IN THE NEWS: Election Design & Illiteracy

24Feb11

Many designers (myself included) can REVEL in the ‘right’ typeface (collectively dismiss the ‘wrong’ one), obsess over kerning, weep about leading. This is TRUE LIFE: I WENT TO DESIGN SCHOOL. As much as one can obsess about what words look like, lets consider what they say and mean when communicating to our audiences. Taking this thinking a step further, what are the implications of design work when an audience faces illiteracy.

The Noun Project recently featured on Engadget promotes developing a visual language that identifies everything from a slice of cake to a swimmer in such a way that anyone, regardless of native language or literacy can understand.

Wired’s article about cell phone design for the illiterate poignantly states the gravity of designing technology around illiteracy “This sounds like yet another of those hopeless “appropriate technology” schemes, where technicians try to invent stuff for impossibly remote poor people, without realizing that those people are poor for reasons other than their lack of cool gizmos…Cellphones for the illiterate has some disturbing implications. It would mean that cellphone connectivity is more valued, more needed and more important than literacy.”

So where do these design efforts for the illiterate leave the Sudanese people with only 15% literacy during their recent election, an event this country had been waiting on for at least 4 decades? After much back and forth seeking to imply meaning to various cultural icons, the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau finally agreed to use hand gestures for voters to communicate their wishes.

Ms. Wani, an officer of the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau explained, “the symbols held subliminal clues that illiterate voters intuitively recognized: in the unity option, the gripping hands were left hands, a greeting that would be taboo in southern Sudan, while the open palm for separation was the right hand.”

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