January 23, 2013
During President Obama’s inauguration on the Capitol steps, he stood behind a lectern, as he always does when speaking in public, adorned with the Seal of the President of the United States. Later that evening, after the ceremonies and parades, he danced across the symbol with the First Lady. It’s on the floor of the Oval Office and on stamped on the Presidential Physical Fitness Award certificate (or so I’m told). The Presidential Seal is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world and one of the few examples of American heraldry, but who designed it?
According to the Encyclopedia of the American Presidency, the modern seal was first defined on October 25, 1945, by President Harry Truman in Executive Order 9646. It depicts an Eagle holding 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch with 13 leaves in the other, surrounded by a ring of 50 stars (Executive Order 10860 added stars for Alaska and Hawaii in 1960) and the words “Seal of the President of the United States.” The words make it official. Otherwise, it’s considered the Presidential Coat-of-Arms; without the stars, it’s basically just the Great Seal of the United States, after which the Presidential Seal is modeled. The seal existed in various iterations before Truman –several can be seen embedded in the architecture and furnishings of the White House–but the 33rd President made a critical alteration to the design: he changed the direction the eagle faced. No longer was the symbolic representation of the United States looking toward the arrows or war, but to the olive branch of peace. Significantly, at the same time, the Department of Defense officially replaced the Department of War. According to Truman biographer David McCullough, the changes were intended to be seen as a symbolic of an nation both on the march yet still dedicated to peace.
But let’s go back further. The earliest documented Presidential Seal was conceived by President Millard Fillmore in an 1850 sketch that he then sent to Edward Stabler, a nationally renown seal engraver. To say that Fillmore designed the seal would be a stretch – even to call his conception a “sketch” seems a bit generous.
The heavy lifting was definitely done by Stabler. Born in Maryland in 1794, Edward Stabler was self-taught and began his career engraving jewelry at the age of 16. By the time he retired in 1863, Stabler had designed seals for nearly every department in the Federal Government, several states, cities, and many businesses.
Stabler’s design appropriates the coat-of-arms first used on the obverse side of the Great Seal of the United States – whether or not that’s what Fillmore intended to communicate with his “eagle” sketch, we’ll never know. The Great Seal that inspired Stabler was first commissioned by a committee of our designer forefathers –Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams– during the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. However, it wasn’t formally adopted by Congress until 1782 – after a war, two more design committees, and many redesigns. Perhaps realizing after six years that a design by committee isn’t exactly the most efficient process, all the sketches, notes, and suggestions were entrusted to Charles Thompson, Secretary to the Continental Congress, who consolidated the various materials into a final design, which proved a success. So the modern Presidential Seal can be traced back to the coat-of-arms first created by Charles Thompson in 1782 for the Great Seal of the newly independent United States of America.
Thompson’s design has stood the test of time, and though the eagle has been considerably bulked up in the intervening years, it closely resembles the modern Great Seal. When Thompson submitted the seal to Congress, he included what is still the only official explanation of its symbolism.
“The Escutcheon is composed of the chief [upper part of shield] & pale [perpendicular band], the two most honorable ordinaries [figures of heraldry].The Pieces, paly [alternating pales], represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unites the whole & represents Congress.The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the Chief and the Chief depends on that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the preservation of their union through Congress.
The colours of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress.The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The Escutcheon is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.”
Although the Great Seal is most often used as a graphic image, it is of course still a seal. In the Department of State the term “Great Seal” technically includes the entire sealing apparatus: die, counter-die, press, and mahogany housing.
It is used with the authority of the Secretary of State to authentic documents issued by the Federal Government but it’s also used by the President when he signs documents as the representative of the United States. The Presidential Seal –distinguished by its ring of stars and text– has a much more limited use that the Great Seal. There is only one brass die in the White House –technically, speaking the only true Seal of the President of the United States– and it is reserved for the President’s personal correspondence to Congress. The official seal is probably as closely guarded as the official autopen, but the Bureau of Engraving has other seals that are used for creating sanctioned facsimiles. As for the graphic image of the seal, commercial use is prohibited, with the only exception being official fundraisers, and all use of the seal is strictly regulated to maintain the dignity of the office. For me, however, it will always be a reminder of my own lost dignity and the pull-ups I could never do to get that Presidential Physical Fitness Award in elementary school.
November 12, 2012
Back in January, when Newt Gingrich was still a GOP hopeful, he presented the idea of making the moon into the 51st member of the United States. Fast-forward a few months: Gingrich did not win the nomination, the moon remains uncolonized, but the notion of another state was in fact a very real part of the 2012 election. In Puerto Rico, a clear majority of citizens voted for the island’s statehood.
