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Pretty in Policy

“Beauty is powerful, it is not frivolous” - Emily Weiss

Pictures: Anna Sullivan

It is an indisputable fact that today’s society has undergone a minor cultural revolution. The proliferation of Instagram and other graphics-based social media platforms has left us enamored of all things beautiful – curated, aesthetically pleasing, and “Instagram worthy.” Social influencers and bloggers have found a market for the consumption of good design within the confines of a 3×3 square, and industries have followed suit. The shift explains the thousands of marble printed items at furniture and clothing stores, the exposed brick walls and token Edison lightbulbs at collaborative “design” or “work” spaces, and the ever-expanding makeup and beauty market with products that pledge to be “for a good cause.”

Lacking actually different products than the majority of the businesses in the field, marketing teams have turned to tactics of “personhood,” notes Amanda Mull in her fiery critique of Feminist Apparel. Brands like Feminist Apparel have resorted to “selling alignment” to move their products off the shelves. Worse, they have resorted to selling aesthetics under a facade of “wokeness” and change.

“Brands don’t have the capacity for ideology beyond capitalism,” Mull notes. Rather, they “anesthetize aesthetics of radical politics” in order to sell, capitalizing on the people: those that simultaneously crave the beautiful AND political change. “The marketing arms of these corporations have sensed changing cultural values among their customers and taken that opportunity to adopt the aesthetic of good politics, and they have asked shoppers to choose them based on how well they pantomime the real activities that might make a difference.”

For all of these brand’s shortcomings, the reciprocal of Mull’s argument also stands true. Mission-driven, as opposed to market driven, organizations that have the capacity to actualize and create political change could learn a few marketing lessons from their capitalistic counter-parts.

Over the years, government, advocacy, and non-profit organizations have seemed to standardize the stale. Oceans of taupe and gray and windowless cubicles, eye-glaze-inducing websites that are nearly impossible to navigate effectively, and excruciatingly long documents packed to the brim with unapproachable jargon have become the “norm” for policy organizations in the United States. These organizations have failed to aesthetically evolve with the incredibly diverse range of people they represent, their stalwartness yielding inaccessibility and stagnation.

The culture this creates is pervasive. Last year, I spent twenty minutes debating with a shoe store employee if a subtle gold heel was too shiny for my government office. A friend has repeatedly told me people at her think tank are more likely to answer her questions if her hair is in neat braids, as opposed to its natural state. A student I help teach advanced English to once told me he wanted to read an immigration policy to make sure his parents would not be deported, but it just “looked too boring.” USA Jobs is, in fact, a black hole. But, beyond this standard complaint, Native American friends have told me that they felt limited to jobs with the nifty “Native Americans” sun logo, often only applied to medical and reservation-related positions. There are no “additional paths” filters or stereotypical logos for other races or ethnicities.

Design is a tool for translation that, so far, has hardly been used. Policy organizations should create spaces in which the modern American citizen feels comfortable.

To put it simply, there are ingrained expectations of aesthetics in U.S. policy institutions that do not mirror that of its citizens. They curate a homogenous “type” who does not dress too colorfully, who has the patience to deal with websites with bad user interfaces, and who has all the wonky acronyms memorized perfectly. Often, it should come as no surprise, this type is older, white, and has a comfortable middle-class socio-economic background. Over the years, these bureaucracies have socialized their constituents to reject practices of good design that the rest of society has warmly embraced, propelling the institutions into a negative feedback loop that seems to exponentially distance the actors creating policy from the people said policies are meant to benefit.

In 2015, renowned designer John Maeda presented verifiable data, largely targeting private industries that confirmed: “design is more integral to good business than ever before.” He argues that good design has the ability to take something painful (i.e. finances, exercise, etc.) and shape it into a positive experience. Companies with an emphasis on good design are actively thinking about their users and their respective viewpoints. Should that not be the case with agents of policy as well? There is power in clean and compelling design, and there is power in meeting your audience at the intersection of aesthetics and change.

“I believe that creativity and inclusion are two sides of the same coin,” Maeda has argued. “They’re necessary things. If you care about design, you have to care about inclusion.” This new field of design is, at its foundation, “creating products and services that attempt to reach the broadest range of people possible.” Maeda further explains, “Design culture isn’t the priority… [the priority] is to help the community to unlock its own ability to understand.”

Policy fields in America are at the moment are (arguably) competent at actualizing change. Yet they are incompetent at leaping over generational and cultural boundaries, inherently limiting the realities of socio-political change. By beginning with this problem, the gap between policy and the people, policy institutions have the ability to build coalitions around said problem, using design, without commoditizing politics. The solutions will invariably compliment the existing structure, but will no longer depend on policy creation and implementation operating in a vacuum of old white men.

As Nada Bakos recently put it, “The foreign policy and national security community needs to start talking to citizens in a language that they understand.”

Design is a tool for translation that, so far, has hardly been used. Policy organizations should create spaces in which the modern American citizen feels comfortable. It is a psychological fact that “the spaces we occupy shape who we are and how we behave.” Designing an office space with color, natural light, and plants easily provides a sense of inclusion, while not detracting from the seriousness of the policy process. Eliminating or expanding the boundaries of constrictive Western standards of business casual dress inherently appeals to people with more diverse backgrounds. Creating websites that empathize with the ways in which citizens and employees actually use their devices, and that understand what drives web-based experiences, can make policy change, education, and understanding more accessible and convenient. This is especially true in policy education. A friend once told me, “Hey, I clicked on that link you shared because it looked really cool, but then it was just a bunch of facts about nuclear weapons.” Creating more visibly engaging and aesthetically appealing design, paired with digestible yet reliable information, will amiably and inclusively welcome the next generation of policymakers into the field.

It is time that agencies and institutions that have the ability to create the political change that today’s society desires speak in a language its citizens understand. In today’s evolving and digitally influenced world, accessible and aesthetically pleasing design is the way forward. Policy will always be a tool for change, but it must learn to adapt and listen to its ever-changing audience.

Jamie Withorne


Jamie Withorne is a Research Assistant and Office Manager with the Middlebury Institute in Washington D.C., and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Prior to joining CNS and MIIS, Jamie has held research and policy internships at Global Zero, the American Enterprise Institute, and the U.S. Department of State. Her research interests include emerging technologies, missile defense, and arms control agreements.


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