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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.

Belser’s 1994 redesign of the Nutrition Facts label also attempts to influence consumer decisions. But the label, the most widely reproduced graphic in the world, very nearly had no designer at all.

In 1991, Congress mandated that the science behind the label be revisited. Originally developed in the 1960s, the previous label was based on a culture of famine during the Great Depression and two World Wars. Hunger was an epidemic. Food was scarce and the country lacked an interstate highway system to move fresh fruits and vegetables to market. The government’s priority in the first label design was to fend off malnutrition, rickets and scurvy, and so the label highlighted essential vitamins and minerals. In 1991, Congress realized we were living in a different culture—a culture of plenty...and of fat. They tasked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop a new labeling scheme to fend off an epidemic of obesity.

The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA was well equipped with top scientists, nutritionists and epidemiologists, but lacked experience in public communication. The Center had hired another big New York design firm, but was dissatisfied with the results. And so they prepared to go it alone.

Sharon Natanblut had a background in marketing and public relations, and had just started at the FDA as advisor to the Commissioner for strategic initiatives. When she found out that the scientists were designing the label themselves, she intervened. “The scientists saw graphic design as a trivial thing,” she recalls. “They thought more information is better. But ultimately, it is the design that helps you understand it.”

Natanblut knew Belser from his work on the EnergyGuide and knew he could communicate with both scientists and government officials, and would ensure that the design reflected the goals of the project.

Belser offered to do the job for free (though was able to charge for some expenses.) “If ever there was a call for pro-bono work,” says Natanblut, “this was it.” Belser comments, “Designers should really take on public projects as a part of citizenship. That’s why we did it. How often do you get a chance to affect so many people? Anyway, I didn’t want to mess with the government procurement process at the time.”

Belser and his staff put in countless hours and, after designing 30 variations, learned there is no such thing as a universal symbol. They found that literacy is more complex than they had imagined. The label had to be accessible to both poor and fluent readers. They found that poor readers stumbled over commas, dashes and semicolons, and that graphs, icons, pie charts are more sophisticated than they’d thought, requiring a relatively high degree of visual literacy. In focus groups and in public comment, designs that used these elements were slaughtered.

Eventually Belser and his team developed the current layout. The generic and anonymous looking design is anything but. The placement and grouping of information and the use of boldface create a visual hierarchy. To combat increasing obesity, the new design highlights calories, fat and cholesterol. And the resulting label is used by health-conscious shoppers to count calories and monitor their cholesterol intake. As former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler recalled, “The nutrition facts label has within the space of a few years become a standard that many Americans use to make basic decisions about their diet and nutrition.”

The apparent lack of “marketing devices” is also misleading. The space is branded with a kind of “look of truth”—neutral, scientific, institutional and authoritative.

Nonetheless, obesity continues to rise at a dangerous rate—fast becoming the number one cause of death in the United States. In response, Belser is currently working with concerned advisors to government to further modify the design.

One might argue that it’s not the government’s place to interfere with people’s behavior or engage in “social engineering.” Belser responds, “I don’t think that there’s any government, corporation, or anybody that is not trying to influence somebody else. We have a Constitution and body of laws that say certain areas are off limits...But what the government is willing to do, and what, I believe, has a perfect right to do is to manage issues of public health and safety.”

Citizen action
The Nutrition Facts and EnergyGuide labels show the reach of government sponsored information design. Recently, however, the design process seems to be shifting.

Whether designers are tired of commercialism or were awakened by the 2000 butterfly ballot fiasco, there seems to be increasing interest in civic engagement. As portrayed in the 2000 reissue of the First Things First Manifesto and the AIGA’s recent Voice conference, designers are increasingly thinking about social responsibility and looking for ways to get involved.

In fact, several recent government design projects have been driven from the bottom up rather than the top down. Redesigns of the 2000 census, voting materials, New York City’s ubiquitous choking victim poster and the 1040 tax form were all initiated by designers themselves. In some cases starting out as class projects.

Voting design
The 2000 butterfly ballot of West Palm Beach thrust design into the national spotlight. Confused voters ultimately tipped the entire presidential election by only 537 votes.

While certainly the most famous, this was not the only county to use the butterfly ballot. Cook County, which includes the city of Chicago, used the same ballot format for its judicial election.

