The July 4 Heller: A Newly Constituted Constitution

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The New York City branding agency ThoughtMatter just redesigned the U.S. Constitution to be more accessible and visually exciting to read. Their goal is to distribute copies to schools, libraries and other educational institutions in order to foster conversation about what freedom and democracy mean in present-day America. The not-for-profit project has been fully funded on Kickstarter. The lead designer is Wednesday Krus; I recently spoke to design director Jee-Eun Lee and Martha Kirby of ThoughtMatter about the project.

There couldn’t be a better time for an accessible reading version of the U.S. Constitution. But nonetheless, what was your impetus?Politicians always go on about the Constitution but this year it seemed we were hearing more of that than ever before, so we asked ourselves, “Do these folks actually know what they’re talking about?” We wondered if they’d even read it front to back, let alone thoroughly understand it. At times it appears as though they are just cherry-picking sections of it to further their own political arguments and ignoring the whole.

Turns out we found a surprising number of people in our own collective networks hadn’t read it or really didn’t know as much about it as we thought they would. So we decided to figure out why. The way we’ve seen it presented by other organizations was pretty much as dry as toast, which made us think, “How can we make this come alive through design? How can we invest it with the kind of intelligence that it represents, the kind of excitement that it deserves?”

We then approached the challenge the way we would any other project—an exploratory phase of different design approaches, layouts and printing techniques, narrowing in on the current design (more about the creative inspiration below).

We had, for a young firm like ours, a big success with the posters we designed and distributed for the Women’s March in DC and sister marches in January 2017, so we always are keeping our eyes open for other opportunities to marry our design skills with civic engagement.

How do you feel that this document will do the job better than other straight-text versions of the Constitution?We don’t necessarily think it will do a better job, because those versions have their place too. For instance, the ACLU pocket-sized Constitution makes perfect sense for someone who wants to carry it around. We wanted to introduce our Constitution to people who may never have read it or just encountered it in school. And to do that, we thought that an attractive, intelligent redesign was the way to go.

In an effort to modernize the 230-year-old document, we put a twist on the classic red and blue color palette using pink paper and “Federal Blue” ink. The book is printed using soy-based inks on a Risograph printer. Risograph printing was commonly used in schools and government offices in the 1990s as a cost-effective alternative to offset printing. We chose it because the wet ink process results in a tactile feel in your hands and a unique image quality reminiscent of silkscreen. For the typefaces, we paired an updated blackletter face with more classic serif and sans serif faces for readability, and some handwritten design elements. Images were sourced from the Library of Congress and National Archives.

We approached each aspect of the design as an opportunity to instill a deeper meaning to the document.

Is the digital version available with every copy?A digital version is currently in the works for a future roll-out, but we decided to focus on the printed version first because it’s been proven that people are more likely to retain information read in print versus in digital methods. We know they say print is dead, but we still value a printed keepsake that we can always go back to and pick up—something that can live on and be passed around.

Who are you aiming this at?Working in brand design, we always roll our eyes at a client brief that identifies the target audience as “everyone.” We know that a brand for everyone is a brand for no one. The great thing about the U.S. Constitution is that it is for everyone, regardless of age, race or gender. We did our best to focus on how we can use design to promote accessibility of the document regardless of partisanship, aesthetics or demographics.

If we were to target a specific audience within the “everyone” demographic, it would certainly be students. Our goal is to distribute the Constitution to schools nationwide and provide a tool for learning that will appeal to a young person and stand out amongst typical textbooks.

How do you hope to distribute?Once the Kickstarter campaign ends, we will be polling our backers to determine where they would like to see the books donated. Following the Kickstarter we are exploring a number of avenues for distribution and are currently planning a larger initiative in hopes of increasing the number of copies distributed.

Have you had any response so far?We have exceeded our Kickstarter goal and were featured in an article on Huffington Post. Soon after launch we were selected as one of Kickstarter’s “Projects We Love,” and later featured on The Dieline, the Peak Design newsletter and Visible Resistance. Everyone we talk to about it has big ideas of how to grow this project, and we certainly are excited to continue the momentum.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →