The Design of Voting

We can fly a man to the moon, but we can’t design an effective ballot. What gives?

It’s amazing to know that we, as American citizens, cast votes to elect our officials; however, it’s equally disappointing when your experience at the polls is nothing short of confusing.

Earlier today, I cast my vote at my local polling place. Having done this for several elections, a few things stuck out:

  • many voters didn’t know what precinct they lived in,
  • others were unfamiliar with the voting process, and, most importantly,
  • the ballot appeared to be designed by a third-grader.

And “designed” is used generously. Shouldn’t this be simpler?


Ballots should be designed for two things:

  • Legibility: Know your audience and assume that voters will have a difficult time reading small or light type. Typeface matters!
  • Ease-of-use: The last thing a voter should be when reading a ballot is confused. Keep the design as simple as possible while still communicating key information.

That’s it. A legible, easily understood ballot will make for a much better polling experience – which should be more a celebration than a frustrating nuisance!

How do we guarantee this result? A few design enhancements can go a long way.

Embrace space

First, we must separate key blocks of information. The federal election, state election, and local races and questions should all be given ample white space in between each other. Similarly, each candidate should be clearly marked and given air to breathe. Cramming several candidates into less space may save paper, but doesn’t provide clarity or a satisfying experience to the voting public.

Simple instructions

Work under the assumption that this will be everyone’s first vote. Perhaps the voting area of the ballot comes with a line of text reading, “Vote for one of the following candidates. If you vote for more than one, your vote will not count.”

For local elections (perhaps state representatives), ballots might read, “Vote for one of the following state representatives. State representatives work for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and represent districts across the state.”

This seems overly simple, but can help voters feel more confident about their voting responsibility.


My ballot used similarly-sized type for the entire document. There was no dominant element and all the information held similar weight.

Altering the headline size on a ballot can make a huge difference. Each section (federal, state, local) should have its own heading, all consistently sized. The next level of information (the candidates’ names) should have a smaller type treatment. Finally, supporting information like a candidate’s party, address or explanatory text for a question should have a tertiary treatment and size. The size and weight of type should work like a funnel or headline structure for a web page.

Civic importance

Just as it’s the responsibility of Americans to cast an educated vote, it’s just as important for local and state governing bodies to design a simpler voting process.

With so much cynicism and voter apathy surrounding voting, the experience must be made simpler and more enjoyable. Americans should feel empowered every election, not frustrated and pressured.

In short: save the ballot and save our elections!

Why I hate it when you like it!

How we love to “like.”Like2

We use the word constantly and with little thought. Like has become the milk-toast of affection. Not that it ever meant much; I remember using it when a high-school girlfriend asked what I thought of her brother who consistently threatened to beat me up. “I like him,” I cautiously said.  Meaning, “I could live without him.”

Today Facebook allows you to “like” the photo of a firefighter emerging from a burning building with a swaddled baby in his arms. Moments later, you can use the exact same like to show your amusement at a waste-of-time video about a kitten sheltered between a Golden Retriever’s paws. Sometimes you even like things that you dislike, because someone you like posted it (or worse, asked you to like it) and you don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings. He or she will see that you liked it, like that you liked it, and like the next thing you post for your “friends” to “like.” In making “like” the currency of approval for billions of people sharing trillions of pieces of content, Facebook has utterly devalued a word that already struggled for significance.


Must I really like, comment or share?


But the thing I like least about liking is far more insidious: the term’s over-use is among the clearest indicators of our utter self-absorption as we participate in public conversations. Because liking is all about ourselves—the overfed consumer of information wandering the digital landscape in search of the next like. This self-absorbed bottom-feeding impacts much more than our personal lives. It has crept into the professional arena, which I personally find even more depressing. Walk into any meeting where people are evaluating creative concepts, and you’ll hear more likes than you can count. Why? Because if given the opportunity, we default to thinking of ourselves as the center of the universe. Faced with any situation, our instinct is to react to what we like and don’t like.

Our education and professional training should save us from our thoughtless judgements as we strive to do great work. We should never evaluate work with our own likes and dislikes, but rather put ourselves in the target audience’s position. At HB, we deliberately remind ourselves and our clients to ask not whether we like something, but instead ask if it works according to the criteria we set for the audience. But despite these reminders, we easily fall into the trap of evaluating work based on personal preferences.

