US election raises questions about design’s deeper role

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We can expect to be bombarded with news from America in the final days before the presidential election on 4 November.

Like any campaigning event, the election has left a trail of graphics generated not only by the official parties, but by people from across the globe in response to candidates’ claims. Michael Johnson has assessed that material for us (see Features, page 16).

But the question remains whether design can win votes. Certainly, the intervention of creative dignatories such as architect Lord Rogers and campaign graphics by Alan Kitching did not stop Tony Blair from going to war against Iraq any more than public demonstrations did.

Design can help, not just to boost a candidate’s chances – as long as the message is remotely plausible – but to ensure that fair play is done.

Johnson refers to the ‘hanging chads’ on US ballot papers that arguably helped George W Bush get elected in 2000. That was a design failure. A more positive example was the risible ‘soap box’ centrepiece of John Major’s campaign, devised by Imagination, that enabled him to speak directly to ordinary folk from within their midst.

Design could have a bigger role though. The Design Council’s Red Unit was, for example, working on ways to effect electoral reform before it was disbanded a year or so ago. This wasn’t just about eliminating chads and their like, but about addressing the system.

That is what we now call ‘service design’, though a better descriptor might make it more palatable to clients. It uses design to make the system within a company or organisation more effective, not just its products and communications.

The US election raises questions about how design can be brought to bear in this situation. The timing is perfect, given the Design Council’s latest push to promote design within the public sector.

It would be great to see it succeed in this goal. Not only can it combat social ills, but it might cushion designers against the downturn already hitting the private sector.



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