Design college pitched in to bring order to polling-place signs

Last Updated by Marianne Combs on
Dateline: Minneapolis
As you cast your vote Tuesday, you might notice some new signage at your polling station.

The signs are the result of a collaboration between the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. They're meant to make the voting process easier to understand and more efficient.

Now, the signs are being used in polling stations throughout the state.

The school's involvement in polling-place design began in 2012, when the city of Minneapolis approached it about being a polling station. MCAD's grants and project administration specialist Kate Mohn immediately jumped at the opportunity. Before working at MCAD, Mohn had worked four years in the office of then-Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

"And I was happy, as a former elections dork, to be the point person for the college and to make that happen," she said.

The school put up the signs the city had sent. Some were pink, others were green; they came in all different sizes and were crowded with writing. MCAD didn't add any additional signs of its own.

On that Tuesday morning, people started showing up in droves.

"2012 was a really big turnout year because it was a presidential election year and you have to remember we have those two amendments on the ballot," Mohn said, "marriage equality and voter ID. So we had over 1,800 people vote in person that day."

Some people had to wait 90 minutes to vote. In addition, the school's main building is big, and some people had trouble navigating their way through it. The experience left Mohn wondering how MCAD could help speed up the process. So she went and talked to DesignWorks, MCAD's in-house graphic design firm.

DesignWorks agreed to create additional signs and banners for the 2014 election, directing people to bathrooms in multiple languages and giving them login information for the campus Wi-Fi network. The signs had a consistent visual theme, and they were easy to read.

"One of our contacts at the city of Minneapolis came to MCAD on Election Day and said, 'Can you do this for the entire city?'" Mohn said.

Minneapolis hired MCAD to redesign all of the city's polling signage.

"We needed a consistency in all of our official signage," said Grace Wachlarowicz, with the city's Office of Elections and Voter Services. "It just didn't look right."

The DesignWorks team worked closely with the city as it streamlined the signs while still abiding by federal and state law. To the untrained eye, the changes are subtle. But the information is easier to read, and more logically organized.

Rather than pink and green, the signs are now red, white and blue. The decorative stars and stripes are reminiscent of the sprinkles you might find on a Fourth of July cupcake — festive, but not overbearing.

"The signage is just a subconscious perception that it is uniform, clear and professional, that we know what we're doing," Wachlarowicz said. "We are confident so our voters can be confident."

And increased voter confidence, Wachlarowicz said, leads to increased voter turnout.

The city of Minneapolis rolled out the new signage in the 2016 elections. But it doesn't end there. MCAD and the city agreed to put the work under a license from Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to distributing creative work free of charge.

"We had talked about just giving the files over to the secretary of state's office, but you can't just drop a whole bunch of design collateral for free on the state," Mohn said. "You'd run afoul of the gift ban laws. But if it's under the Creative Commons license, everyone could get it equally. So if we allow everyone to access it equally, then the state can use it as well."

And not just the state of Minnesota. Mohn said any election officials who agree to use the materials under the terms of a noncommercial Creative Commons license can download the files from MCAD's website and adapt them for their polling precincts. Good design should be for everyone, she said.

"You can use design as a public benefit. It doesn't have to just be shiny objects," she said. "Design is a beautiful thing that you can use to help people in their day-to-day lives, and we want to make sure that that's for everyone."

And so MCAD's designs will likely start showing up at polling places across the country in this and future
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