At the beginning of 2020, I made a list of all my goals for the year. It is, in retrospect, a hilarious document.
“Throw at least six dinner parties,” I wrote, with the naiveté of a googly-eyed lumpfish. “Visit Laura in Seattle.” “Run a 10K.” “Take a trip abroad.”
Within three months, the pandemic had rendered many of my goals obsolete. But I have found solace this year in another kind of list—one that’s tailor-made for these anxious and uncertain times. It’s known as the ta-dah list, so named after the triumphant sound we make to celebrate our own achievements.
What is a ta-dah list?
Making a ta-dah list is simple: At the end of the day or week, you write up everything you got done that ignites even the tiniest flicker of pride or self-compassion. The list can be a mash-up of the personal and the professional; nothing is too mundane to be worthy of a ta-dah. Recent accomplishments on my own lists include earth-shattering moments such as “cleaned kitchen floor,” “called Mom,” and “found parking spot.”
I first heard about the ta-dah list on the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. A listener wrote in to explain they’d started the practice after starting a new job that involved spending a lot of unstructured time on long-term projects:
For several weeks, I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything, even though I was making my way through market research and following the trails I needed to. So Friday afternoon, I decided to write down everything I’d done that week, and I was amazed at how good it felt to look back and realize there was substantial progress even if the final payoff isn’t clear yet.
I’ve also found this works well at home. While I have various bigger life goals and projects and things, it’s sometimes discouraging when you make a list of important things to do, and then life gets in the way. If I make a list of things I do just because they are part of life, at the end of the week I can say wow, no wonder other things didn’t happen, you were clearly very busy.
Ta-dah in the time of corona
This particular listener sounds quite well-adjusted. But the ta-dah list may particularly appeal to the neurotically inclined.
“There’s a certain kind of person who very easily feels overwhelmed and discouraged and often sort of guilty about all the things they haven’t done,” says Rubin, who in addition to her podcast is the author of books including The Happiness Project and The Four Tendencies. “So doing a ta-dah list is a really good way of reminding yourself that you are making good use of your time and that things are getting done.”
That kind of reassurance may be particularly valuable in the coronavirus era. All the stress and isolation of this time has left many people feeling depressed, isolated, and anxious, yet prone to beating themselves up for not writing King Lear or otherwise being sufficiently productive. The ta-dah list is a way of countering the impulse toward self-recrimination, and recognizing that even the smallest of efforts can be worth celebrating. (Personally, I still get a little thrill when I actually complete one of the basic boring tasks that make up much of adult life. If you’re the same way, a ta-dah list is a great excuse to brag to yourself about finally calling the insurance company.)
Rubin points out that ta-dah lists can also be helpful in allowing people to cope with the monotony of pandemic life. “The usual milestones that give us a sense of the passage of time are in disarray, so a ta-dah list can be really good because you see yourself moving through a project, taking one step after another,” she says.
Even if you can’t go to a birthday party or visit your family for a holiday, you can use a ta-dah list to help yourself see what makes each day distinct. The New York Times’ Sam Sifton, for example, has suggested a variation on this theme by keeping track of what you cook as a reminder “of the joys and frustrations of this extraordinary and difficult time.”
To-do lists versus ta-dah lists
That’s not to say that the ta-dah list is for everyone. I asked a few Quartz colleagues to give the ta-dah list a spin for a week, and it received mixed reviews.
My co-worker Susan Howson, who already uses the bullet journal method to organize her days, found the ta-dah list largely redundant. “The point of a bullet journal is that it’s a to-do list but also a record of all the things you’ve done,” she says. While she could see the value in stopping to pause and reflect on what she’d done with her day, she’s typically so busy with work that she doesn’t want to spend the extra time mulling. ”I just want to get done and make dinner.”
There was, however, an exception. Howson was out sick with a migraine one day during her ta-dah list experiment, which left her feeling guilty. That evening, she recalls thinking, “I didn’t get anything done, I took a nap from three to seven, I didn’t make my family dinner. I felt so low.”
Then she made a ta-dah list, and found that she had things to write down after all: She’d canceled meetings, sent her boss information for a group project, washed her sheets. “I even put down ‘took a long shower,’” Howson says. On that day, she found that she enjoyed the ta-dah list: “I did feel like, Oh, I thought this day was a wash, but I did stuff.” Making the list improved her mood, and she was able to get on with her evening.