Graphic designers Bob Zeni and Marcia Lausen recruited her class of graphic design students at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) to reexamine not just the ballot, but the entire voting process. They paid a visit to the Cook County Clerk. Neither designer had worked with the county before, and County Clerk David Orr only knew about the AIGA from their get-out-the-vote posters.

The design team quickly discovered that the Clerk’s Office shared many of the same goals. They also wanted a readable ballot, helpful signage and a voting experience that was quick and pleasant. But county staff had little money and even less understanding of the graphic design process. They were initially skeptical about working with the designers, but Orr took a chance, and turned out to be highly supportive. “David Orr is the hero here,” says Zeni.

The design process took a holistic view, examining the voter experience as well as the needs of poll workers and election officials. Research director Elizabeth Tunstall deployed her team into the field to interview voters and election administrators. During the March 2001 primary, members of Sapient’s Experience Modeling group monitored the voting process and mapped its key components. Steve Melamed rallied his industrial design students at UIC to scrutinize the voting booth and its requirements, and to join Lausen’s students in a training for poll workers.

Eventually the project incorporated as Design for Democracy, an independent nonprofit administered by the AIGA.

After testing several prototypes the team ultimately developed a set of best practices and a ready-to-use, comprehensive design system that includes branded posters and buttons, voter literature, color-coded paperwork and envelopes for election workers, a light, portable voting booth and, of course, a revised ballot.

One small but significant triumph was a change to the election code itself. Zeni personally focused on this for several months. With letters of support from AIGA member designers, the Office of the Cook County Clerk and the Chicago Board of Elections convinced the Illinois State legislature to permit the printing of candidate names in both upper and lower case. Until then, the law had mandated the use of upper case exclusively.

Less taxing
Karen Schriver’s redesign of the IRS 1040 form started out as a dare. Avrum D. Lank, a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, challenged her to redesign the document—retaining all the information and keeping it to two pages. With no budget and no contact with the IRS, she took it on, consulting occasionally with the journalist’s own tax lawyer.

Schriver is an expert in information design—a tight integration of textual and graphic design. It was not the first time she had tried to tame a tax form. As co-director of the Communications Design Center at Carnegie Mellon University, she worked with graduate students to improve communications for both business and the public sector. In the 1980s, Schriver, her students Mary Ray and Michelle Matchett, and the Center for Taxation Studies at the University of Akron took a look at the 1040-EZ form and its accompanying instruction booklets. The team developed guidelines for redesigning the form and instructions and, specifically, the numbered tax tables where citizens determine their tax bracket and how much they owe.

The guidelines were actually implemented in the instruction booklets where the IRS updated the table headings and added shaded rules between table columns.

Turning to the 1040 form in 2004, Schriver revised the headings, data-entry sections and typeface, and made the language friendlier and more personal. “In the original IRS form,” she notes, “The word ‘you’ is used only once, in ‘the amount you owe.’ I thought that was sort of mean and militaristic.”

Commenting on the branding effect, she says, “The persona of the organization is very negative in these complicated documents. The IRS comes across as a faceless entity talking down to people, telling them what to do. People shut down— even if the sentences are clear, people still resent reading them—they resent having their money taken.”

Schriver’s new design is more open, readable and friendly. The IRS was astonished by the result, double- and triple-checking to see if she had dropped any information. (She hadn’t.) Schriver’s changes have not yet been implemented, but officials say they are considering a redesign for the 2006 filing season.

In the meantime, Schriver continues to spread the word. She recently spoke with members of the Canadian Department of Justice on how to improve the design and language of their laws and regulations. In the spring, she will teach at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa and will collaborate with her students to improve government documents on HIV/AIDS and medical services—working to make them engaging, clear and accurate, and to ultimately slow the spread of the virus.

Stand and be counted
The U.S. Census does more than count heads. It determines the balance of political power in the Congress and how billions of our tax dollars are distributed. With census information, population and demographic data is mapped against geography to visualize trends. With it the health of the nation is measured, as well as the depth of its inequality.

