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  • Writer's pictureSarah Coloma

How visual and service design makes a difference in elections

*This post was originally published on November 3, 2020.

An Arduino board with an LCD screen I designed to read "Get out the vote."


How are you? Are you good? Do you need some water? If you're like me you're likely experiencing a mix of emotions about this Election mostly ranging from hope to anxiety. Despite those feelings I committed myself to action, specifically to voting and making sure my friends and family each had a plan for voting.


Voting is so important, a belief that I have seen proven right time and time again, especially since the 2016 election. And as a designer and a citizen, I'm thinking about not just what we're voting on but how we're voting, where there's a potential for disenfranchisement, and what to do about it.


Right after I discovered UX in September 2020, I deferred admission to the master's in health administration program. I used that semester to dive deep in design, a field I had always been interested in but had never really explored professionally. During that first month, I stumbled on the Abstract documentary series on Netflix, and the first one I watched was about Paula Scher, a powerhouse and principal designer at Pentagram. Her work is fascinating but the most impactful moment of her spot to me was her discussion of the Palm Beach ballot of 2000. Theresa Lepore, the person responsible for creating the ballot design unfortunately did so in an unintuitive manner. Palm Beach, a county in Florida home to a sizable elderly Jewish population were often left confused about which hole they should punch on their card for their candidate. Despite the best of intentions on the part of Theresa Lepore, I don't doubt, the results were devastating for Al Gore's campaign.


Watching her breakdown of the situation, I saw the effects of visual communication design on people's lives. It was this revelatory moment that convinced me that in some form, I should pursue design.

I've felt like the reason for doing these measures, especially lately, is couched in the idea of "safety." Somehow, oddly enough, the people supporting new voting measures like voter roll purging don't seem to have an answer for how to mitigate the harm that could be experienced by more historically marginalized groups of people.

Outside of visual communication design for intuitiveness, a lot of what I think about is the idea of a free and fair election. From discriminatory measures like poll taxes and reading tests to purging voter rolls and requiring specific types of IDs more recently, there have been groups advocating for these measures as a way to keep voting "safe" or "fair." And yet, elections in places with these are often made even more challenging for some, especially poor people, Black and Latinx people. Not to mention the recent lawsuits by advocates for the blind and visually impaired , including in Virginia during this pandemic.


It is difficult to see these instances, like in the recent run for governor in Georgia, and voter roll purges there and not be upset. I've felt like the reason for doing these measures, especially lately, is couched in the idea of "safety." Somehow, oddly enough, the people supporting new voting measures like voter roll purging don't seem to have an answer for how to mitigate the harm that could be experienced by more historically marginalized groups of people. That never seems to be taken into account.


There are things I can do to benefit a change I want to see. I've been giving to groups like Fair Fight who promote election fairness and campaigns I care about. And as a multi-modal designer, there are so many things I want to keep pursuing and doing from educating myself about the gaps in design in civic tech and govtech, working as a graphic designer for a nonprofit that promotes inclusivity in politically appointed positions (Inclusive America), and getting more involved in civic tech organizations like Code for America. Stay tuned for updates on what I'm up to!


What are some other ways you see how design interacts with the civic landscape?


I'm Sarah Coloma, and I post every Sunday and sometimes I'll do a bonus post on Wednesdays. With today being Election Day, I moved my Wednesday post to this Tuesday.



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