January 25, 2013
While researching our recent article about the Seal of the President of the United States, I came across a few couple myths about the National Emblem that required a little more investigation.
First up, the idea that Benjamin Franklin, in his infinite wisdom and wit, wanted the National Bird to be the turkey. According to the United States Diplomacy Center, this myth is completely false (though I’ll dive into the murkier parts of that myth in a moment). The center points to the fact that Franklin’s proposal for the Great Seal was devoid of birds completely and suggest that the idea was propagated, in part, by a 1962 illustration for the cover of the New Yorker by artist Anatole Kovarsky, who imagined what the Great Seal of the United States might look like if the turkey did become our national emblem (above image). However, while it’s hard to imagine that overstuffed, flightless bird on our currency and on the President’s lectern instead of on our dinner table, there is actually a bit of truth to this rumor.
The Franklin Institute, addressing what I’m sure is their favorite question about one of the most complex and interesting men to ever live in this country, excerpts a letter from Franklin to his daughter, in which he does in fact question the choice of the eagle, commenting that the selected design looks more like a turkey. Franklin then expounds on the respectability and morality of each bird, which really seems like such a Ben Franklin thing to do:
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
The second myth I wanted to address is tied to the alterations President Truman made to the Presidential Seal. It’s sometimes said that the eagle on the Presidential Seal changes during times of war to face the arrows instead of the olive branch. This one is unquestionably false, although somewhat understandable. From 1916 to 1945 the eagle did indeed face the arrows –a version that can still be seen on the Resolute Desk– but this was changed when President Truman issued Executive Order 9646, modifying the seal so that the eagle faced the olive branch – a gesture symbolic of the post-war nation’s dedication to peace. While the changes to the seal, which always occurred around times of war, may explain the origin of the myth, its propoagation is owed largely to popular culture. According to snopes.com, in both an episode of “The West Wing” and the Dan Brown novel Deception Point, the myth is incorrectly stated as fact. But perhaps the final word should come from Winston Churchill, a Franklinesque wit himself. When Truman showed him the changes that were made to seal, Churchill suggested that the eagle’s head should just be on a swivel.
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.
October 26, 2012
In a few days, America will elect our next president. It’s been a particularly contentious and divisive campaign, with party lines not so much drawn as carved: red states vs. blue states; liberals vs. conservatives; Republicans vs. Democrats. While party platforms change and politicians adapt their beliefs in response to their constituency and their poll numbers, one thing has remained consistent for more than 100 years: the political iconography of the democratic donkey and the republican elephant.
The donkey and elephant first appeared in the mid-19th century, and were popularized by Thomas Nast, a cartoonist working for Harper’s Magazine from 1862-1886. It was a time when political cartoons weren’t just relegated to a sidebar in the editorial page, but really had the power to change minds and sway undecided voters by distilling complex ideas into more compressible representations. Cartoons had power. And Thomas Nast was a master of the medium, although one who, by all accounts, was churlish, vindictive and fiercely loyal to the Republican party. In fact, it’s said that President Lincoln referred to Nast as his “best recruiting general” during his re-election campaign. These very public “recruiting” efforts led Nast to create the familiar political symbols that have lasted longer than either of the political parties they represent.
On January 15, 1870, Nast published the cartoon that would forever link the donkey to the Democrat. A few ideas should be clear for the cartoon to make sense: First, “republican” and “democrat” meant very different things in the 19th century than they do today (but that’s another article entirely); “jackass” pretty much meant the exact same thing then that it does today; and Nast was a vocal opponent of a group of Northern Democrats known as “Copperheads.”
In his cartoon, the donkey, standing in for the Copperhead press, is kicking a dead lion, representing President Lincoln’s recently deceased press secretary (E.M. Stanton). With this simple but artfully rendered statement, Nast succinctly articulated his belief that the Copperheads, a group opposed the Civil War, were dishonoring the legacy of Lincoln’s administration. The choice of a donkey –that is to say, a jackass– would be clearly understood as commentary intended to disparage the Democrats. Nast continue to use the donkey as a stand-in for Democratic organizations, and the popularity of his cartoons through 1880s ensured that the party remained inextricably tied to jackasses. However, although Thomas Nast is credited with popularizing this association, he was not the first to use it as a representation of the Democratic party.
In 1828, when Andrew Jackson was running for president, his opponents were fond of referring to him as a jackass (if only such candid discourse were permissible today). Emboldened by his detractors, Jackson embraced the image as the symbol of his campaign, rebranding the donkey as steadfast, determined, and willful, instead of wrong-headed, slow, and obstinate. Throughout his presidency, the symbol remained associated with Jackson and, to a lesser extent, the Democratic party. The association was forgotten, though, until Nast, for reasons of his own, revived it more than 30 years later.
In 1874, in yet another scathing cartoon, Nast represented the Democratic press as a donkey in lion’s clothing (though the party itself is shown as a shy fox), expressing the cartoonist’s belief that the media were acting as fear mongers, propagating the idea of Ulysses S. Grant as a potential American dictator. In Nast’s donkey-in-lion’s-clothing cartoon, the elephant –representing the Republican vote– was running scared toward a pit of chaos and inflation. The rationale behind the choice of the elephant is unclear, but Nast may have chosen it as the embodiment of a large and powerful creature, though one that tends to be dangerously careless when frightened. Alternately, the political pachyderm may have been inspired by the now little-used phrase “seeing the elephant,” a reference to war and a possible reminder of the Union victory. Whatever the reason, Nast’s popularity and consistent use of the elephant ensured that it would remain in the American consciousness as a Republican symbol.
Like Andrew Jackson, the Republican party would eventually embrace the caricature, adopting the elephant as their official symbol. The Democrats, however, never officially adopted the donkey as a symbol. Nonetheless, come election season, both animals lose any zoological significance in favor of political shorthand. For while candidates may flip and flop, legislation may be stripped or stuffed, and political animals may change their stripes, the donkey and elephant remain true.