My Quartz colleague Kira Bindrim also said that the ta-dah list didn’t quite line up with her preferred working style. She keeps track of her responsibilities via digital sticky-notes on her computer, and so she’s accustomed to thinking that “the biggest reward with tasks is for them to disappear.”
She did gain some insights from the ta-dah lists. “I realized that I do a lot of planning,” she says. It was affirming to give herself credit for preparing for a meeting, as opposed to only for presenting at the meeting itself.
Still, she says that ta-dah lists weren’t targeted to her particular form of work-related anxiety. “The thing I want to feel I’ve accomplished each week that’s hard to know,” she says, “is, Did you make someone’s life better?”
Alas, the ta-dah list can’t tell you that. Seen darkly, it may even be a reminder of how much of our lives we spend doing “boring small stuff,” as my friend Olivia puts it.
But I prefer to think of it as a way to reclaim the small stuff—to take satisfaction in another conversation with a colleague, another book read, another pot of spaghetti boiled and served. In treating the most everyday feats as worthy of my own attention, I’ve found more meaning in them.
Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of panic attacks. If you would prefer not to read those details, you can skip past them.
Tom was already not in a great head space at the beginning of the pandemic. The 29-year-old resident of Glasgow, Scotland had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder about four years ago, and was coming out of a major depressive episode when March’s lockdown orders kept him from his loved ones. “I’ve been fortunate that my family and friends have remained safe and well throughout this time, but my mental health has definitely taken a huge knock,” says Tom, whose name has been changed for this story. For the first time, he started to feel anxious pretty much constantly.
Then there were the panic attacks—heart pounding, pins and needles in his lips and hands, feeling like he’s losing control. The feelings would come in waves, gradually abating over the course of an hour. Tom had had panic attacks in the past, but never so intensely—in March and April, he would have 10 to 14 per week. “At first I wasn’t even sure what was happening to me, just that I felt I was completely losing my mind.”
He’s far from alone.
Panic attacks may be on the rise, as Covid-19 pushes psychological distress, anxiety, and depression to epidemic levels. Scrolling through mental health communities on Reddit (r/mentalhealth, r/PanicAttack) reveals hundreds of people who think they’ve experienced a panic attack, and have turned to the internet in need of answers.
The attacks themselves are not a mental disorder, and are different than a panic disorder in notable ways, says Mary Alvord, a psychologist with her own practice outside Washington DC. Panic attacks can happen in the context of psychiatric conditions beyond anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder—people with depression or obsessive-compulsive can have them, too.
Despite how scary they can feel, panic attacks are relatively common. Around a quarter of Americans without agoraphobia are estimated to have had one at some point in their lives, though Alvord suggests that figure might be up to 50%.
If you have one—and it’s not something else, like a side effect from medication or an actual heart attack—chances are you’re going to be OK, and your feelings are manageable. (If you have multiple panic attacks, or fear over having another panic attack gets in the way of their life, this may be a sign of panic disorder and you should seek help from a mental health professional.)
But it’s harder to get clinical data. An uptick in panic attacks would not yet show up in hospital admission data or national public health information, if it’s tracked at all (because of fears of Covid-19 infection, people experiencing panic attacks may have been showing up less frequently to the emergency room in the first place, Alvord notes). “Unfortunately, we don’t have any current clinical data on the rise of panic attacks during the pandemic,” says a spokesperson from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The nonprofit advocacy group estimates it will take another year or so for that information to emerge.
Private companies offer little additional insight. A spokesperson from Lyra, a company that offers employee-based mental health services, says that though patients indicate greater mental health challenges, their company hasn’t seen any significant uptick in patients reaching out about panic disorder—an imperfect indication of panic attacks. Woebot Health, which makes an AI chatbot, doesn’t specifically ask people about panic, says chief clinical officer Athena Robinson. “But users express anxiety in many different ways, and they can use any word they choose,” she says. “So while we haven’t seen a significant shift in mentions of the word ‘panic,’ we do assess for anxiety generally, and what we saw as the pandemic started and lockdowns continued was a spike in anxiety levels.”
Despite the lack of concrete data, Alvord thinks it’s fair to say that it’s likely that there are more panic attacks. People are facing more mental health challenges during the pandemic—the sheer influx of patients to Alvord’s own practice, particularly those anxious around their own health, reflect that. More mental health issues make it more likely that symptoms like panic attacks have become more common.