The redesign of the 2000 Census form also started as a class project. Design strategist Sylvia Harris introduced the idea in a design course she was teaching at Yale University. Harris had started out in the private sector doing product development, usability and user-centered design for electronic products. But she had always been interested in doing more public sector work that made a difference. In 1980, she co-founded the design firm Two Twelve Associates to do just that.

The goal of the census redesign was to turn the form from looking like a bad S.A.T. test into something more user friendly, to bring it into line with commercial data gathering tools which are often stylish and easy to use.

The results were so compelling that she brought it to Washington, DC. As it turns out, census officials were just then thinking about a redesign. Over the years, fewer and fewer people were responding to the census. One member of Congress who had “lost” a large number of constituents in his district pushed specifically for a better form.

Two Twelve Associates, along with some of the participating students from Yale, was hired to implement the changes. For the first time the entire census effort was treated strategically. The agency producing the advertisements about the upcoming census even drew some of the marketing messages from the new language of the form.

Two Twelve did some basic things: it cheered up colors (from institutional green to a hipper, friendlier black-and-yellow), tested prototypes with users, and created an integrated brand identity that ran through the instructions, form and marketing materials.

The result of the redesign and promotional and outreach efforts was dramatic—for the first time in decades the response rate stopped declining.

Choking victim poster
Like many New Yorkers, Paul Young ate out a lot. As an adjunct instructor of graphic design at Parsons School of Design, he always had his eyes open for interesting and practical projects to challenge his students. It wasn’t long before he noticed the choking victim poster.

By law, every eating establishment in the city from the humblest taco stand to the trendiest bistro must visibly display an instructional poster illustrating the Heimlich Maneuver.

A mere week after Dr. Heimlich published his findings in 1974, the first choking victim was saved by the method. In 1978, the New York City City Council passed the law requiring every establishment where food is sold, regardless of size or design, to post a sign depicting the Maneuver. They passed the bill unanimously five days before the feasts of Christmas. The law requires the Department of Health to make the signs freely available.

Fast forward to 1996 and, as noted in the U.K. Independent, “[after 20 years] the Department of Health grew concerned that, in a city like New York, where dining in is the exception, habitual restaurant-goers may suffer from over-exposure to Heimlich signs, and that, over time, the charts risk becoming so much civic-minded wallpaper.”

They were in luck. At just that moment, Paul Young was looking to bring the choking victim poster back to life. All it took was a phone book and a couple of calls for Young to find Ann Sternberg, director of media materials and education for the Bureau of Public Health.“It was easier than I thought,” Young recalls. “She was ecstatic.”

For a city official who reports to committees, the situation was ideal: the school was well-known; Young’s class would propose not one, but many designs; and the students were politically neutral, with no strings or political connections attached. And they offered to do the designs for free.

Young’s design class partnered with an illustration class at Parsons. Design student Laura Berkowitz Gilbert was impressed with the illustrations of Sandra Hepp. “She had a great, strong style,” she recalls. “Her work was very graphic, I knew it would work well for a big poster.”

The old institutional orange poster needed plenty of work. Previously, Berkowitz Gilbert notes, “One of the hands had six fingers.” The students even gave the copy a light edit. Together, they redesigned it with a vibrant new Constructivist-inspired design in primary colors.

The Hepp and Berkowitz Gilbert poster was one of three that were accepted for printing. But among restaurateurs it was by far the favorite.

Six months after the printing, city officials were so pleased that they sent the posters to Dr. Heimlich himself, who personally sent back a signed copy praising the students’ work.

The now ubiquitous poster is certainly hard to miss. Though nearly ten years later, perhaps it’s time for another redesign?

Shaping the things to come
The previous examples illustrate how cooperation between designers and government officials can produce information design that better serves the public.

So where do we go from here? One possible answer is to formally promote or even institutionalize such participation.

In fact, the U.S. Postal Service is already doing this. Sylvia Harris serves as a member of the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, an independent committee that represents citizens’ points of view in the selection of the design and subject matter of U.S. stamps. The diverse committee is designed to remain independent of political pressure and reports directly to the Postmaster General. Committee members choose subjects based on what’s popular and what they think the American people need to know or see. They work hard to make sure that the topics, illustrators and styles of America’s stamps represent the country’s enormous ethnic diversity. Stamps are a particularly visual medium, but what if other Federal Agencies had permanent, independent advisory committees on matters of design?

