U.S. Census 2000
Design, Civic, Case Studies
United States Census Bureau
Don Dillman, Two Twelve Associates, Yale Graduate Design Students

The Challenge

In 1995 the U.S. Census Bureau faced two major challenges: encouraging under-represented populations to fill in what had become a cumbersome decennial mail survey while reversing twenty years of declining response rates. The 2000 Census, distributed to 80 million households, presented an opportunity to study how a redesigned form might boost participation as well as public awareness of the Census brand.


Project Brief

Analysis of previous Census responses revealed that many participants skipped questions or answered inaccurately. These errors necesitated extra information verification, a time-consuming process. Given the cost of user-error, the design team focused on creating a more intuitive form that would take less effort to complete while yielding more accurate demographic data – and higher response rates.


Experts in language, data processing, user testing, marketing, printing, and graphic design collaborated on creating new forms appropriate for people from varied educational and language backgrounds. Sylvia Harris, creative director and project leader, briefed the team on participatory design methods and supervised systematic prototype testing. The new Census form ultimately evolved into a manageable one-page-per-person format. Each panel displayed bold type, clear fields, and graphic prompts to guide respondents through the form.



User-testing confronted basic assumptions including the notion that a more stylish envelope would encourage someone to open it. In fact, testing proved that people mistook attractive packaging for junk mail, whereas a more “official” envelope demanded attention.


The opposite proved true of the form inside: livelier designs encouraged better participation, as did numerous sidebars explaining the benefits of participating in the Census.




The 2000 redesign prompted higher response rates than the previous Census. In fact, the form proved so successful that the logotype and graphic standards remain in use. Usability research conducted by the design team continues to inform decisions about future Census designs.