General Election Typography

It’s General Election Day. I recently stopped to think about the experience of voting and realised that typography is all around us on the day, and is very important to the whole process. For example, take the ubiquitous “Polling Station” sign that sits placidly outside your local place to vote. It’s probably one of the most-seen signs in the country. Whether you’re of voting age or a child going along with your parents, the chances are that you have seen this sign. I’ve rounded up some information and thoughts on the typography behind Election Day.

My local Polling Station sign. It was pouring with rain so I tried to keep it dry with my umbrella. How British!

Polling station printed materials are ultimately designed to be as clear to the voter as possible. The Electoral Commission issue guidance on this: signage needs to be visible from a distance and must be distinctive enough to make an impression – my local Polling Station is a school hall, where walls are covered with colourful childrens’ work. Of critical importance to signage inside the venue are:

  1. That the notice stands out and attracts attention
  2. That the notice says what it is for and tells the voter why they should read it
  3. That the notice is easy to read, understand and follow.

This generally points Election Day material to use sans serif typefaces, so that they are as clear as possible. The Electoral Commission specifies that a “large polling station sign should be visible and positioned so that voters can easily identify the polling station”, possibly with arrows to direct the voter to the entrance. Roger Morris wrote a paper in 2005 with a few good points on how printed Election Day material generally can affect a voter:

Far more of a deterrent was the appearance of the ballot pack itself as prescribed in great detail by the Regulations – a mass of small black print often unable to be fitted together at the size of typeface recommended, phrased in precise but off-putting legalistic wording, and presenting a complex, rather than an inviting or accessible, impression on first opening which frequently made potential voters put it to one side unread. There is little point in putting something into every hand if instead of inviting ready use and participation it looks officious, hard to follow and complete properly, and easy to ignore – or worse, easy to give to someone else to fill in.

Another take on the influence of typefaces on voters has been offered by Joel Antoine-Winston. A project collected by It’s Nice That features work from UK-based contributors on Election Day graphics. Joel’s project used typefaces developed by 18-25 year olds, one of the most unpredictable voting groups. Young people have even been proposed as the most critical demographic to a representative election outcome. Joel suggests through his project that young people are generally engaged with voting, and that this could be reflected in Election Day design.

Joel Antoine-Wilkinson’s project. Source: It’s Nice That

The “Polling Station” sign, in particular

I think that out of all the printed material around us on Election Day, the Polling Station sign is probably the most recognisable, and is a very British symbol. Polling Station sign sales are apparently going through the roof, according to the UK Polling Station Signage Industry. I’m amazed that such an organisation exists! Although I can’t find much online material about them. Still, it’s not surprising when you think of how many voting opportunities we’ve had in recent years.

An old Polling Station sign, sold on The Vintage Wall

Hugh Pearman of Election Aesthetics (a fascinating blog) discussed the look and feel of voting day in general. Every Polling Station around the country is “precisely designed” somehow, with the same features in all of them: the card, fat pencil, wooden booths. It’s so fit for purpose that this has hardly changed. Hugh lists the Polling Station sign as the first essential part of the Election Day design kit – evoking thoughts of post war austerity.

Straight out of post war Britain. Source: Hugh Pearman

According to the St. Bride Foundation, which has produced an excellent history of election typefaces, Stephenson Blake, a former type foundry in Sheffield, recommended the use of certain typefaces for election material in the late 19th century, likely based on their legibility. They’re very of-the-time aren’t they? Mostly serif fonts, apart from a small collection of sans serif in the bottom left hand corner.

Stephenson Blake’s recommended election typeface. Source: St Bride Foundation

And how very important legibility is. Think back to last year’s Oscars fiasco when La La Land was announced as best picture – Benjamin Bannister makes a great case for why typography and its setting on the card was partly to blame. This kind of confusion would be a disaster for voters.

How the Oscars Best Picture fiasco could have been avoided with better typography. Source: Benjamin Bannister

The Polling Station sign typeface clearly moved on from Stephenson Blake’s day to what we see today, although with all of this background research on Election Day typography, I don’t think there is an official typeface for the Polling Station sign! Although voters on Twitter clearly have a view… *chuckle*

There is actually variation in typeface between different signs, even though they are intended to achieve the same effect. Compare the picture I took of the sign at my local polling station with a picture from St. Bride Foundation’s local sign, and note the differences between the roundness of the letter “O”, the spacing and boldness of the letters.

Despite the guidelines on materials inside polling stations, and guidelines for approaching the polling station in terms of visibility, there seems to be little technical background on this particular sign. Clearly we’ve accepted it into our hearts, put it away in the cupboard when voting closes and have thought no more about it. Having scrutinised a few typefaces though, the closest I think I can find to many of the Polling Station signs is Helvetica® Inserat by Adobe, developed in 1966. St. Bride Foundation indicate that many Polling Station signs might even be older than this though, so who knows!

“Polling Station” in Helvetica® Inserat by Adobe – the most similar I can find to the Polling Station typeface so far

Something about the look and feel of this typeface clearly speaks to us on Election Day though. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today’s Google Doodle features a similar typeface to ones used on the Polling Station sign:

June 8th’s Google Doodle. Sans serif, chunky, bold, tall. Reminiscent of the Polling Station typeface, no?

In summary

Design and typography can be subliminal or overt and Election Day materials are designed to try and keep us focused on the task in hand, as well as being as accessible as possible so that the majority of people can easily understand and use the information being communicated.

Election Days in general are critical to stationers. According to St. Bride Foundation, election days have historically been, and remain, a key source of business for the printing trade. All of those ballot papers, leaflets, posters, pamphlets, signs, forms, letters, polling cards. Shaw’s Election Supplies are one of the oldest businesses in the world and one that specialises in Election Day stationery, as well as government stationery and printing more widely. The individual that thinks very little about stationery perhaps doesn’t appreciate how important a role it has on Election Day. It’s one of the few processes that hasn’t been digitised at all (in the UK, anyway).

The Polling Station sign’s sans serif, bold, thick typeface offers contrast, legibility, can be seen from a distance and importantly, offers no distraction to the prospective voter. There are no zany colours or shapes. Its chunky, historical simplicity reminds us that voting is a privilege and to take it as seriously, as many generations who have seen this sign would have. It says to us:

“This is where you vote! And do it properly!”

End of. It’s a perfect sign.

 

More on the typography around us

Stationery can be controversial during elections. A conspiracy theory during the Brexit referendum popped up, and supporters of Brexit (in particular) were encouraged to bring pens to the voting station, rather than using the traditional pencils that are in the booths, so that their vote couldn’t be erased.

Why do we use pencils to vote? A Freedom of Information Request uncovered the answer.

Some lucky dogs get to go to the polling station with their owners. 

A Brighton student in 2015 produced a new take on Election Day polling station traditions through a quirky and fun illustration project. 

Some people love the typography around us as much as I do! Here are some classics you can find in London. 

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