With the presidential election upon us, ballot design has been getting a little bit of attention. In the past week several publications and news outlets have covered the the topic (and reminded us of Florida’s infamous butterfly-ballot design from the 2000 election). Yesterday, Weekend Edition ran an interesting segment entitled “The Art of the Vote: Who Designs the Ballots We Cast?”
In addition to the ballots themselves, there are several other types of election materials for which design is critically important. One document that has been on my mind recently is the voter guide. Voter guides are a challenge to design for numerous reasons, one of which is that the content comes from a variety of sources. Each candidate can submit a written statement, and then there are the multitude of arguments submitted in favor or against all of the ballot measures. Streamlining the design of all of these various writings can be a tall order—but it is important to get it right.
Consistency is key. Of course, complete consistency is probably not possible given that each author will have her own writing style and will include different types of content in her statement or argument. But voters need some level of visual consistency across the statements in order to be able to skim and compare them effectively.
When I received Oregon’s voter guide in the mail recently, I was disappointed to find that this basic level of consistency had not been achieved. Some elements—such as the font and point size—were consistent. But many other elements were not, and it made for very tedious reading.
As an example, here is a page showing two different candidate’s statements:
The font and point size of the two statements are the same, but that is about it. There are a number of inconsistencies in the design of the two statements, which makes them more difficult to read. Here are some of the problems I noticed:
- It’s hard to tell where the candidate’s statement actually starts. Both columns start with standard biographical sections, but Tlustos-Arnold’s biography contains a community service section, which Anderson’s does not have.
- Both candidates use centered, bold text for the title of their statement, but Tlustos-Arnold’s title stands out more because it is three short lines whereas Anderson’s title is one lone line, which almost looks like another heading of the biographical section.
- Tlustos-Arnold uses left-aligned, underlined text for her headings whereas Anderson uses centered bold text.
- Tlustos-Arnold uses italics for emphasis (albeit an entire paragraph at at time) whereas Anderson again uses bold text (making it hard to distinguish from her headings).
- Tlustos-Arnold uses bulleted lists that float between headings, making it a little more difficult to tell which text goes with which heading.
- Anderson’s statement contains quotations, but they are not formatted any differently than the rest of the body text, which minimizes their impact.
If the publisher had standardized the design of elements like titles, headings, emphasis and quotations, then the two statements would be easier to read and compare.
To illustrate how these minor design changes can have a big impact on readability, I took this page from the voter guide and redesigned it as follows:
- the candidates’ actual statements (as opposed to biographical information) are called out more explicitly with a line and a heading
- all text is left aligned
- all headings are bold (and the statement titles are further differentiated with a larger point size)
- emphasis is shown with italics (to differentiate it from the headings)
- the spacing is adjusted so that body text is close to its corresponding heading
- quotations are called out with a shaded box
- the source of the statement, which appears at the end, is separated from the statement by a line and has a heading similar to the biographical content