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Guns, Butter and Ballots
Citizens take charge by designing for better government

by John Emerson

What did the President know and when did he know it? In April 2004, the White House declassified one of the President’s daily intelligence briefs issued just a month before September 11, 2001. The brief specifically states that Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden were planning attacks on the United States with hijacked airplanes.

Graphic designer Greg Storey was horrified. Not just because the information was all right there, but by the design. It’s no wonder the information could be ignored. The document is an uninflected, grey mash of sans serif type. Might thousands have been saved if the information design had been better?

“Nothing in the text is emphasized, making it difficult to scan,” Storey noted on his Weblog. “It would be much better if keywords, names and places were in bold and/or in a different color. Make it so that within seconds the President can see how serious of a threat it is.” Mouse in hand, Storey created a redesigned brief of his own (below right), adding a larger headline, highlighted key terms and, most prominently, a large colored number indicating the level of the threat.

Though no one in government ever contacted Storey, readers of Storey’s blog clamored for a document template they could use themselves. He dutifully responded. (Visit http://airbagindustries.com/archives/002868.php.) “My intentions were nothing more than to rant about what I saw to be a problem with how our government works day to day,” he wrote. “I thought I would spend a few minutes in front of Photoshop to see what I could come up with.”

Alas, President Bush does not actually read the daily briefs, the Director of Intelligence summarizes them to him out loud. Nonetheless, Storey’s redesign is a dramatic example of how information design might affect the government and the public.

But the truth is, graphic designers across the country are already hard at work collaborating with local, state and national government officials to harness the power of design in the public interest. Their work affects the lives of millions of Americans by improving public safety, promoting public health and facilitating democracy on a massive scale—often at the initiative of the designers themselves.

That government agencies use graphic design is nothing new. From posters to packaging, identity and, of course, forms, the federal government is one of the largest purchasers of design services in the world. But much of this work is less than inspiring—even obscure or downright misleading. For a variety of reasons, government designers may be stifled by bureaucrats and lawyers. And sometimes it seems like the lawyers and bureaucrats do the designing themselves.

The late 1960s and 1970s, however, saw a number of seminal graphic design projects sponsored by the U.S. Government. To name just a few: Vignelli Associates’s graphic standards for National Park Service publications; Danne & Blackburn’s NASA “worm” logo; and Chermayeff & Geismar’s logos for the Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Bicentennial.

Continuing a wave of public art initiatives at the time, Richard Nixon even asked Congress to triple the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts and created the Federal Design Improvement Program to help upgrade government architecture and graphics.

But by the end of the 1970s, faced with an energy crisis and an economic recession, the new leadership shifted the government’s priorities. By the 1980s, a backlash raged against public arts funding. Budgets were cut and interest in public design projects waned.

Still, during this period, two masterpieces of modern information design were developed, both of which have had a demonstrable impact on public safety.

Burkey Belser’s company usually designs communications materials for law firms and other services companies. But in 1978, he was asked to design the EnergyGuide label for the Federal Trade Commission. The frustrated regulators had become desperate after a top-shelf New York design firm had failed—and submitted a hefty bill in the process. The EnergyGuide that Belser designed is a bright yellow informational sticker that must be displayed by retailers on all major appliances (like air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines). The Guide shows the estimated yearly operating cost and energy consumption on a scale from least to most efficient. Consumers actually used it to consider not just purchase price, but cost over the life of the appliance. The success of the label convinced government regulators that you could modify consumer behavior through clear, friendly information design, gently pushing them towards more environmentally friendly, if slightly more expensive, purchases. Multiplied by millions of refrigerators, the energy savings have been enormous.

http://image.commarts.com/Images1/5/8/3/38553_54_0_MTYyNTQ2OTg1LTEyODU0MTMwOTc.jpgJohn Emerson
John Emerson is a designer, writer, programmer and activist in New York City. His writing on activism and design has been featured in Communication Arts, Metropolis, Print and the Wall Street Journal and is collected at http://backspace.com/notes.