This individual, center-of-the-universe perspective is one of the reasons why crowdsourcing produces mediocre work. A friend recently invited me to evaluate designs that he crowdsourced with 99designs, a company that glibly notes “Make 850k+ designers work for you.” (I’ll leave ethics aside for this discussion… but really??) My friend also crowdsourced the design evaluation to an informal team of friends and colleagues. I participated in the process, and the web site asked me to rate each design option on a five-star scale and include a comment. I was invited to do this several times as my friend went through design iterations.
I assume that, like me, each committee member had varying degrees of knowledge specific to the business: its personality, voice, goals, stakeholders, priorities, industries served, etc. in addition to any other success criteria for the design. But none of this was included in the presentation of designs, so it would be difficult for anyone to remember such details while evaluating. Those details and decision-making criteria would have enabled us to bring intellectual rigor to a process that was quickly becoming about liking or not liking.
The designs I saw, a handful among the 187 that my friend received, revealed that the designers created visual representations of the entity’s name instead of relying on background information and criteria for success. I figured this was because the crowd-sourcing business model encourages designers who want to get paid to play a numbers game—submitting as many designs as possible as quickly as possible. They have little incentive to invest time and energy into the story that should inform a great design, and they probably know that the people coming to them aren’t that discerning; many will probably ignore much of the preliminary work they did, if they did any, the minute they see pretty things and default to liking or disliking.
The crowdsourced evaluation committee is in the same boat as the designers: we’re all busy professionals, wondering, “how little time can I spend on this to honor my friend’s request but not sacrifice too much of my scarce personal time?”  The quickest solution is to avoid deep thinking, focus on what I like, and add a comment or two to show that I took it seriously. I noticed the other evaluators were doing just that, most often speaking of their personal reactions to the designs rather than trying to rate them against established criteria.

Does any of this matter? As it turns out, my friend is happy with the design he selected. He likes it and likes the fact that it cost $10,000 to $20,000 less than a local agency would have charged him. The costs are probably there in the time he invested, the time that numerous designers who weren’t the winners invested, and the time his group of friends and colleagues invested—but those costs stay with those groups and do not hit my friend’s P&L. In the old days, my friend would have gotten Cousin Joe’s niece, who just graduated from college with a degree in graphic design, to do something for a few bucks oFedexn the side or for free. The crowdsourcing model gives him much more choice of selection. What bothers me is that the designs he got, like so many designs I’ve seen from crowdsourcing models or Cousin Joe’s niece, suffer from rookie mistakes that experienced designers would not make.
I don’t want you to like designs that HB creates. I want you to feel they work. Sometimes you might even fall in love with them because they’re so much more than a pretty face. If you’re hoping your brand moves beyond your local sphere and want your visual identity to tell a lasting and layered story over time, liking it is not enough, no matter how many people like it, especially if those people are uncompensated friends taking time away from activities they value more to chime in for your project.
Imagine if the Fedex logo had been crowdsourced by designers trying to get clients to like something they did as quickly as possible before moving on to the next opportunity to make a few bucks. Based on what I’ve seen in crowdsourcing, the logo would most likely have included a plane or a truck, and an envelope. Many people would have liked it, the way they like a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Read about the Fedex logo here and get a glimpse into what sophisticated design can offer.
Perhaps I’m living in the wrong age. The world is moving quickly, we all have too much to do, and liking might be the pinnacle of what we give and get. Even if that’s the case, I believe we each want to discover more meaning, make the greatest impression, have the longest impact… and liking doesn’t help achieve such goals.

As Matthew May concludes in his piece on the Fedex logo: “Lindon Leader’s design is considered by many to be one of the most creative logos ever designed. Not because of what’s there but because of what isn’t.” I don’t “like” the Fedex logo. I think it works according to what I imagine the company set out as success criteria. I love it.

Sick of Crappy Infographics? Blame the First Press Release

Ivy-Lee-New-York-Times.jpgIn 2013, “Can you create an infographic?” became the new “Can you make a viral video?”

The craptastic nature of so many of them has inspired pinboards and even entire websites. I could dedicate an entire blog post to all the elements of awful infographics, but that’s well-trodden ground.

Instead I’d like to focus on a small insight I had while putting together a client memo on an infographic concept shortly after finishing up writing the final exam for my PR and social media class at BU.

In class we talk about what is commonly accepted as the first press release, written by Ivy Lee in 1906, which was no doubt the first and last time that a press release appeared in toto in the New York Times. It represents the the unmet dream of every PR person: verbatim editorial pick up of your messaging.