This doesn’t mean that Puerto Rico will be promptly admitted to the union. A number of factors and decisions still stand between the vote and the final outcome. However, it does beg the question: What would a 51-star flag look like? And, for that matter, what was the design process at other moments in history when the US scaled up its territory?
There’s a great five-minute clip on the archives of the wonderful StoryCorps in which the credited designer of the 50-state flag—a man named Bob Heft—describes the circumstances in which his configuration won official status as the US flag. As a high school student in the late 50s, right before Hawaii and Alaska were admitted to the union, Heft had to come up with a special project for his American History class. He decided to cut up an existing 48-star flag and sew it back together to create a 50-star flag (“I had never sewn in my life,” Heft says, “and since making the flag of our country, I’ve never sewn again.”). The stunt earned him a B- from a teacher who believed he didn’t know how many states the country had.
Heft submitted his design to the White House, alongside more than a thousand other ideas for the 50-star flag, and while there were a few others that shared the same concept, Heft’s was credited as being the official one. (His teacher changed his grade to an A.) After his moment of the national stage, Heft spent his life as a teacher and small-town mayor in Michigan, where he died in 2009, allegedly in possession of a copyright for several other flag designs, including a 51-star and 60-star version (presumably that scenario did not include the moon as one of the other nine new states).
The kind of unsolicited crowdsourcing that occurred in 1958 is of course nothing compared to the number of designs likely to be generated in 2012, with Adobe Creative Suite ready to generate perfectly identical stars in precisely symmetrical formations. Reddit users got started right away after Puerto Rico’s vote, and designs are popping up elsewhere across the Internet. The irregularity of the number makes for some interesting solution, probably the best one being a star-spangled Pac-Man eating star-spangled pac-dots. Of course, doing this legitimately requires some math. Back in 2010 when Puerto Rico was still a few years off from the big decision, Slate did their due diligence and asked a mathematician how 51 stars could best be fit into the allotted real estate. They provide a few formulas to follow, should you decide it’s your turn to be the next American flag designer.
November 6, 2012
Americans head to the polls today to vote for the next President of the United States, as we traditionally have on November Tuesdays since 1845. However, there is no tradition dictating how we vote. In America there is no standard ballot, so depending on where voters live, they may use a pencil, pen, punchcard, lever, or computer. There are thousands of different ballots in America, and while I’m sure many ballots are clear and concise, too many are illegible and confusing. Generally speaking, voting in America is terribly designed. From the queues to the machines to the ballot itself, it seems absolutely absurd that something so important, so absolutely essential to the identity of this nation, should be given so little aesthetic and formal consideration.
“Bad design can change the results of an election,” says Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice in an recent interview with The New York Times. Bad design can lead to mistaken and invalid votes or, perhaps worse, it can deter people from voting at all. In 2008, the Brennan Center released Better Ballots, a publication documenting the ramifications of bad ballot design. After extensive research, they recommended a series of policy and design changes to improve ballot and election design. This year, the Brennan Center expanded their research to include voting machine errors and absentee ballots with a new publication, Better Design, Better Elections, in which they articulate the importance of voting and the role of design:
Some have dismissed the importance of usability in elections, arguing that voters only have themselves to blame if they fail to navigate design flaws. This misunderstands the purpose of elections. They are not a test of voters’ ability to follow confusing designs or complicated instructions; they are, instead, a mechanism by which voters express their preference for candidates and policies. No legitimate public purpose is served by designs that distort voters’ choices.
No legitimate public purpose is served by designs that distort voters’ choices. After the 2000 election, during which the infamous butterfly ballot (see top image) is thought to have distorted many voters’s choice, ballot design suddenly became something that people paid attention to – people including the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and legendary design firm IDEO.
The AIGA’s Design for Democracy initiative offers a number of resources to both ballot designers and election officials. Basic design tips include font recommendations and layout advice –use lowercase letters at no less than 12pt, avoid center type, use one typeface and make it sans-serif, etc.– while broader lessons include valuable insights into the minds of voters and officials, such as “good design is the easy part” and the difficulty only comes in when one tries to navigate the maze of governmental bureaucracy necessary to implement real voting change. The AIGA also makes the important note that voters vary in levels of literacy, quality of vision, and learning style. A well designed ballot must be accessible to everyone.
Accessibility is also the main issue addressed by the openIDEO ballot design challenge. OpenIDEO is a collaborative online platform developed by IDEO to promote and encourage design for social good. Their recent design brief called for their online community “to find ways to improve election accessibility for people with disabilities and other limitations.” Reponses came from amateurs and professionals alike, with winning concepts ranging from mobile voting vans to more elaborate online voting networks, to suggestions for the American voting app.
