2 min Read
July 23, 2009

Designing the way to better public policy

Rebecca Hume

This week in her blog for The New York Times, design critic Allison Arieff argues that we Americans are in desperate need of a national design policy. Considering everything else there is to worry about these days, it seems like an easy idea to dismiss. After all, do we really need to spend tax dollars making sure things look nice?The short answer is, Yes. Absolutely.

As Arieff writes:”Design touches all sectors of our daily life, and increasing awareness of that reality can result in tremendous benefit for all. Is design about aesthetics? Of course it is, but that’s just one of its many facets. Design can save time, money and one’s sanity. It can simplify use, enhance enjoyment, and keep us safe and well.”

Too often, when people hear design they mistake it for decoration–embellishment or prettying-up that is essentially useless. But good design is more often the opposite, calling little or no attention to itself while making its underlying message clear and understandable. And clarity can make a huge difference when it comes to public policy. Developing effective government initiatives, Arieff points out, is “not just about policy and economics but how well information is presented to the broader public.”

One prime example of this is the proposed Credit Card Facts disclosure sheet below, which takes inspiration from the standard Nutrition Facts that appear on food labels. It’s enough to make you wonder how many families’ fiscal woes, the result of poorly-understood mortgage or loan agreements, could have been avoided if only the terms were set out this clearly.

The apparent disaster of a flow chart below is another clever bit of design work. Circulated by the Republicans, this diagram of the Democratic health care plan is intentionally made to look clunky, convoluted, and just plain ugly. If it can scare off enough support for the plan, this could be a case of design directly influencing public policy.

The fundamental argument for design in these and other examples is that how you say something is just as important as what you say. This reasoning is at the heart of the newly-formed US National Design Policy Initiative, which “advocates for a governmental plan of action to support design in service of U.S. economic competitiveness and democratic governance.” It’s a worthwhile and timely effort, and I only wish they’d listened to their own advice in developing their website. Good design can be useful, useable, and beautiful. This is certainly what they’re saying…just not quite how they’re saying it.