In a recent editorial, Design Week editor Lynda Relph-Knight argued that "design can help to save the world once practitioners fully grasp the importance of sustainability and the role they can play in promoting it", and noted the specific effects design could have had in the disputed 2000 US elections in the context of the poorly design ballot papers (Editor's Comment 'Yes, design really can play a role in changing the world', Lynda Relph-Knight, Design Week, 31 July 2008) [paid sub may be required].
My colleagues at AIGA, of which I was a member at the time, made hay with the example of the ballot paper design failure. The design was equally bad when I worked on the 1984 campaign of New Jersey Democratic Senator Bill Bradley, and in support of presidential candidate Walter Mondale. But no one commented on ballot paper design in that election as Ronald Reagan won the political debates hands down. It was the banality of the politics of Al Gore and George W Bush, divisible only by a recount, that allowed design to become a (minor) issue.
If desginers are to be more influential and effective they need to better understand the bigger issues. In reality, in the UK and the US, they tell one another to 'get with the sustainability programme', despite not being able to define it, and never having properly discussed or debated the key ideas that inform this or other vogue ideas. Good design practice involves questioning the assumptions that underly the brief: designers need to apply this approach more effectively when others tell them what to think about an issue.