Meet the new force shaking up city halls: designers

Austin’s Katherine Duong says design thinking is new to city hall: “Nobody had really tried to go deep into people’s lives and experiences before.”

If you’ve never worked with a designer before — and that’s most people in local government — you may be confused about what they do. Are they artists? Do they make plans for buildings? Indoor spaces? Outdoor spaces? Websites? Consumer goods?

“What is a designer?” laughed Katherine Duong, who works as one for the city of Austin, Texas. “That’s a question I still grapple with today.”

It’s an increasingly frequent — and relevant — question in city halls across the U.S. and around the world. Looking to improve services and reduce costs, a growing number of cities are hiring designers to shake up how they work with citizens and solve problems. Most of the 20-plus cities with innovation teams (i-teams) — cross-disciplinary teams funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies to drive new ways of thinking — have at least one designer on staff.

“Designer” is a broad term covering many sub-specialties. Most of the designers coming into city halls right now practice what’s known as “human-centered design.” They’re defined less by what they build than by their approach to solving problems; they start by trying to understand what citizens need, and then work backward to find solutions.

Simple as that sounds, a designer’s approach can represent a radical shift from the way things normally work in government. Public-sector problem solving usually starts with experts, not citizens, and is typically boxed in by both real and perceived limitations, as well as precedent. Designers are trained to challenge assumptions, and work creatively within constraints.

“A lot of us in public policy were trained to think in a very linear way,” said Tracy Colunga, who, as head of the innovation team in Long Beach, Calif., employs a couple of designers. “Designers help us look at projects in a circular way, constantly iterating and then going back to improve them.”

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While the new city designers come from different backgrounds and play different roles within their teams, they tend to have several things in common:

  • Designers are driven to find solutions to complex problems and are good at breaking big complicated issues down into manageable chunks.
  • They view problems and solutions from the perspective of the people experiencing it — the humans in “human centered design.”
  • Designers look for the root cause of a problem, rather than the symptoms of it, which is often where government solutions are unknowingly targeted.
  • They build empathy for the people impacted by the problem—frequently through extensive interviews, anthropological observation, and other field research.
  • They bring tools that are often missing in public-policy discussions, such as visual thinking, prototyping, rapid testing, and a drive to co-create policies and programs with citizens.
  • Most come with private-sector experience or academic backgrounds because design is a relatively new discipline in local government.

To help city leaders better understand who these new designers are and what value they bring to government, Bloomberg Cities spoke with several of them. Here’s what designers from four cities had to say.

Katherine Duong, Austin: ‘People are grateful to be listened to’

Katherine Duong went to the University of California, Berkeley to study architecture, but found herself more interested in human behavior than buildings. In her first job out of school, she worked for healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente on a project focused on designing a better hospital room for patients. “The idea was to create a healing space instead of one filled with all these beeping machines,” she said. “You can’t heal if you’re full of anxiety and stress.”

Duong later moved to Austin and found a job with the city’s innovation office. One of her first projects focused on increasing the city’s recycling rate. She interviewed residents, observed their recycling habits, and picked up on things she couldn’t have seen from behind a desk. For example, residents with small kitchens simply couldn’t squeeze in a recycling bin. “We talked to die-hard recyclers and those who don’t recycle at all,” she said. “When we brought the different perspectives back to the Trash and Recycling Department, it was information they didn’t know.”

Duong’s current role in Austin is to build a research foundation that supports the innovation team’s work. Other team members focus on data analysis and designing services, leaving her to lead the charge for going out and talking to people. For a recent project on homelessness, she and a colleague led interviews with more than 120 people to better understand the many reasons people fall into homelessness. “This is new to city hall,” she said. “Nobody had really tried to go deep into people’s lives and experiences before.”

Duong said city work comes with more stakeholders and fewer resources than in healthcare. But thanks to Austin’s open-data policies, it also comes with more transparency, which she likes. “The thing that keeps me motivated is the joy I see in people when feel like they are heard,” she said. “People are grateful to be listened to.”

Sarah Auslander, Tel Aviv: The ‘human advocate’

A few years after opening a ceramics studio in Israel, Sarah Auslander decided she wanted to switch from designing with materials to looking at ways organizations design services and strategies. She then earned a master’s degree in design management and worked for several companies in the health care and financial services sectors.

When she applied for a job with Tel Aviv city government, the i-team director brought in a friend from the local design school to help with the interview. “They weren’t sure what questions to ask me, or how to assess my abilities,” Auslander recalled. “It’s such a new discipline in the municipal field.”

That newness has given Auslander room to shape her role. One of her responsibilities is to take the mayor’s overarching priorities for the i-team and break them into bite-sized pieces to avoid making mistakes the city made in the past. “My role as a designer is to say, ‘This is too big’,” she said. “‘Let’s figure out how we narrow it down and reframe the challenge into something we can work on and create impact and value for the municipality.’”

