Guns, Butter, and Ballots

An article of mine is running in January/February 2005 issue of Communication Arts.

If any of you were wondering what all that Nixon bit on the Federal Design Assembly was about, it was background research for this.

Guns, Butter and Ballots

Citizens take charge by designing for better government

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 “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 infor- mation 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.

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Vote Redesign

Ballot design changes everything. How much was lost because of a bad interface? Since the 2000 election, the American Institute of Graphic Artists has lobbied Chicago on the redesign of a local ballot, and the U.S. Government to include communication design criteria in any election reform bill. See also Disenfranchised by Design, an essay written in 1998.

>  2 May 2002 | LINK | Filed in , , , , , ,