While these competitions are important, their speculative nature limits their real-world application (at least for now, a voting app seems inevitable). There have, however, been some actual success stories with ballot redesign, such as the redesign of the envelope for absentee voters in Minnesota.
In 2008, more than 4,000 absentee votes were not counted in Minnesota, largely because voters failed to sign their ballot. The senate contest that year was decided by 312 votes. Those 4,000 votes could have swung the election either way. These numbers made it explicitly clear: every vote counts, and every vote must be counted. To help prevent similar problems in the future, the state government worked with design professionals and usability experts to redesign their voter submission envelope (above image). The improvement is obvious and the results are inarguable. After the redesign, the number of unsigned absentee ballots in 2010 decreased by almost 79 percent. Other problems persisted, however, and the ballot went through some minor design revisions this year. This is an example of how it should work: Professional design reviews and performance analysis lead to redesigned ballots, more accurate results, and a fair election. As one of the more famous voting incidents in recent history, the Minnesota ballot serves as an excellent case study illustrating how design can prevent votes from being dismissed by a technicality.
Since the 2000 election controversy, it seems that a few jurisdictions have caught on and it is becoming more common for election officials to consult design experts. However, it still seems strange that while pundits talk about hacking electronic machines, misleading voters, discounting valid votes, and every other kind of voter fraud imaginable, there is relatively little discussion about voting regulation and design. Will future voters elect the next president with a national ballot or a text message or an app? Only time will tell. A lot of time. Because while change is coming, it only comes in small increments every election cycle.
September 10, 2012
Most of the people I follow on Twitter come from the design and tech worlds, and so today my stream has coalesced almost entirely around the passing of Bill Moggridge, one of the most beloved and influential design leaders of our time, co-founder of IDEO, and most recently the director of Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Moggridge blazed trails in industries that have become core engines of 21st-century culture—computers, product design, interaction design, and human-centered innovation.
In the early ’80s Moggridge designed the first laptop computer, called the GRiD Compass, which of course heralded a sea change toward personal computing (a clip from Gary Hustwit’s Objectified film features Moggridge discussing the development of the machine). In the ’90s, he founded IDEO with David Kelley and Mike Nuttall, the global innovation company that popularized the notion of “human-centered design” and the collaborative, Post-it-note brainstorming process sometimes called “design thinking,” which seems to have become the favored sport of creative practitioners. In 2009, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Awards, and the following year took up the position of director at the Cooper-Hewitt, spearheading the museum’s major inside-out transformation, which is still in the works. Among the programming goals laid out by Moggridge for the Cooper-Hewitt was (and still is) the intention to have every American child experience design in school by the age of 12, giving them the opportunity and basis to aspire towards careers in design.
In many ways, Moggridge’s perspective on design is the same one we aspire to present here: it’s interdisciplinary, anthropological, and it cannot be isolated. It’s sometimes physical but not always. And it must be viewed and approached contextually, because good design solutions cannot be developed or understood without context. Not too long ago, I listened to an interview with Moggridge conducted by Debbie Millman, host of the excellent Design Matters podcast, and in it he summed up his outlook like this:
If you think about what people are most interested in…it doesn’t occur to them that everything is designed, that every building, everything they touch in the world is designed, even foods are designed nowadays. So the idea of getting that into people’s heads and helping them understand it, making them more aware of the fact that the world around us is something that somebody has control over and perhaps they could have control of, that’s a nice ambition.
At the end of her interview, Millman asked Moggridge, “What do you imagine for the future?” And he replied:
I’m hoping that design is still for people and that as designers we can create solutions and synthesize results which improve people’s lives and make things better in a general way. In the past we’ve thought about designing things for people—your PDA or whatever it might be—something that you use as an individual. A slightly more expansive context is to think more about the health and wellbeing of the person, so that…rather than thinking about the things, we’re thinking about the whole person or people. Similarly, when you think about the built environment, I think architecture has thought about buildings in the past, but as we move towards an expanding context for design, we find that we’re thinking more about social interactions, social innovations, as well as buildings. It’s not that one is replacing another, it’s expanding. So we’re thinking about those social connections as well as the built environment that we live in. And then if we think about the larger circle, sustainability is the big issue. In the past we’ve thought about sustainability as being a lot about materials: choosing the best material or designing for disassembly, that kind of thing. But now it’s absolutely clear that a sustainable planet is one that’s complete connected. Globalization has shown us that the effect of industrialization on the world is a planetary affair, so you can’t really think about just designing materials, you have to add to that the context of the entire planet, and that again is an expansion of context.