Another role is to be “the human advocate at the heart of the process.” In terms of research, that means making sure the team talks to residents and truly understands their perspectives. For a project aimed at reducing loneliness among the elderly, the team not only interviewed seniors but also asked them to fill out a calendar of activities from their previous seven days. “This gave us a visual map of how busy they are and when they are alone,” she said. As a result, they could find root causes of challenges they are facing in a tangible, less abstract way, and “talk about when they feel lonely in a less embarrassing or aggressive manner.”

When it comes to developing solutions, Auslander has injected prototyping — a common tool from her private-sector work — into Tel Aviv’s processes. The idea is to break new approaches down into small things that can be tested, get user feedback quickly, and continuously improve with each iteration. When developing a new school lunch service the i-team tested three different ways of serving lunches, and different cafeteria layouts built out of cardboard, before settling on an approach that worked.

[Read: Unleashing the power of public prototyping]

“I’m super interested in prototyping because it’s a new way of working in the public sector,” Auslander said. “In the public sector, we’re not measured by creating profits, we’re measured on improvements we make in quality of life. That’s such a great thing to be involved in.”

Elliott Payne, Minneapolis: Prototyping with purpose

Elliott Payne likes to show, not tell. So when he recently spoke with city employees about pain points in the city’s procurement process, he created an animated GIF to represent a possible software solution. It wasn’t polished, but the visualization suddenly made abstract ideas seem real. “They were like, ‘Oh my god, can you build that right now?’” Payne said.

That’s typical for Payne. As the Minneapolis i-team’s designer, he often finds himself taking ideas trapped in Microsoft Word documents and turning them into concrete representations that people can see or touch. “Many people in government use memos as a crutch,” he said. “My crutch is a visual prototype.”

Payne started his career as a mechanical engineer, working in manufacturing. He later shifted to building software and then moved toward design while working for a digital advertising firm. With the i-team, he works across city departments on big challenges like tackling the wealth gap and other disparities between white residents and residents of color.

Through the i-team’s community engagement process, Payne heard that minority-owned businesses were struggling to navigate the city’s bureaucracy for landing contracts. And that’s how he found himself focused on the procurement process — and creating that animated GIF. While the software solution Payne prototyped would take some time and money to develop, the city has already made it easier for small businesses to compete for certain contracts.

[Read: Minneapolis looks to give minority-owned small businesses a boost]

While many designers think and work visually, Payne said city hall colleagues shouldn’t assume designers are all about aesthetics. Rather, it’s the design process that matters. “It’s experimenting, looking to diverse source material for inspiration and insights, and taking those diverse perspectives and combining them,” he said. “Design is the whole process you take to get to that pretty outcome.”

Heather Barker, Long Beach, Calif.: Advocate for the design process

As a design professor at California State University, Long Beach, Heather Barker is always looking for partner organizations that can use her students’ help. That’s how she found the Long Beach i-team. Over two semesters, Barker’s students researched and modeled the steps required to start a business in Long Beach. Their work laid the foundation for what became BizPort, a city website that gives entrepreneurs everything they need to know in one place.

Barker enjoyed working with the city so much that she joined the i-team as its lead design consultant. The problems designers get to work on in the public sector, she said, can be more rewarding than industry work. “If you’re working on the interface for the navigation system of an Audi A3, that’s all you’re doing,” she said. “In a city you can say: ‘What if you don’t even need to drive?’ It opens up the challenges a lot more because it’s such a big system to work in.”

Part of the value designers bring to city hall, Barker said, is that “working through a design process is an inductive method rather than a deductive one.” In other words, when the mayor handed the i-team a problem to work on — improving public safety — they didn’t follow a typical government path of trying to narrow it down to one “best” solution. Rather, they allowed their research to open up many avenues to lots of possible solutions — and then implemented seven of them.

For example, after interviewing more than two dozen repeat offenders who had been in and out of jail multiple times, the i-team devised a plan to have a clinician stationed at the jail. Most of the repeat offenders, it turns out, have chronic health conditions or an underlying situation like homelessness. The clinician coordinates with medical, housing, and other services to make sure people are released from jail directly into a support network that can help keep them from coming back.

Another initiative connected people coming out of incarceration to education opportunities. The team’s extensive stakeholder engagement uncovered groups who were already working in this area, such as a local church, who wanted to get involved. Rather than creating and funding a new program, the i-team bolstered the existing ones by connecting them with each other.

“It was important on two levels,” Barker said. “First, because the human-centered design process is so big and inclusive and draws on so many voices, that we found the strongest and most articulate advocates possible for the population that we as a city were looking to support. And second, the initiative is more resilient and sustainable because the ownership of it belongs outside city hall.”

Barker said working in the public sector can be slower and more difficult than in the private sector, owing to the need to build buy-in with departments that may not be familiar with a design-led process. “About one-third of the job is consistently having to advocate for the process itself,” she said. But she already sees signs that this is changing. “Eventually, I hope to be out of work,” Barker said, “because human-centered design will be integrated into everything we do.”