The Design Observer Group

Posted 11.03.04

Jessica Helfand

Am I Blue

Despite a moment last week when things were looking up for both graphic designers and democrats, things aren't looking too good for the Kerry campaign this morning. And while I've been quite vocal in my dismissiveness about graphic design's power to save the world, I briefly found renewed hope yesterday in this feisty, if frustrating campaign season.

Bumper stickers and lawn posters aside, Americans showed their concern on election day 2004 by standing in epic lines at polling centers around the nation, but also in certain subtle, discreetly visual ways. From dressing in all blue (or red) to wearing "I voted today" buttons, there has been a kind of silent visual communication effort steadily in play for the last 36 hours.

And then, last night around 2:00 am EST, it all seemed to boil down to a pretty basic color war, as results trickled in and an increasingly dense swath of red cut its way slowly across the US map. (If actions speak louder than words, then what do colors do?)

While media pundits endeavor to deconstruct election results, there are hints, here and there, of entire critiques of the political system in general — and the voting system in particular. That this voting system is deeply rooted in principles of communication design was soberingly revealed to us four years ago with the debacle in Florida: from dimpled to hanging to pregnant chads, the butterfly ballot reminds us that good design may be more than pleasing to the eye. It may, in fact, prove to be a demonstrable catalyst for change, helping to cure a social and procedural process that remains deeply flawed.

In a New York Times editorial a few days before the election, this essential design imperative was described thus:

There is no great mystery about how to do better. Graphic artists, including the nonprofit Design for Democracy project, know how to make ballots that are simple and intuitive. Unfortunately, our election system leaves ballot design to the whims of local officials, who often make bad choices.

Just as there is no great mystery, so there is nothing simple or, for that matter, intuitive about what is going on this morning in Ohio. Call it provisional or call it a pipe dream, there is a great deal more at stake here than moral issues. And I, for one, am feeling bluer than ever.