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Does The Constitution Need A Redesign?

In the age of the perpetual redesign, one branding agency has taken on America’s founding documents. Can design actually help promote constitutional literacy?

The original Constitution of the United States, housed in the National Archives, is instantly recognizable to anyone who studied U.S. history—think “We the People” in large, elegant script. But the Constitution most people read, if they read it at all, usually comes in the form of a pocket-size book or digitized, search-able text. Recently, a surge in enthusiasm for the documents have also compelled artists to copy the Constitution by hand, and the New York Times to print an annotated version in its Sunday paper.

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[Image: courtesy of ThoughtMatter]
Then there’s New York City branding agency ThoughtMatter, which has created its own version of the Constitution: a riso-printed, pink-and-blue booklet that wouldn’t look out of place at a zine fair. The agency has rendered the 230-year-old document in the common visual vernacular of today, in the hopes that it will help school kids learn about the Constitution. With a Kickstarter campaign for the project, which ended this past weekend, ThoughtMatter set up a buy-one-donate-one model to get the redesigned document into underserved schools.

It’s by far the most stylish Constitution this writer has ever seen. But in a time of intense political turmoil and deep partisan divisions—and a president who doesn’t seem to have read the Constitution—interest in these documents isn’t necessarily tied to the way they look. Which brings up the question: What is the benefit of redesigning the Constitution?

[Image: courtesy of ThoughtMatter]
For Julie Silverbrook, a lawyer and executive director of the Constitutional Sources Project, a constitutional literacy nonprofit in Washington D.C., the benefit is that eye-catching visuals have the potential to attract a new readership. Silverbrook believes that everyone should have access to the Constitution and an opportunity to read it in full. She’s the kind of person who gives out pocket constitutions on Halloween—complete with candy taped in the center to make sure kids will open it. After reading an article about ThoughtMatter’s redesigned Constitution in the Huffington Post, Silverbrook reached out to the agency to see how they could work together to get the Constitution in the hands of more people.

“[ThoughtMatter’s Constitution] is designed in a way to get you to actually open it,” Silverbrook tells Co.Design. The thing that drew her initially to the design was the pink paper—something she thinks will appeal specifically to women and girls, but also to kids and people for whom digging through a centuries-old document is not their particular thrill. “It’s not black, white, and red,” she says. “That gets people’s attention.”

[Image: courtesy of ThoughtMatter]
Silverbrook draws the connection between ThoughtMatter’s sleekly designed booklet and the emergence of the pocket Constitution decades ago. As Betsy Woodruff writes in a excellent article for Slate, while pocket Constitutions often bring to mind the riled-up Tea Party evangelists who contributed to their current popularity, the mini-booklets have actually been around since the mid-1960s. The pocket Constitution made an televised appearance during the Watergate hearings, thanks to Democratic senator Sam Ervin, chair of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices, who liked to wave his around to make a point. It’s been used for theatrical effect everywhere from the courthouse to the White House to presidential primary debates. And even in the digital age, it’s still common for lawyers and politicians to carry one around. “Citizens are guardians of the Constitution, and the pocket constitution was specifically designed for people to own it,” Silverbrook says. 

Advocacy organizations both liberal and conservative—from the ACLU to the Heritage Foundation—print them out en masse to distribute to people. The one that the Constitutional Source Project disseminates is the official version that the government prints. It was created over 30 years ago for the U.S. Bicentennial, and as Silverbrook sees it, it’s ripe for an update: “People interact and read visual text in a different way than they did 30 years ago,” she says. 

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[Image: courtesy of ThoughtMatter]
Enter ThoughtMatter’s redesign, made available through crowdfunding, the most modern of distribution methods. Besides a sleek typeface that riffs on the original script—which has been blown up on the cover touting the famed opening line—the constitution resembles neither the historical document nor its popular pocket-size successors. Instead of the traditional red, white, and blue, ThoughtMatter went for pink and a lighter shade of blue. The designers broke up the dense text with varying type size and hand lettering. They also printed blue-ink photographs of the Founding Fathers, landmarks, and events on alternating pages.

The way the book laid out is also meant to facilitate ease of reading: three different-size sections—containing the Preamble; the Bill of Rights, and Amendments 11-27; and the bulk of the Constitution’s text—are bound together into a finished book. While the agency did not alter the text in any way, they did consult with a few constitutional law professors to make sure their visual approach honored the intent of the original document, according to ThoughtMatter’s client services director Martha Kirby.

[Image: courtesy of ThoughtMatter]
For ThoughtMatter, the eye-catching design is a vehicle for getting kids interested in the Constitution. Like Silverbrook’s strategic Halloween candy-placement, the idea is to compel kids from grade school to high school and beyond to at least open it. Now that the campaign has ended (it closed Saturday after achieving nearly double its funding goal), ThoughtMatter is working with the Constitutional Sources Project, the Civics Renewal Network, and others dedicated to Constitutional literacy to bring the donated copies into under-resourced schools.

In Silverbrook’s view, there’s really no downside to getting out the information in the Constitution in whatever form will draw people to it. “Most Americans know very little about the Constitution,” says Silverbrook. “What I see with this increased attention toward, and artistic expression of, the Constitution is a way for us to capitalize on this renewed enthusiasm in order to give people the information that is valuable to them. Knowing the Constitution makes you a more active, thoughtful, and engaging citizen.”

At a time when so much of our daily reading comes to us in texts, tweets, and segmented out on card-based interfaces, perhaps focusing on the layout can make the Constitution more digestible to a modern audience. Doubly so if your attention span is as short as Trump’s. But in the quest for Constitutional literacy, it seems vital that the visual language doesn’t overshadow the actual language—which in this case describes the supreme law of the land. 

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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