Numerous media outlets have posted beautiful tributes to Moggridge over the last couple of days, and the internet is full of videos, audio recordings, and written work by and about this visionary thinker. Millman’s full one-hour podcast is worth a listen, Cooper-Hewitt posted an extensive remembrance, Megan Gambino conducted a Q&A with Moggridge in Smithsonian Magazine last year, and if you want to hear his explanation on what design is, here’s a 55-minute keynote on the subject. Moggridge the man will be missed, but if there’s anything uplifting to extract from the sadness of loss, it’s that his breakthrough work and world-changing ideas will be kept very much alive by those who understand just how important his contributions have been.
July 20, 2012
Of all the instances in which graphic communication is necessary to transcend language barriers, the Olympic Games are, if not the most important, probably the most visible. We take the little icons of swimmers and sprinters as a given aspect of Olympic design, but the pictograms were a mid-20th Century invention—first employed, in fact, the last time London hosted the games, in 1948 (some pictographic gestures were made at the 1936 Berlin games, though their mark on international memory has been permitted to fade because of their association with Third Reich ideology).
The 1948 London pictograms were not a system of communication so much as a series of illustrations depicting each of the competitive sports, as well as the arts competition, which existed from 1912 to 1952 and included architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. In 1964, the Tokyo games took pictogram design to the next level by creating a complete system of typography, colors and symbols that would be applied across Olympic communications platforms.
Since Japan had not adopted the principles of the International Traﬃc Signs, introduced at the United Nations Geneva conference in 1949 and accepted by most European countries, the Olympics were regarded by graphic designers as an opportunity to establish a more uniﬁed and internationally legible symbolic language across the country. It was along these lines, searching for universally understood visual languages, that pictograms (ekotoba, in Japanese, a word used prior to the design of pictograms) were for the ﬁrst time designed for the Olympic Games, embodying at the same time [founder of the International Olympic Committee] Baron deCoubertinʼs aspirations of universalism…A major task of the Japanese design team of the 1960s was to de-traditionalize Japanese visual languages by subscribing to the abstract, non-iconic principles of the modern movement, found also to be more appropriate for expressing the new corporate identities of postwar Japan.
The Japanese pictogram system was conceived by a team of designers led by Katsumi Masaru and inspired in part by design language development that was taking place in Vienna, masterminded by Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz. Neurath and Arntz are known for the creation of isotype, an early (and still completely current) infographic form.
The simplicity and standardization of the isotype language came more fully into the Olympic pictogram arena with the 1972 Munich Olympics, but in between came the 1968 Mexico games, where, as design critic Steven Heller put it, graphic language met traditional Mexican folk art forms and 60s op-art psychadelia. The pictograms for the ’68 games were designed by Lance Wyman, an American graphic designer who also created the Washington, D.C. metro map, which is still in use today, as well as designs for various branches of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1972, a German designer named Oli Aicher refined Olympic pictograms into the concise, clean system that most people think of today as the symbols of the games. Portuguese design professor Carlos Rosa wrote in his book, Pictografia Olímpica:
[Aicher] drew an extensive series of pictograms on a modular grid divided by horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. A very good example of German cold geometry that emerged as a complete standardised visual language due to all of his drawings being designed under strict mathematical control. Aicher’s pictograms were an unavoidable milestone in the design of pictographic systems.
Slightly modified versions (and in some cases exact replicas) of the Aicher designs were used at subsequent Olympics as the standard of universal visual language, though in the early 1990s, some designers began moving away from the simplified standard, adding embellishments that referenced the culture of the city where the games were taking place. The Sydney games played up the boomerang, the Beijing images were vaguely calligraphic, and this year, as the games return to the place where pictograms first came into common Olympic use, the London 2012 visual language takes two approaches: a set of simple silhouettes for utilitarian communication purposes, and a more “dynamic” alternate version for use in decorative applications.
Designed by a firm with the appropriately universal name SomeOne, the images move away from isotype and back toward illustration, conveying both motion and emotion through color and a sense of hand-sketching. Carlos Rosa wonders in his essay, “If pictograms have abstract characteristics, will orientation be compromised for many visitors?”
Does the utility of visual communication get lost when we reinsert the obvious complexity of human interpretation? He suggests that mobile gadgets and digital technology may obviate the need for explicit pictographic guidance, in which case artful expression and cultural flavor can come back into the mix. Between now and 2016, apps and GPS will keep getting better at telling us where we are and where to go, which means the designers who’ve most likely already been tapped to design the Rio de Janeiro Olympic language may have more creative license than their predecessors of the past 60 years.