Infographics are the last gasp attempt of PR and marketing professionals everywhere to control the message.

Image via (but not by) New Breed Markeing

Image via (but not by) New Breed Marketing

We’ve completely lost control of the written text, but infographics represent something that’s a little harder to muck with. This theory nicely explains why it’s so tempting to cram as much text as is humanly possible into an infographic.

But it may not be the only reason.

Google may be as much to blame as Ivy Lee. PR pros’ goal of verbatim or near-verbatim adoption of a messaging platform might actually be seen as “content farming” and be penalized by Google for repeat content.

While at first blush the idea of hiding SEO-rich copy behind the “bit screen” of a JPEG, GIF or PNG image format (and thus rendering the text invisible to search engines) might seem detrimental, or even moronic (my first take on the phenomenon of text-heavy, mile-high infographics), the tactic may actually benefit marketers and messengers by preventing it from being penalized in the search engine results pages.

I still think there are much better ways to communicate your key messages than an infographic. Despite their name, infographics should be used to illustrate and create new insights, rather than to inform. Text is still the best medium for that — at least for the time being. But maybe I’m being old-fashioned. If so, call me on it!

Update (February 5, 2014): BONUS VIDEO
I stopped by the offices of Critical Mention during my last visit to New York, and they threw me on camera to talk about this post a little more. Here’s what I said:

Craptastic Infographics (Todd Van Hoosear Video) from Critical Mention on Vimeo.

Slideshare, We Love You

Over the years I’ve posted quite a few presentations to Slideshare, the kind of marketing collateral that is there to share after a conference or speech, the stuff we all do. But about a year ago I changed tactics, creating content specifically for the platform; one that needed no voiceover or live presentation to bring to life, one that combined words and imagery in a compelling way.

Then something amazing happened.

The HB team produced “Congratulations Graduate: 11 Reasons I Will Never Hire You.” Now at one million views and counting, it stands as an example of how to imagine or re-purpose content in a way that has mass appeal, and is shareable and memorable. So, how do you do it yourself?

Create for the Medium

Congratulations graduateHow many times do we share our tweets through Facebook? Or simply post a blog headline on LinkedIn? All the social networks require content that fits each specific medium to be truly effective. Simply taking a presentation that was created with the intent to present live or in person, and posting that to Slideshare does not cut it. Slideshare content needs to exist so that readers can get the point, understand the information and enjoy the experience without the need for someone speaking to it or about it to bring it to life.

When creating content specifically for Slideshare, keep these three ideas top-of-mind for greater success: make your title provocative, contrarian, tweetable, head-scratching – make it memorable; invest in design – Slideshare is visual, respect that; and ensure your content is one hundred percent understandable content and can stand on its own – if it does not, keep working.

Goals, Message First

As we know, when starting anything, it’s critical to figure out your goals. For first-timers on Slideshare, read a bunch of the successful submissions. While the most popular or most liked presentations may be wildly different, it’s easy to see that they have compelling content, design that supports the content and a message that’s easily grasped.

Like any other aspect of your communications program, a Slideshare can only be successful if you have goals established up front. At HB we specifically wanted to reach college students entering the job market as well as drive traffic to our website. So our first bit of success came when the likes and shares started. But those weren’t the end goal, just a means to an end. I considered it truly successful when college career centers began emailing asking if they could incorporate it into their educational materials, then again when blogs and HR-focused sites had raging debates in their comments sections regarding everything from the content to the design of the Slideshare. All of this continues to drive relevant traffic to our website.

I wanted a reaction. I got one.

Design Rules Slideshare

Design! Great design rules on Slideshare. Sometimes that design is no design at all, black words on a white background to evoke starkness. When the images support the content, readers respond. My original Slideshare posts, lightly “designed” by me, were read a few hundred or few thousand times each. Good content, weak design. For my most recent Slideshare, the professional designers at HB Agency brought my words to life. The result? This newest Slideshare has been “liked” more than 56,000 times on Facebook.

Share, and Share Some More

who sharedI’m in PR and content marketing so I see each piece of content as something that must be maximized, adapted and shared though as many places as are relevant.

The “Congratulations Graduate” piece actually started more than a year ago as a contributed article on a site that targets the innovation community in Boston. From there it became a series of tweets and, ultimately, the Slideshare itself. Certainly having strong social networks helps with sharing. LinkedIn and Slideshare themselves are very good about sharing content with their audiences. That certainly gave my presentation a boost. In the end, it comes down to great content. Without that, no presentation will be compelling.