The good news is that panic attacks are manageable, either on your own or with the help of a professional. If you do have a panic attack (and you’re sure it’s not something else), Alvord suggests holding your breath for a minute and slowly releasing it, and just reassuring yourself that it will pass.
If the panic attacks persist, it’s worth seeking the help of a therapist or psychologist. A professional can guide patients through a well-established treatment for panic attacks called interoceptive exposure, which involves inducing the symptoms of panic—hyperventilating, spinning to make you dizzy—to show the patient that everything is fine. There are also medications that can help.
Since reaching out to his psychiatrist about the new panic attacks, Tom has been able to get them under control. He hasn’t had one in a while, he says. Though he still suffers from anxiety, not worrying about panic attacks is an important step towards feeling well.
Most economists agree that the single most effective policy to spur a transition to cleaner forms of energy is to put a price on carbon emissions. If fossil fuels were much more expensive to burn, then power companies, factories, drivers, and other consumers of oil, gas, and coal would have an incentive to switch to renewables, even without special tax credits or mandates.
But in practice, that approach is a bear to execute.
Setting the right carbon price is a minefield of assumptions. Efforts to pass a national price have all failed in Congress, and succeeded in only a dozen states in the form of cap-and-trade. The price suggested by the Trump administration is far too low. And a carbon tax has fallen out of favor with environmental activists, who worry it would work too slowly and give policymakers an excuse to avoid systematic reforms.
Carbon pricing is such a hot potato that presidential candidate Joe Biden’s notably aggressive climate platform doesn’t even call for a carbon tax. So does that mean the idea is dead in the water? Maybe not.
Last week, the obscure, Republican-controlled federal agency that oversees the electric grid said it would support state or regional efforts to price carbon in the power sector. Translation: There’s a good chance the US could get a carbon price—rather, a mishmash of regional carbon prices—even without support from Congress or the president.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) doesn’t often make headlines. Its usual business is to make sure that interstate electric grids are operating properly and charging appropriate rates. But in September, FERC’s commissioners agreed to weigh in on carbon pricing,in response to a proposal from New York grid operators to start imposing a carbon price on fossil-fired power plants.
The first-of-its-kind proposal would effectively force grid operators to prioritize electricity coming from wind, solar, nuclear, or other zero-carbon sources, because law requires operators to fill demand with the lowest-cost sources first. Making electricity from fossil fuels more expensive would ramp up pressure on utility companies to invest in clean alternatives. And because it would likely increase wholesale prices in the interstate electricity market (and, by extension, retail prices), FERC would need to sign off.
In a statement, FERC chair Neil Chatterjee, a Trump appointee, said that the agency “encourages efforts to develop wholesale market rules that incorporate a state-determined carbon price in [wholesale electricity] markets.” States “should have confidence that those proposals will be not be a dead letter on our doorstep.”
As the prospects for a nationwide carbon price have waned, FERC has begun to change from a sleepy backwater to a central player in climate policy, said Jason Gundlach, a senior attorney at New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity who co-authored a report on carbon pricing.
“There’s a recognition that FERC is going to be a major fulcrum in any energy transition policy,” he said.
But until its policy guidance last week, it hadn’t been clear whether FERC would help or hurt in that arena. Now, Gundlach said, the agency is essentially soliciting proposals for carbon prices from operators of the wholesale electricity market.
That’s a change that could not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but do it in a way that is less politically toxic, and has a greater likelihood of survival, than a traditional carbon tax.
“You’re talking about tweaks to the machinery that would be meaningful, but that don’t look like new taxes that are going to change someone’s life,” Gundlach said. “It’s much more subtle.”
Amid a global anti-China sentiment, Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani has found an American partner to execute his 5G ambitions.
On Oct. 21, Jio Platforms, the next-gen technology arm of Ambani’s Reliance Industries, said it is partnering with California-headquartered Qualcomm Technologies to “fast track the development and roll-out of indigenous 5G network infrastructure and services” in India.
Ambani had in July announced that Jio Platforms has developed a 5G solution in-house for India, which will be ready for field deployment in 2021. This made Jio Platforms the first-ever Indian company to have 5G capabilities.
Qualcomm is one of the world’s leading wireless technology firms, which works on the development, launch, and expansion of 5G. The company was possibly the obvious choice for Ambani given that most other leaders in 5G technology are Chinese, and India is in the middle of economic and political conflict with the neighbouring country.
