Greening Your Political Backyard

Part 2: The Body Politic

A series about design and communication in Canada’s 2015 election

Last week I was asked what sustainability had to do with elections and democracy. It’s a fair question, especially if one equates sustainability with the environment. The term has been usurped by the environmental movement for over two decades now and is where the confusion begins. In the last article, we addressed environmental factors involved when creating campaign materials. Yet true sustainability is not solely about the environment. It assesses and balances the social, cultural, economic as well as the environmental needs of our planet and its inhabitants.

The Body Politic
Canadians continue to stand behind our first-past-the-post democratic system as it continues its downward trajectory, failing to provide a secure system for the long term. The average voter is disengaged. In 1988, over 75 per cent of Canadians voted1. By contrast in 2011, voter turnout had been reduced to just over 61 per cent2. And like many democratic nations, youth votes are at an all-time low. Estimates indicate that less than 40 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2011 federal election3. How do we turn this sinking ship around to create a sustainable democracy, increase participation and help Canadians receive value from exercising their right to vote?

A sustainable democracy engages, rewards and represents. We must learn to meaningfully engage citizens where they live, learn what are considered to be just rewards for a voter, and represent constituents with integrity and dedication.

The Fountain of Youth
What does all this mean for a sustainable communication designer? It means learning to effectively understand audiences: what they like, care about, and most importantly, what they need. We need to constantly improve how we engage audiences, avoid the we-know-best fallacy and test the efficacy of our strategies with real people, just as we do for branding. Why would we do any less?

If I Hear the Word “Change” One More Time…
Change is the key word in this election, and I admit I’m shaking my head as it is the most overused word during any election campaign. What is generally meant by change is that we seek an unfulfilled need—a need, perhaps, to access services, or the need for meaningful employment, or in the case of business, the need to be supported in new markets.

Designers who share their communication expertise with campaign managers and press secretaries can affect the outcomes of campaigns in a compelling way. In the creation of promotional materials, whether print, motion or environmental, our focus should include acknowledging WHY an issue is critical in order to find resonance with audiences. As an example, one could say education is important. Engaging through communication design, one would ask why is education important? Your answers might include that an educated public is an involved constituent who can provide valuable informed input to their elected official. Or that an educated public is likely to be healthier due to increased employment opportunities. Designers who share their communication expertise with campaign managers and press secretaries can affect the outcomes of their campaigns in compelling way.

Party Crashing
Partisan politicking drags us down. The strategy of using negative advertising to reach new voters and enthusiastic advertising to retain existing supporters continues as standard practice. Try to move your candidate from blame-game language and graphics. Spending time criticizing others leaves less time to engage audiences with effective strategy and make the case for why voters should support them. As we change the tone of our message to one that is inclusive, we change the tone of our political culture.

Shaping Policy by Design
Engagement comes in various forms including projects like one recently completed by GDC member, Erika Rathje, designer of the site This campaign encourages Canadians to vote for candidates who pledge to assure “affordable access, free expression and a surveillance-free Internet” in the upcoming election. In essence, this campaign intends to affect policy at its core and change how it’s created by offering a crowd-sourced platform. That goal aligns closely with sustainability, empowering voters to effect change through participation.

New technologies offer new tools to reach audiences, to change the discussion, to educate on political process and policy, to encourage participation and dialogue, and to discover the value of their ballot. While no holy grail, social media can open a door, sometimes widely, to begin that first discussion.

Nothing really compares to face-to-face conversation to spark action. Design work that supports community gatherings allows us to address key issues affecting each of us, allowing us to discover common ground on political issues, and rekindling community interaction itself.

The Responsible Party
Is it a designer’s responsibility to lend a hand to our faltering political system? Designers have a view of the world that includes embracing change and altering perspectives. When we choose to work for, or volunteer on campaigns or projects, we support the principles of the democratic process, especially when they are in need. Of course, Milton Glaser says it best: “…a designer’s role is not any different from that of any good citizen… good citizens are those who participate in democracy and who express their point of view, and who realize they have a role to play in the life of their time. Being a designer doesn’t suggest that you have any more responsibility. We all have the responsibility to be good citizens. We can either embrace that responsibility or withdraw from it.”

Watch for the next article that will explore strategies employed by communication designers in this election.

1. Elections Canada, Accessed: Sept 25, 2015.
2. Elections Canada, Accessed: Sept 25, 2015.
3. Elections Canada, Accessed: Sept 25, 2015.


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