Font Drama! Voters Squint, Typographers Wince at Poorly Designed Ballots

Election season is in full swing. The good news: only 48 more days of retina-searing signage (note to candidates: running for school board is no excuse to use Comic Sans). The bad news: once you get to the voting booth, there may be fresh design hell to endure. Earlier this year, a poor font choice—Calibri, 14-point—on a petition sparked a ballot brouhaha in Michigan. Justices on the state’s Supreme Court ended up discussing matters typographical in arguments that lasted for nearly two hours. “It strikes me that there’s a lot of uncertainty here,” said Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. of L’Affaire Calibri.

Even a design capital like New York City is not immune. Ballots used in last week’s primary election set the candidates’ names in wee 7-point type, prompting a flood of complaints, according to a report in today’s New York Times. “Particularly galling to some voters was that the tiny names often appeared beside a vast, unused white space on the ballot, raising questions as to why the designers simply did not enlarge the fonts,” noted writer Michael Grynbaum, who had the good sense to solicit an expert opinion (and later to deploy a pastry-based analogy):

“Wow, that’s tiny!” said James Montalbano, the founder of Terminal Design in Brooklyn, upon seeing a sample ballot. “Those names could be 40 percent larger and still fit.”

Mr. Montalbano knows legibility. He is a co-designer of Clearview, a font now recommended by the federal government for use on highway and street signs around the country.

“These names should be much bigger,” said Mr. Montalbano, who seemed somewhat aghast, a cake master considering a Pop-Tart. “The position they are running for is bigger than their names. Whoever designed this, it just seems like it’s a mess.”

“This was not designed by a typographer, believe me,” he added.