Jio’s China-proof ambitions
Jio’s announcement comes at a time when the world is tilting towards China-free tech. Countries around the world, including the UK and the US, have already banned Chinese players like Huwaei.
Jio’s tie-up with Qualcomm gives it an edge over rivals as most other Indian telecom companies, including the government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL), are involved with Chinese firms to test 5G.
Not a replacement of Huawei
Jio has the software to accelerate its 5G plans but for the hardware, it will depend on another company, said Parv Sharma, an analyst at Counterpoint Research.
“Jio is using an Open RAN (O-RAN) approach to deploy 5G in India. O-RAN is still developing, and the ecosystem is complex. Also, network performance is still a major challenge as general-purpose hardware is struggling to achieve performance…it will take a long time for Jio ecosystem to pose a challenge to traditional players like Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei,” Sharma said.
O-RAN or Open Radio Access Network technology allows service providers to speed up 5G network development. The O-RAN Alliance comprises a network of major industry players including Telefónica, AT&T, and Verizon.
Additionally, the two companies have also signed an agreement to jointly develop an “entry-level affordable” 4G/5G smartphone. “The Jio-Google partnership is determined to make India 2G-mukt (free),” Ambani said in July. “As India is standing at the doorsteps of the 5G era, we should accelerate the migration of 350 million Indians, who currently use a 2G feature phone, to an affordable smartphone.”
As consumer confidence hits record lows, Indians are spending with great caution this festive season.
The spending intent among urban Indians during this year’s festival season is below average, according to a survey by YouGov, a UK-based online market research firm. The festival season began with Navratri on Oct. 17 and will end with Diwali on Nov. 14.
YouGov’s Diwali Spending Index is a weighted impact of 10 factors, including household expenses, intent to invest or splurge, and general optimism towards the economy.
The lockdowns because of Covid-19 dealt a major blow to the Indian economy, which contracted 23.9% in the quarter-ended September. The hope was that the festive season would revive the economy as spending increases. But most urban Indians have said that they are likely to spend less money this Diwali than 2019.
Diwali 2020 wishlist: Gadgets
Despite this depressed spending behaviour, though, there are certain categories of consumer goods that are going to top the shopping list during the festive season sales.
India’s craze for smartphones has sustained even the economic gloom.
Among gadgets, which emerge as a clear priority, consumers have indicated a strong desire to buy smartphones, laptops, and wireless headphones, likely driven by work-from-home and online education.
Indians, who have mostly relied on inexpensive domestic labour, have also begun thinking about electronics like dishwashers and upgrading their kitchen devices. Quartz had reported how the pandemic was driving up dishwasher sales in a country that never widely adopted that gadget.
Offline versus online shopping
The pandemic has also caused a shift in how Indians shop. A large number of urban Indians are thinking of making their Diwali purchases through e-commerce platforms. Over 50% of survey respondents indicated that they would want to make their Diwali purchases online. India’s largest e-commerce platforms like Snapdeal, Walmart-owned Flipkart, and Amazon India host annual sales during this period.
But the move to online is also driven by gadgets. For big-ticket products such as jewellery and furniture, 61% and 55% of Indians, respectively, have said they prefer buying these from offline stores.
Though the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, Netflix’s ability to benefit from it is.
Netflix added just 2.2 million subscribers this quarter, slightly below the company’s own conservative estimate of 2.5 million. Most analysts expected it to easily meet or exceed its forecast for subscribers.
The company blamed the modest gains this quarter on the “pull-forward” effect created by its record growth in the first half of 2020. It added an enormous 26 million subscribers in the first and second quarters of this year as the pandemic forced consumers around the world to stay at home—and that left fewer people to subscribe over the second half of the year.
Consumers suddenly have more entertainment options now, including live sports which were shut down earlier this year. Now that much of the world is reopening, Netflix expects growth trends to revert back to what they were prior to the start pandemic.
Much of that growth has and will continue to come from outside the US. It added just 180,000 members in the US this quarter—more fuel for the theory that the streaming service has nearly maxed out its potential in the country where it’s based. But it’s still seeing rapid growth in other locations, including Latin America and Asia. Netflix said the Asia-Pacific region was the largest contributor to growth in the quarter, and that revenue in the region increased 66% year-over-year.
