With the Nov. 3 federal elections fast approaching, panelists at the Harvard Graduate School of Design discussed how integrating intentional design efforts can increase voter turnout and re-define civic engagement.
Moderated by Design School Dean Sarah M. Whiting, the event featured panelists including architect and founder of the MASS Design Group Michael Murphy and University Professor Danielle S. Allen. Their conversation centered on recommendations from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ report on increasing U.S. civic engagement, exploring how design efforts could facilitate the report’s goals.
“Design isn’t just what we do with a pen or computer these days, but is really an organization of space, of procedures, of people,” Whiting said. “Our training as designers gives us a chance to actually play a role in the design of a democracy.”
Allen — who co-authored the report — conceded that the report’s authors did not consult designers in its creation. But she noted that the design community is fundamental to reshaping the dynamic between voters and the polls.
“We have to think about the electoral process as a design challenge,” she said.
In addition to discussing the report’s recommendations, Allen, Murphy, and Whiting urged young designers to expand into civic sectors and use their skills to empower voters.
“It was a meaningful and informative, interesting conversation,” said Lucas Chu ’23, a student currently enrolled in one of Allen’s courses. “I think I didn’t really realize [voting] was a design framework.”
The panelists described the importance of celebrating civic engagement as an essential ritual — suggesting that voters host small parties, whether online or in small groups, to encourage turnout among their peers. They also discussed how to best design in-person voting around the coronavirus pandemic and the altered voting dynamic due to mail-in ballots.
“You look someone in the eye, you sign on a book, you go and cast your ballot, you come out, you get a sticker, you get something in return,” said Murphy. “There’s this relational commitment and this relational process where you’re giving something and taking something back. You’re participating and having proof that you participated.”
On November 3, the GSD will be using its main building, Gund Hall, as a safe, in-person voter site. Whiting and the GSD also expressed their support for the Harvard Votes Challenge, a student-led initiative run through the Institute of Politics that aims to increase voter turnout across the University.
“Encourage everyone to exercise the power of the vote,” Whiting said in an interview after the event. “Even if it’s very hard some days when you read the news to feel like each voice matters, it does.”