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How to Skew a Referendum Through Design

The Australian Government has printed over 13 million referendum booklets.

By Dr Jane Connory.

The Australian Government has done a terrible job in designing the official referendum booklet for 'The Voice'. This document is vital for equitably presenting both the 'Yes' and 'No' arguments for including Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia's Constitution but the actual design is so bad that it could skew the final outcome.

Bad graphic design has been shown to change election results.

In the past, bad graphic design has been shown to change election results. The 'Florida butterfly ballot' famously distorted ballot choices in the US in 2000. As a result an independent centre for justice, The Brennan Centre, release a well-researched publication to reinforce the detrimental effect bad design can have on democracy.

Recently, we've seen thousands of people march across every state championing the 'Yes' vote while 'No' campaigners have begun swaying the pre-polls through social media—especially TikTok. Water cooler and school drop off discussions are becoming heated as it seems everyone has an opinion. But it's this official document that is supposed to clearly lay out both sides of why we should or shouldn't agree to the proposed law.

Let's look at three main points that the Government has gotten wrong as they tried to present both side of the argument equitably through design.

The booklet oddly lays the 'Yes' argument on every left hand page and the 'No on the right.

Favouring of right hand pages

Any graphic designer or art director worth their weight, will understand that printed publications place more importance on the right hand page rather than the left. Advertising space in magazines and newspapers are also more expensive when they're placed on the right. This is because when reading a printed page in English our eye naturally moves top to bottom, left to right. When we skim trough a publication our eye moves diagonally from the top right to the bottom left. Our gaze will linger on that right hand page a little longer, if not ignoring the left page completely.

The official referendum booklet therefore favours the case for voting 'No' by putting it's argument on every right hand page and relegating the case for voting 'Yes' to the left. Without sitting down to read the 24 page booklet page word for word, a quick scan would leave the reader only picking up on the odd point for the 'No' campaign—possibly giving them a boost in the referendum.

The official referendum booklet therefore favours the case for voting 'No'.

The typographic hierarchies make reading the document difficult.

Unclear typographic hierarchies

As well as page layouts the design and choice of typefaces, their sizes and weights (like bold or regular) are paramount to creating clear written communication. Choosing a distinct combination of these elements for the headlines, sub headlines and the main text is called creating a hierarchy. When too many different styles are crammed into a page, the hierarchy becomes lost. Nothing becomes more important than the other and order is lost. Typically everything begins to scream off the page together and the eye gets lost.

The case for the 'Yes' vote is designed exactly with this hodgepodge approach. Although the typeface is consistent across both of the arguments, the size and weights present on the 'Yes' pages frequently change and lack cohesion across the document. Whereas the 'No' pages have complete consistency. Their headlines and subheadings are all set in capital letters and they have numbered the points to their argument. Important sentences within the arguments are plainly set in boxes under each point. This all directs the readers eye clearly through the text, and encourages them to read on. Again these design principles have given the 'No' campaign the upper hand.

Red boxes demonstrate how setting these pages in two columns would make it more readable.

Columns that are way too wide

When hierarchies are designed well it makes the 'readability' of the text high. Readability is when the design of the information is clear and does not tire you out trying to read through it. Columns of text that are too wide also cause low readability. Research has shown that if a column width is longer than 40 to 70 characters, a reader's eye tires making it to the end of the line and returning to the next. Basically it will cause the reader to not complete reading the entirety of the text in front of them.

The design discourages a thorough reading, leaving the public less likely to have a balanced view of both sides of the argument.

With the design of the referendum booklet, both the 'Yes' and 'No' arguments are type set in one wide column across a portrait orientated A4 page. The single column width is well over double the appropriate measurement for ease of readability. This in turn gives neither argument benefit over the other, rather it ensures the public will have a tough time reading through both. The design discourages a thorough reading, leaving the public less likely to have a balanced view of both sides of the argument. This is not to say that what is written in either side is the truth anyway—it has been widely reported that it is legal to lie in these documents.

At Mavens we're not just about championing women in the advertising industry. We are also passionate about a sense of equity in the messaging that advertising puts out into the world. To us, this official booklet is stifling the truth as well as the 'Yes' campaign and therefore hindering the opportunity to give Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people more equity, especially women and Sistagirls (the Indigenous terminology for trans women). Good design is vital in all Government communications and campaigns but especially in this referendum. So make sure you educate yourself through reliable and informed sources before you hit the booths on October 14.

Dr Jane Connory is a communication design lecturer at Swinburne School of Design + Architecture. She is skilled in practice based design research, data visualisation, design history and using design as a tool for activism. As a member of the Centre for Innovative Design, her research focuses on gender equity, inclusivity and diversity in design.


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