Netflix shares dropped about 5% in after-hours trading following the news of its subscriber shortfall, though the company doesn’t seem troubled by the miss. In an upbeat letter to shareholders (pdf), it wrote that it was confident in its upcoming slate of programming, especially relative to its competitors. Netflix believes it will complete filming on 150 productions by the end of the year, promising subscribers its never-ending spigot of content won’t falter despite the pandemic continuing to effect film and TV production.
The company’s subscriber forecast for the final quarter of the year (an expected 6 million additions, compared to nearly 9 million in the same quarter last year) reflects the company’s post-pandemic vigilance. The record growth is well in the past, and it’s back to business as usual—fending off Disney, penetrating deeper into markets outside the US, and dominating the streaming landscape as much as it possibly can. And with over $8 billion cash on hand, Netflix said its need for external financing—long viewed by Wall Street as one of the company’s weaknesses—is “diminishing.”
For over 70 years, fans of the Swedish furniture giant have eagerly awaited the annual publication teeming with new products and home decorating ideas for every domestic situation. With a print run of over 200 million copies, IKEA’s meticulously-constructed catalog ranks with the Bible, the Quran, and the Harry Potter series in terms of mass circulation.
One photograph in the middle of the 296-page book is the reason for the delay. IKEA has requested that the image not be reproduced for this article, so a bit of imagination is required to grasp the issue:
Imagine a full page showing an injured young black man wearing a leg cast and a finger splint, presumably from a skateboard accident based on the props on the left of the frame. He is shown looking down, appearing to need help assembling a coffee table. The page is essentially an ad for the IKEA-owned TaskRabbit furniture assembly service. The model’s t-shirt is the locus of the controversy: An IKEA employee pointed out that the sequence of numbers across his back (45678) might be construed as serial numbers on a prison inmate’s uniform, thus fueling a negative stereotype of black youth.
“After reviewing the photo, we agree that it could lend itself to negative interpretation and reinforce negative stereotypes,” explained IKEA in a statement sent to Quartz explaining why they’re proactively recalling the printed catalogs which were scheduled to be unveiled in the US last August. ”As a purpose-led organization where diversity and inclusion are core values, IKEA strives to be a force for positive change in society. An important part of advocating for change is acknowledging and taking action when we get it wrong. We are committed to doing so in an open and transparent way.”
The numbers on the shirt, IKEA explains, “were intended only as a design detail.” It takes over a year to create each edition of the IKEA catalog, and it’s feasible that this wouldn’t have raised a red flag before the reckoning around racist narratives around the world triggered by George Floyd’s killing in May.
In some eyes, associating numbers on the back of a shirt with prison culture is a stretch—especially for a minor ad in the catalog. Spending the resources to re-call thousands of books also seems counter to IKEA’s efforts to lower its significant carbon impact. IKEA didn’t disclose exactly how much they spent on addressing the issue, but assures Quartz that they looked for solutions that were “both economical yet sustainable.”
A spokesperson explains that they won’t have to redo the entire print run and will simply rip out pages 133-134 from the perfect-bound books. Corrected editions of IKEA’s 2021 catalog will be available in US stores later this year. All digital versions of the catalog have been updated.
In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, Oct. 20, the US Justice Department and 11 state attorneys general accused Google of building a search and advertising monopoly and using its market power to stifle competition.
One measure of a company’s mounting monopoly power is the trail of mergers and acquisitions it leaves behind. Google, no surprise, has made hundreds of acquisitions since its 1998 founding, many of which have helped it carve out 90% of the US search market. Based on the arguments laid out in the Justice Department’s lawsuit, these are the deals that have made Google the dominant search provider in the US—all the way back to its 2005 takeover of Android, which did more to cement its search ascendancy than any other purchase.
Gobbling up the digital advertising market
In 2007, Google bought digital ad vendor DoubleClick for $3.1 billion. DoubleClick’s ad-serving technology and its connections with thousands of digital publishers fit neatly with Google’s search algorithms and massive roster of marketing clients. At the time, Google was 10 times smaller and competing with Yahoo! and Microsoft—but the deal allowed it to monetize search much more effectively than the competition. Google has since bought up a slew of rival ad vendors, including AdMob, Invite Media, Admeld, Applied Semantics, and Sprinks.
A former member of the US Federal Trade Commission who voted to approve the deal told the New York Times, “If I knew in 2007 what I know now, I would have voted to challenge the DoubleClick acquisition.”
