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Democracy for All

All citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote and this is the foundation of democracy. Yet, it has not always been so simple to make this happen in practice.

A number of voters can meet various forms of exclusion, such as barriers caused by poor design solutions at polling stations. Blanke Ark is a universally designed election system that makes it easier for everyone to cast their vote. It was developed and tested during the 2009 parliamentary elections and was praised by the citizens who used it. Feedback from them and other user groups has spurred further development and improvements.

A clear goal

“The election equipment won the government's design competition 2008 - Design and Democracy, which was initiated by the Foundation for Design and Architecture in Norway. The Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development helped with funding," says Marianne Riise, a director at the latter organisation and part of the team responsible for commissioning the winning solution. The goal was to come up with election equipment that could be equally accessed by all voters and devoid of any form of discrimination. “It is an unfortunate fact that in some places it has been difficult for wheelchair users and people with visual impairments to access the polling station and election booths without assistance,” she says.

The competition asked designers to submit proposals for a complete solution comprising ballot boxes, election booths, systems for placing ballot sheets in the booths as well as signage, graphic profiles and ballot sheets. The winning solution was designed by a team consisting of Innovativoli Industridesign, Kadabra Produktdesign and Blueroom Designstudio.

Canvassing users

Øyvind Grønlie is an industrial designer and project manager at Innovativoli. He explains that challenges were aplenty along the way.

“We can split the project into three phases,” he says. “The first phase takes place before submission of the competition entry. Phase two is the development phase ending with testing of the pilot project in four local municipalities and final adjustments to the solution. Phase three is implementation for the 2011 elections.”

He says that they have relied heavily on good collaboration. “There have been a great number of people involved in this project,” he says. “To start off with, we focused primarily on the different voting groups and set up a separate blog to get feedback on our ideas. Universal design was a requirement, and steered everything we did throughout. Gradually we understood that those who arrange the elections are just as important to talk to. After all, it is they who transport and set-up the equipment, put up the signage at the polling station, receive the voters and dismantle everything and store it afterwards.”

Øyvind also praises the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development. “Had they not contributed so actively to the process, we might have had problems. There are a number of laws, rules and regulations to deal with, and there are several different choices. For example, if we had a seal with an underlying coat of arms in the competition entry, this would not have been permitted. We are not allowed to use graphics that are placed over the coat of arms,” he says.

Marianne agrees that good cooperation and information from the many different groups has been crucial to the development of good equipment. “In a process like this, with so many details, you have to include representatives for all types of users of the equipment. We have also worked together with the Delta Centre (the government's national resource centre for participation and accessibility), the Norwegian Association of the Disabled and the Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted. Developing one solution for an entire nation is very demanding.”

Visible colour

The team had to come up with a good visual identity that could be recognised and signal that something important is going on. This resulted in a clean and simple graphic scheme using warm white and orange. This allows the coat of arms to be presented in gold in the front of the ballot box.

“The colour orange was really chosen because it is a politically neutral colour in Norway; it is not being used by any party at present. It calls attention to everything that is important both in and outside the polling station. The colour runs thematically through all elements. Even the guiding lines, arrows and the word ‘election’ on the floor are orange," says Øyvind.

The signage system consists of small identity cards, an exterior sign standing four metres high and an array of A3-sized signs for usage inside. All the signs are available in Norwegian, New Norwegian and Sami, and some are empty so that the arrangers can modify according to a given template using recommended fonts and layout. Everyone who orders election equipment also gets instructions that explain how to set-up and install the different components.

A major challenge

The table in the booth posed one of the biggest challenges. According to regulations and universal design guidance, it should have a minimum service height of 70 cm and a maximum of 110 cm. In between these positions there had to be enough space for 40 piles of ballot sheets in shelves that were clearly labelled with both plain text and Braille. In addition, one ballot sheet could contain anything from 5 to 90 names, which called for some clever design thinking.

“But we did it,” says Øyvind. “We chose a dashboard-style layout with shelves instead of small hanging boxes as we had previously. Envelopes cannot be used when voting, so we had to design a ballot sheet that is easy to fold in such a way that nobody could see how you voted. We met this challenge by making the fold in the ballot sheet slightly uneven, so that there was an edge that was easy to see. Then we used a distinctive colour on the outside and provided clear information how each edge should be folded. The booth has two table surfaces, so each voter can use the one they find most comfortable. Large white surfaces, large fonts on all information and strip lights provide good lighting for reading in the booth, even when the curtain is closed.”

Hazards that had to go

Øyvind says that the pilot test revealed unforeseen challenges. For example, the support legs in front of the walls were a tripping hazard in the outermost booths. They had to be cut and the walls made even more oblique to provide better balance. Because of this wheelchair users gained even more space below the lowest table surface height. The wooden rod that was meant to make it easier for wheelchair users to draw the curtain in the booth proved to be a hazard for children accompanying their parents. The adults often grabbed the curtain and drew it so fast that the wooden rod was in danger of hitting the child in the face. The solution was to produce the rod in very lightweight material.

Slimming down

“Naturally, weight has also been a challenge,” says Øyvind. “The goal was for the solution to be easily transported by one person. After some testing with different materials, we ended up using painted steel for the ballot boxes and textile-covered walls with aluminium profiles in the election booth with handles at the rear. The booth weighs around 16 kg without the dashboard, and can be transported by one person carrying two bags, one in each hand," he says.

The practical details of the ballot boxes include a funnel-shaped top that makes it easy get the sheet into the opening, whether you are sitting, standing or have hand tremors. The box also has a bottom lid that can be opened, making it easy to empty out the ballot sheets. When opened, the ballot boxes are easily stackable. The handles automatically close the box when held. At the rear of all the boxes there are plastic pockets for labelling, such as the election district or any other internal information.

The preferred choice

Norway has 429 local municipalities and more than 3,000 polling stations. At the time of writing, Blanke Ark has been purchased by 173 local municipalities and Marianne and Øyvind see this as a very positive step forward.

“It's great to be able to show that in practice, design can be considered to be more than just ‘décor’. Here we have a complete project that meets the demands of both function and aesthetics at a number of levels. The process has been comprehensive, which is why it is especially nice to see that the election equipment is being purchased and used, and that the feedback from the various target groups is decidedly positive,” says Øyvind.

PUBLISHED 17.10.2011 14:42

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