Usability consultant Whitney Quesenbery has also been busy behind the scenes at the Federal level. She was nominated by the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) to head their voting initiative. Their goal is to improve ballot design and usability—the ease with which users can satisfactorily achieve their goals in a particular environment. This is often achieved by integrating user testing and feedback throughout the design process.

Quesenbery started from scratch, pulling together links and reading everything she could about ballots and elections. She began gathering contacts and speaking about her findings, and was eventually invited to be a member of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission’s committee to develop technical guidelines for voting systems. She currently chairs the Commission’s sub-committee on Human Factors and Privacy.

As a result of her work, the Commission now lists usability testing as one of its top ten best practices recommended to election officials. For the government to take usability this seriously is a huge step forward, says Quesenbery.

Such practices are starting to be used by other agencies as well. Launched originally by the National Cancer Institute, the Web site http://usability.gov/ is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to promote better, easier-to-use public information to improve the health of the American public. They co-sponsor the Government Services Agency’s Usability University, which hosts regular trainings for government staff by outside experts.

Samina Quraeshi is another designer who believes design can make a difference.

As director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, Quraeshi hosted a series of discussions between private citizens and directors of federal agencies to drive home the message that artists, designers and architects can help improve government programs. Agencies were encouraged to put their best work forward. Under Quraeshi, the Design Program managed the Presidential Design Awards, which recognized agencies for their design excellence. Sadly, since her departure in 1998, many of these initiatives have been rolled back.

“Design is a strategic national resource,” says Quraeshi. “It has all the methodology and analytical thinking that goes into creative problem solving. Design is vital to the economy and to sustainability. It is how to engage citizens in the process of governing, and how we make systems accessible and user friendly—not just for the handicapped, but for everyone. Artists and designers should be asking big questions. Not ‘why doesn’t the world understand design?’ but ‘how can design help the world?’ If ever we needed creativity, it’s right now.”

Sylvia Harris agrees. Harris and the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota are encouraging designers to apply their creativity to the voting process. Commissioned by the Institute, Harris designed a poster, “Voting by Design,” to trace the many communications exchanges between the government and the public about voting. “This is not just about ballot design,” she says, “this is about voting as a communications process.” The poster maps the stages of the American voter’s experience and identifies places for designers to get involved. The poster targets a broad range of designers, from environmental designers and architects to branding and usability experts. The Institute is sending free copies of the poster to design organizations, museums and conferences to encourage designers to take on public sector work. You can order the poster from http://design.umn.edu/go/to/di.publications.

Design for Democracy is also getting the word out. As news of their voting design project spreads, election commissioners around the country have been calling seeking guidance. In response, the group will publish its research and findings in Election Design: Models for Improvement, a manual specifically for election commissioners. Design for Democracy is also contacting local AIGA chapters seeking designers to work with officials to implement the graphic system outlined in the book. You can find out more at www.designfordemocracy.aiga.org.

The initiatives above were successful because expert designers took a holistic approach to their projects and remained focused on the needs of users. That user consultation should be such an innovation is telling. It points to the wide gap that exists between government agencies and the public. But it also shows how easy it can be to narrow the gap.

After all, when it comes to the government’s use of graphic design, we, the people, are also the client. We are paying for it. The government is merely our assigned agent. And we have every right to demand the highest level of quality and service for our tax dollars and our trust.

That user testing and consultation is becoming a part of the design process is a hopeful change. And often, as demonstrated here, it is because designers took the initiative and asserted the users’ needs. Pressure for good design, which ultimately improves governance, cannot wait for the good will of our elected officials—it must be generated by the people, for the people.

So what can we do about it? We are surrounded every day by mediocrity, bad design and ineffectual policy. But if you are a designer with an idea, you have the power to make a difference. Government design is not out of reach for designers, nor is any designer above it. Your government officials may even share the same goals, but simply lack an idea of how to proceed. The first step towards solving the problem is simply taking the first step. Pick up the phone, share your talents: Make your government work for you. CA

Editor’s note: Many of the most popular Design Issues essays are now available in the book of the same name, compiled and edited by DK Holland and co-published by Communication Arts and Allworth Press (www.allworth.com). —DK Holland

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.

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