Monopolizing travel deals
In 2010, Google paid $700 million for ITA Software, which licensed a tool for finding flight deals to travel search engines like Hotwire and Orbitz. Before the purchase, Google didn’t have a travel product; afterward, it owned the ITA search engine its rivals relied on, and it developed Google Flights, which keeps searches for travel deals on its own platform.
By expanding into niche search functions like travel deals, Google has built itself into a one-stop shop that’s hard for other companies to compete against. In their complaint, US prosecutors argued that narrow search engines like Amazon, Expedia, or Yelp aren’t a real alternative to Google’s all-encompassing approach. “There are no reasonable substitutes for general search services, and a general search service monopolist would be able to maintain quality below the level that would prevail in a competitive market,” they wrote.
Scooping up user data
By shelling out $1.1 billion for Waze in 2013, Google neutralized an ascendant rival to its Maps product and gained access to software that could make its offering better. But the real prize was a new trove of users’ location data, which allowed the company to hone its search results and better target ads to them. As an increasing share of mobile devices came preloaded with Google Maps, the Waze acquisition made Google’s services even more omnipresent and inescapable.
One acquisition monopolized the US prosecutors’ attention (and 22 of the 64 pages in their complaint): Google’s purchase of Android in 2005 for $50 million. The deal that bought Google its open source operating system is, more than any other, responsible for the tech giant’s continued dominance in the search and digital advertising markets.
Mobile devices have been the fastest growing source of global search traffic, now accounting for about 60% of all searches, and Android runs on seven out of every 10 mobile devices on Earth. As the suit details, that saturation has allowed Google to cut deals with smartphone makers and cell carriers to establish itself as the default search engine on most of the world’s devices.
Key provisions in Android licensing deals require manufacturers to preload Google apps onto their devices and make Google the default search engine. Google is even the default search engine on all Apple devices, thanks to a multibillion-dollar deal with Apple that accounts for 15-20% of the phonemaker’s revenue. In many cases, it’s confusing and cumbersome for consumers to figure out how to switch to a different default search engine—and most of the time, they don’t.
To seal the deal, Google throws in generous revenue sharing agreements to split the proceeds of digital advertising and Google Play Store sales. “The combined result of Google’s preinstallation and revenue sharing agreements is to lock up all the main pathways through which consumers access search on Android devices, thus foreclosing rivals and protecting Google’s monopoly positions,” the prosecutors argued.
That puts Google in a powerful position to maintain its grip on search, especially as the share of searches that occur on mobile devices continues to grow. And 15 years later, as Google comes under scrutiny for its exclusionary and anticompetitive tactics, its OS may just determine how much courts force the company to change its corporate strategy.
The used car is a hot commodity in the US right now. From June to September, the typical cost of a used car soared by 15%. The increase is so dramatic that it’s had a major impact on the government’s inflation numbers.
Even with higher prices, sales of used cars are strong. In August, they were at about $12 billion, almost $1.6 billion higher than at the same time last year.
There are three main factors driving the demand and higher prices for used cars, all having to do with Covid-19. First, economic uncertainty tends to drive consumers towards used cars—a big investment in a new car during a recession just doesn’t make sense when your job feels tenuous. Second, many essential workers who would normally use transit are opting to get a car out of fear of contracting the virus on public transportation. Finally, factory shutdowns in early 2020 limited new car options, leading more consumers to look to the used market.
With Covid-19 continuing to ravage the US, there is little reason to think these trends won’t continue. Sky-high used car prices will likely be the norm for the foreseeable future.
Complaining about the US ballot is centuries-old American tradition. Every election cycle, critics lament how unwieldy, ugly, or downright confusing the voting form is. With the spike in voting by mail this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, many more are noticing how puzzling the piece of paper truly is as they fill out their ballots at home. Turns out, the ballot’s confusing design is less a weakness of America’s participatory democracy than a sign of its robustness.
Americans can cast a vote several ways. They can go to a polling station on Election Day or do it in advance via a mail-in absentee ballot; many states allow early in-person voting as well.
Voting online isn’t widely available for federal elections. This year, 32 states and the District of Columbia are accepting ballots submitted via a mobile app, fax, e-mail, or an online portal, but this method is mostly reserved for military personnel serving overseas or civilians living abroad. While countries like Australia, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, Norway, and Switzerland have have embraced some form of remote voting via the internet, experts caution that it’s not useful to compare them with the American context. That’s because the US operates on a much larger and complicated scale.
