College class serves up a better ballot – hold the hanging chads

If Starbucks can transform the act of buying cooked coffee beans into an efficient, "hip experience," the same can be done for voting. At least, that's what a group of student designers from the University of Illinois, Chicago, have been trying to prove.

During the infamous presidential election of 2000, their county, Cook, came in second for the most votes cast but not counted. Palm Beach County, Fla., of course, claimed first place.

Hanging chads and butterfly ballots reigned supreme. Not to mention clunky old voting booths, 100-page handbooks dog-eared by harried volunteers, and hard-to-read directions for voters.

So last fall, the 30 seniors studying graphics and industrial design spent an entire course working with their professor to revamp the voting experience. Some of their ideas were used at 5,000 polling places during primary elections this March.

"It was gratifying to see my work actually helping out Cook County with the voting process," says Thomas Brandenburg, who graduated in December.

He collaborated on several of the innovations that were adopted, like turning the word "vote" into an inviting and memorable logo to easily identify polling places. Others include posters designed with clear instructions and graphic pizzazz, and a "Cliffs Notes" version of the handbook that volunteers could quickly refer to.

"People don't always realize how important design is – until something like the 2000 election happens," says Marcia Lausen, the professor of the course. She's also a member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), which has been lobbying members of the Federal Election Commission and Congress to include communication-design criteria in any election reform bill.

AIGA hasn't gotten too far at the national level, but in Chicago, it is the group that is spearheading the Voting Experience Redesign Initiative (VERI) with local officials and the University of Illinois students.

VERI is hoping the county will adopt, by the November general election, Professor Lausen's redesign of the butterfly ballot – which aims to present candidates as easily as Starbucks displays its countless brews.

And what about those hanging chads?

The students are waiting for approval on their sleek voting booths, made of lightweight, modern materials that are easy to assemble – and, they hope, hanging-chad-proof. (The ballot is gripped at a 90-degree angle, assuring a cleaner punch.)

Mr. Brandenburg, who majored in the two-dimensional realm of graphic design, says he also valued the experience of working on a team. "We mainly did independent projects during college, so it was nice to have a real-world experience where I was working with others – even industrial designers." Both design groups had to collaborate on the voting booths and the accompanying voting instructions and forms.

The students also had a taste of how democracy functions – in all its glitches and glories.

To understand how they could improve on the voting process, they attended the courses required of voting-day volunteers, and even held a mock election on campus.

When it came time for designing a get-out-the-vote poster and brochures, they chose muted reds and blues for enhanced readability. Chicago election officials reportedly insisted that the red had to be more "patriotic," and darkened it on the brochures.

The bold red now clashes with the light blue, Brandenburg says, and makes the type a little less easy to read. "I guess that's just part of learning about how the whole voting process functions," he says.

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