The Power of the Slide

PandoDaily discusses slide shows in a different light, sharing the not-so-deep, dark secret that publishers use slide shows as page view generators. As a form of “native digital storytelling,” slide shows present ways to tell a story more richly then we’ve been able to in the past.

Hamish McKenzie writes: “The Web has certain qualities that facilitate a novel approach to storytelling. That is part of the beauty of online media. The Web is interactive, social, dynamic, hypertextual, mobile, and not bound by arbitrary limitations such as word-counts or page sizes. It provides a rich environment for high-definition imagery and film. Thanks to the Web, we can broadcast content asynchronously, nimbly, and at a low cost, and we can blend a panoply of multimedia elements – video, audio, maps, graphics, tweets, status updates, 3D art, animations, gifs, real-time posts – into story experiences that transcend what is offered by print, TV, or radio.”

As a business, you are less constrained by editorial conventions (though an ethical approach to content creation is mandatory in our opinion), and must consider and activate your news and information in new ways.

Take a look at your company content, stories, news, presentations, white papers. And then imagine how any of those could be transformed for the Slideshare community. If you need help determining what might be a good Slidehsare fit, ask HB.

What are your Slideshare tips? What are your favorite Slideshare presentations?

Pill-Box Redesign: Rethinking Medicine

One thing that the healthcare industry needs more of, in my opinion, is a little high design. Apparently Céline Forestier thought so too. Her new design, featured on Fast Co.’s blog is a new take on the pill box’s of yesteryear.

This is a very interesting product for HB. As you may know, one of HB’s areas of expertise is healthcare, and design is an integral part of HB’s integrated marketing. So, it’s always encouraging to see these two industries collide.

Forestier’s goal was to “change attitudes towards medication at home and ultimately de-stigmatize the pillbox.” If this kind of design attitude existed in all areas of the medical field, imagine the possibilities!

We’d have great looking hospitals, where form and function could be well-balanced. At the core of this pill-box redesign is an issue of functionality. Standard pill boxes are easy to forget. Every compartment is the exact same, and there is no tactile experience. Forestier’s redesign not only solves those problems, it makes the pill box a displayable art object. Read more about this specific object at Co.Design .

I think the reason this pill box is getting coverage, is because it takes something that we typically find unappealing and makes it beautiful. Pills are not generally perceived as a positive thing. They are a sign of poor health, reliance, and a regulated lifestyle. This redesign signifies life, elegance, and beauty. Which experience would you rather have when dealing with the healthcare system?

Perhaps this same attitude can be applied to the entire system. Maybe soon, we’ll see elegant redesigns of wheelchairs, hospital beds, and the pills themselves. If the negative connotations are removed from these objects and replaced with feelings of empowerment and attractiveness, that would be a beautiful thing. Sound off in the comments below and let us know what you think about the pill box, and the possibility of a reimagined system.

Launch Your Website in a Day

I have a few upcoming events I want to call your attention to. The first is a day-long program aimed at people who need to get their web presence in line.

“Create a Killer Web Strategy for Your Business & Launch Your Website in a Day” is taking place on Saturday, May 14, 2011 from 8:30am to 3:30pm, and I will be one of four speakers / workshop facilitators helping out. If you need to build a new site, or are not happy with the messaging, performance or traffic on your existing site, this is the program for you.

The full-day program will help you bring your business strategy to your website. We’ll work with you to determine the most effective design, message, tools and channels to achieve your business goals online. I’m helping with the section on promoting your site and building your community. Hope to see you there!

In this very hands-on program, we’ll translate your strategy into technical features, visual design, copy and audience acquisition channels–then start implementing. Mini-seminars alternate with open work sessions and one-on-one consulting to help you reach your goals.

What You Need: Bring your positioning statement and your laptop. Each registrant receives a hosted website that is set up and ready to be customized. If you have a website already running on a content management system (CMS), you can opt to pick up from where you are and improve its effectiveness.

What You Get: You leave with your business website online and with the practical skills needed for ongoing development. Registration includes lunch and two months of hosting and phone/email support.

Cost: $420 | members (10% discount) $378 | Students with valid ID (20% discount) $336

One Marina Park Drive (near S. Station and Courthouse T stops)
GPS: 55 Northern Ave., Boston, MA 02210