And so, old-fashioned paper is still the most common and secure voting medium in the US. An estimated 95% of voters will manually fill out and send forms by postal mail, deposit in a drop box, or feed their paper ballots to a machine that produces an auditable paper record at a voting center.
By many measures, the design of the American paper ballot is a disaster. Researchers point out that elements such as its layout and length make it the most complicated voting instrument in the world, and one of the most ineffective. A 2005 study published in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Politics indicates that nearly 2 million votes were rejected from each of the US presidential elections held between 1992 and 2004 because ballots were marked incorrectly.
Many Americans are still traumatized by the Florida butterfly ballot debacle of 2000. For 36 days, the nation held its breath as election officials scrutinized and debated hanging, swinging, dimpled and pregnant chads—paper fragments when a hole is made in a punch card style ballot—a bureaucratic farce that eventually ended in the election of president George W. Bush. The spectacle was an indelible demonstration of how the graphic design of ballots can directly impact the results of an election.
The problem is worse for Americans living abroad who receive absentee their ballots electronically. Without pre-printed forms, they’re required to not only parse the jumble of instructions, but to print the documents and complete a fairly involved origami project to construct the mail envelope. Sixteen states require voters to seal their ballot in a second envelope called the “secrecy sleeve.” Those who deviate from these instructions risk nullifying their vote.
The ballot’s dismal design is arguably more acute today, given that we’re so spoiled with great design interfaces everywhere—from intuitive tech devices to easy-assemble furniture and nimble mobile apps that allow us summon virtually any service instantly. UX designers, for better or worse, have excelled in eliminating hurdles or points of friction in every step of business processes.
This user-focused ethos somehow doesn’t translate to elections.
But if the paper ballots are so bad, why can’t states just start from scratch? Like so many aspects of the democratic system, making any tweak, much less an entire redesign, isn’t as simple as it sounds. “You’re changing laws, culture, procedures and voters,” says Whitney Quesenbery, executive director of the Center for Civic Design. “But it can be done.”
The scope of the problem: hairball x 50
To critique the American ballot, one must grapple with the extent of the problem. First, there’s not one consistent ballot template adopted by across the country. Because the US operates under the distributed system, each state decides how they want to conduct elections, which has a direct bearing on the voting machines, procedures, and forms used.
“Ballots look like they do now because of laws,” explained Dana Chisnel, co-founder of the Center for Civic Design at a recent talk convened by AIGA. “Statute is the primary driver for ballot design and that includes things like type size and typeface, what the grid the ballot should follow, where things are placed, and what instructions say.”
Each state decides on the number of languages displayed on the form. In New York City, for instance, ballots in Brooklyn are presented in English, Spanish, and Chinese. Voters in Queens—the most ethnically-diverse urban area in the world—can also request ballots in Korean and Bangla.
The sequence of names on the ballot differs state by state too. In New York, names of Democratic candidates come first because the incumbent governor, Andrew Cuomo, is a Democrat. In Wisconsin, the party that garnered the most votes in the last general election is listed first, and the order of independent candidates is determined by lottery. In Louisiana, Maine, and Nevada, candidates are listed alphabetically by surname. (Sequence matters: a study by economist Darren Grant suggests that the order of names on the ballot often determines an election’s outcome, especially for lower-order races on the ticket like judges or state senators. Analyzing the results of the 2014 general elections, he found that the first name on the ballot often wins.)
Changing the paper ballot is also expensive. Any tweaks can involve upgrading a jurisdiction’s entire elections technology infrastructure. In a conversation with MoMA senior curator Paola Antonelli on Oct. 16, John Lindback, Oregon’s former director of elections, described how severely underfunded local elections are. Most local authorities have been depending on a $300 million fund from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to purchase basic items like PPE for poll workers. “This is so telling about how bad the situation is in terms of elections funding in this country—that we have to depend on wealthy individuals,” he said.
Not having a centralized civil registry complicates matters, adds Lindback. “There is no national ID so it depends on the initiative of the voter to go out and register to vote and to update their registration when they move or changed their name,” he explained. “In most places in the world, that’s done for you through the civil registry.”
A history of typographic trickery
Studying the history of American ballots has made Alicia Cheng appreciative of the achievements in improving the voting instrument since the 1800s. “American individualism and independent thinking are partly why we’re here,” says Cheng, author of a new book about the history of election ephemera titled This is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot.
