What Color Is My Country?

When Mao Zedong said, “The East is Red,” he wasn’t referring to New York and Pennsylvania. But that’s how those states—both of which John Kerry won—look on the county-by-county election results map that appeared on the networks, USA Today, and just about every other media outlet in the country on election night and the days following (Fig. 1 and Fig. 3).

The map turned a close election into a decisive conquest.

Has there ever been a more widely disseminated—and misleading—piece of graphic design?

On that map, even California, which Kerry won by a million votes—his 54.6% to Bush’s 44.3%—is mostly red. A narrow blue swath of coastline defines the San Francisco bay area and a few other counties.

Everyone “knows” that the election was close: Bush 59,770,100—51%, Kerry 56,307,604—48%. Not that nearly three and a half million votes aren’t a victory. It’s just that this particular piece of graphic design has turned what people rationally “know” into what many of them want to believe.

And they’re getting their feelings validated.

However, as most schoolchildren who’ve studied a bit of U.S. geography could helpfully point out, the blue counties are the most densely populated; the red, if inhabited at all, are rural or suburban. In California, the red counties are primarily in the empty spaces: the Coastal Range, the Sierra Nevadas, the Mojave desert. The red parts of the U.S. are the great plains, the deserts, the national forests, the Rockies: the most sparsely populated parts of the country.

No matter. The map has almost instantaneously, added new, polarizing, terms to our collective vocabulary. Now, everybody is “red” or “blue.”

Last weekend I was in the Cleveland area, where the November 7 edition of The Plain Dealer featured a full-page version of the map: almost the whole country awash in a crimson tide of moral triumph. The letters page was filled with communiqués by citizens dressing down the Democrats and the “liberal media,” whom they perceived as trying (and not succeeding) to dumb them down. “Don’t call us stupid!” they wrote. “Look at that map. See how much of the country we won! Now we can boldly move ahead with our mandate and get right-wing judges on the Supreme Court, ban abortion, get prayer in the public schools, etc., etc.”

I saw a different message in the results, something like this: “Bush and Co., congratulations on your win. But it’s a fairly slim one, and you’d better pay close attention to the 56.3 million citizens who didn’t vote for you and who are equally passionate about wanting a different agenda for the next four years.”

Ohio, of course, was one of the closest races: Bush 2.8 million; Kerry 2.7 million. But on this map, there are no in-between colors. “Close” has become a landslide.

Leaving political punditry to the experts who tell us what we’re thinking, I will try to restrain my comments to the graphic design of the map: It sucks.

Unlike a ballot whose unfortunate layout and production defects produced voter confusion and miscounted results, the original incarnation of the map could actually be attributed to a graphic designer. Yet nobody is stepping forward to take credit right now. Perhaps it was one person or perhaps it was a department, working under the direction of zealous editors or producers. In any event, some one (or ones) produced a piece of “information architecture” that in its intent and the results it achieved, is wrong.

When the AIGA published its Ethics Game more than a decade ago, AIGA members and chapters across the country submitted various ethical dilemmas, the answers to which ostensibly rated one’s ethical scale as a graphic designer. Some of the more poignant questions related to the use of the power and magic of graphic design to make data look like what it isn’t. (“Your client asks you to design a bar graph that inflates the company’s earnings. Would you? A: Refuse, call him an unethical creep and resign the account; B: Alter the scale of the graph just a tad, carefully explaining your objection but not jeopardizing your client relationship; C: Do what he asks. After all, he’s paying the bill.”)

To a greater or lesser degree we graphic designers do have the power to influence opinion. And that seems to mean sometimes making things look like what they aren’t. Like making a company’s policies and actions look more altruistic than they are by designing a green, environmentally friendly looking logo. Or making the Bush team’s win look significantly larger and broader than it was.

A few people are getting it right, though.

Leave it up to the academics at our nation’s big universities. They have drawn some goofy looking but more accurate maps of red vs. blue distribution, with states re-proportioned by population, not geographic area. For example, go to www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/ and you’ll see how three researchers at the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan physics department, Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman, have mapped the results by color.

The map that “was widely seen on election night and the days after,” as they put it, is described as follows:

“The (contiguous 48) states of the country are colored red or blue to indicate whether a majority of their voters voted for the Republican candidate (George W. Bush) or the Democratic candidate (John F. Kerry) respectively. The map gives the superficial impression that the “red states” dominate the country, since they cover far more area than the blue ones. However, as pointed out by many others, this is misleading because it fails to take into account the fact that most of the red states have small populations, whereas most of the blue states have large ones. The blue may be small in area, but they are large in terms of numbers of people, which is what matters in an election.”

How did they fix this problem? Describing their methodology, they write:

“We can correct for this by making use of a cartogram, a map in which the sizes of states have been rescaled according to their population. That is, states are drawn with a size proportional not to their sheer topographic acreage—which has little to do with politics—but to the number of their inhabitants, states with more people appearing larger than states with fewer, regardless of their actual area on the ground. Thus, on such a map, the state of Rhode Island, with its 1.1 million inhabitants, would appear about twice the size of Wyoming, which has half a million, even though Wyoming has 60 times the acreage of Rhode Island.”

Their maps make the United States, as we are used to seeing it, look like it got caught in a wind tunnel or casually tied like a silk scarf (Fig. 2 and Fig. 4). But the distribution of red and blue is just about equal.


So why didn’t our “liberal media” print maps like that instead? A few, including The New York Times, did. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to make much difference in the American consciousness. Just this morning, two talk-show hosts were chatting about which “red” and “blue” states Hillary Clinton might be able to win in 2008.

Once a powerful piece of graphic design has made its point, the damage is very difficult to undo.

About the Author:

To us, the words are as important as the visuals. I came to New York from Los Angeles, where I was an art director at UCLA, to assist legendary type master Herb Lubalin.

My firm, Visual Language LLC, was founded more than 30 years ago. We continue to work with clients in every kind of organization to produce effective communications that blend beautiful typography with a strong brand identity and message.

I am also a design writer and blogger. As a longtime contributor to Communication Arts magazine and contributing editor of Print, I cover the design business, personalities, events, exhibitions, and visual culture around the world.

My new book, "The Graphic Designer's Guide to Clients," which features in-depth, illustrated interviews with top designers and their clients, will be released by Allworth Press on April 1.