Beyond Bumper Stickers
When they interned with the Rhode Island Board of Elections last summer, Keela Potter 14 GD and Kelsey Lim 14 GD were surprised by the state of affairs at a special election they attended in Coventry, RI. Entering the crowded polling place, the two graphic designers noticed there was little signage to direct people to the voting booths. And the few posters hung on a wall were printed using a tiny, ill-considered typeface, making them nearly illegible to those attempting to exercise their civic duty.
“Because of legislative and budgetary limitations [in Rhode Island and most other states], it can be really challenging to understand how the election process works,” explains Potter. “There are rules to voting that the American public doesn't understand – like, how does a recount happen? How do you register to vote if you live out of state? Designers can help make the process transparent and more understandable to the public.”
Potter and Lim first delved into the political sphere when they launched RISD Votes, an initiative to promote political involvement among students, during the 2012 presidential election. After winning support from the Maharam STEAM Fellowship in Applied Art and Design, the two designers then continued to pursue their interest through last summer’s internship.
Now, during Wintersession, Potter and Lim are continuing to ponder political issues as teaching assistants for Votelab: Designing for Democracy, an interdisciplinary studio taught by Graphic Design Critic Benjamin Shaykin MFA 11 GD. The nine students enrolled are attempting to iron out some of the systemic kinks embedded in the US election process that can result in unbearably long lines at the polls, ballot miscounts and election fraud.
According to Shaykin – a former art director at the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones – bureaucratic hiccups can often be traced to poor design. “Social and political issues are not necessarily best understood through a well-meaning poster campaign,” he notes. “I want to encourage students to not just see this as a problem about surface issues like typefaces and layout, but to apply design thinking to the greater structural issues.”
After gaining a firm grasp on how the election process works, students will work like an ambitious think tank to brainstorm creative solutions to help state workers relay important election information to the general public. “The studio isn’t about adjusting the fonts size on a ballot. We’re evaluating the entire election process from top to bottom,” explains Hannah Koenig 14 PR. “We’re interested in researching how design can increase voter turnout – and even potentially changing the ways in which the government interacts with the public.”
The class is also tapping in to the expertise of people like Marcia Leusen, a University of Illinois professor and one of the country’s leading experts on election reform, who will participate using Skype. The graphic designer wrote Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design, a book focused on adaptable design models that can improve the election process by maximizing the clarity and usability of ballots, registration forms, posters and signs, and even administrative materials for poll workers.
And to help students further understand the oft-misunderstood mechanics of state government, Shaykin has asked the class to assess the interior signage in Providence City Hall and recently took the group to the Rhode Island State House to observe a legislative session. Perched high above the white marble floors of the historic building, the designers watched local politicians debate the pros and cons of proposed bills.
“It was so interesting to see what goes on behind the veiled curtain of state politics,” notes Potter. “We know that any change we’d like to make to Rhode Island election procedures would have to be voted upon by state politicians. Whether we’re aware of it or not, legislation and laws affect our everyday lives in real ways, and it’s exciting to recognize that design can be an effective bridge between the public and the government.”
– Abigail Crocker
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