In the 19th century, the task of printing ballots was left to political parties. Working with printers, parties produced a mind-boggling array of designs and deployed every graphic trick they could to gain an advantage. Voters received ballots, much like marketing flyers today, and voting entailed simply depositing the ticket of their chosen party into a box. “That type of free-wheeling spirit made for some delightful fodder for designy folks, but there’s just no regulation,” Cheng tells Quartz.
When voters began writing on ballots and swapping out names, political parties resorted to more typographic antics to foil them. This included using a gray background to make markings illegible, using very tiny fonts, or printing names along curved lines.
“It took a hundred years to get this boring and that’s progress,” says Cheng, referring to the statutes that govern contemporary ballot design. (Examples of these historical ballots in Cheng’s book are currently featured in an exhibition at the Cooper Union in New York City.)
“When I get aggravated by it, I calm down when I think about the scale we’re operating in,” she says. “It should hopefully galvanize us to be more patient, but also get in there and try to help.”
Designed by and for machines
In an attempt to introduce some consistency into the process, the US has experimented with all sorts of voting devices throughout its history—including brass balls, levers, tokens, and even beans and corn. In the 1970s, states began adopting computerized voting technology to improve their methods of tallying of votes. In the US, three types of machines are common: optical scanners; ballot-marking devices which produces a print-out based on choices logged on a screen; and direct-recording electronic technology where users register their votes via a touch screen.
Professional designers are rarely involved in designing ballots—or any aspect of the often chaotic voting procedures for that matter. Paper ballots are typically auto-generated by machines developed by vendors like ES&S (Election Systems & Software), Dominion Voting, and Hart Intercivic. Until recently, product developers haven’t been so attuned to design principles that would make it easy for humans to complete the forms. Ballots, in essence, were primarily designed by and for voting machines. The idea of creating a “voter-centered” experience is a fairly recent innovation.
Quesenbery, whose organization offer valuable design resources for election boards, says there’s reluctance over how much human designers ought to mess with machine-generated election forms. In the case of Los Angeles County, officials decided against making manual revisions for fear of inadvertently introducing human errors and inconsistencies. “One of the big mistakes we’ve seen on ballots involves someone trying to do a good thing,” she explains.
When designers get involved
Designers have a place in improving election design, beyond fiddling with fonts on a ballot form. Lindback cites the work of Marcia Lausen, a pioneer of the “design for democracy” initiative in response to the botched butterfly ballot incident. With her students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she improved the ballots for Cook County, Illinois, and inspired a generation of designers to tackle projects in the public sector.
“The system would be so much better if design was integrated into to every step,” said Lindback, who was a member of the US Election Assistance Commission’s Standards Advisory Board. “I have yet to come across a situation where designers didn’t make things better.”
Quesenbery points to Los Angeles’s Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP), a multi-stakeholder effort to improve the voting experience for largest jurisdiction in the US, as an example of how this could happen. “It’s a big project but isn’t it worth a hundred people spending the time to do the work carefully so that millions of people can vote?” she says.
A key collaborator was IDEO, the global design firm credited for popularizing the “design thinking” methodology. Embracing the “human-centered approach” they’ve applied to the design of products to business processes, IDEO’s team worked alongside a range of experts to improve every facet of the LA’s voting system, which hadn’t been updated since 1968.
“I can’t imagine a more meaningful space to design in,” says Annetta Papadopoulos, an executive program director at IDEO who led the team that worked with Los Angeles County. “I think designers bring a passion and a certain comfort level with questioning assumptions and constraints people hold on to.”
For mail-in ballots, designers revamped the form with the user’s ease in mind. They condensed all the information in a single sheet of paper, which was a vast improvement on the error-prone system when voters had to read a booklet and mark their choices on a punch card. They selected a new font, Google’s Noto, which they found had the best language support for a free typeface. Designers introduced ovals after learning that filling in the shape was easiest for people with motor impairments. A secrecy sleeve was included in the packet because they found out that voter confidence increased when their ballots were sealed in a second envelope. They also promoted the use of plain language in communication materials. And perhaps most importantly, designers introduced the spirit of open exploration to the entire process.
“Those vote-by-mail ballots are well, just beautiful,” says Quesenbery. “It’s a glimpse of what could be for the rest of the country.”