posters by 23 designers were distributed. This campaign, which has evolved through each federal election cycle since, has now been launched so that every member is able to provide a design to an online gallery that can be printed and posted nationwide this fall.

The influence of this campaign, which depends on designers to create and to distribute posters, has spread even beyond the United States. Kosovo, which declared its independence last month, translated these posters into Kosovar to post during their first independent regional elections several years ago. And the United Nations sought AIGA's assistance in developing a comparable method for them to promote, worldwide, the findings of the Human Development Report.

AIGA Design for Democracy's potentially most far-reaching success to date is developing the federal guidelines for ballot design to guide all local jurisdictions in the country, which were adopted by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission last April after a multi-year contract funded by the Help Americans Vote Act. In 2001, AIGA worked with Senate and House staff members to place information design criteria in the act. While few of the recommendations will be seen in the current primaries and only a few improvements are likely this fall, we expect cascading improvements over the next year.

The work on the design guidelines grew out of a project originally initiated by Marcia Lausen and her class at the University of Chicago that redesigned the ballots for Cook County, Illinois, and later the election materials for the state of Oregon. Marcia's book, co-published by AIGA and the University of Chicago Press last fall, was sent to every member of Congress, with a personalized bookplate and letter on behalf of the AIGA members in their district, encouraging each to introduce standards for design in reform legislation for Social Security, Medicare, the census, immigration, taxes and homeland security.

All of the AIGA Design for Democracy projects are designed to provide leading professional assistance to government agencies, models for improved communication design and directions on hiring AIGA members locally to implement guidelines. In the state of Oregon, we have a funded one-year fellowship offered to a young designer to work within the Secretary of State's office to improve information design and we are promoting extending this program to other states.

Another demonstration of the reach of the design community is the Polling Place Photo Project, in partnership with The New York Times and initiated by William Drenttel of Design Observer. This election season, participants will collectively develop a photo essay on voting in America. Designers are encouraged to document their voting experience and upload the photographs to the site on The project is produced and funded by AIGA in order to simply bring attention to the design community as a major force in society.

Each of these activities is an element of the broader campaign to demonstrate the value of design by making a difference in the way people experience their personal choices. We believe this will go a long way toward addressing what members tell us each day: that we need to increase the understanding of and respect for the profession. AIGA aims to increase awareness of the impact of design while making designers key participants in the civic experience.

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.