Why We Need Design Thinking in Politics

Nate Baldwin
Jan 21, 2017 · 5 min read

I hope not to offend; only to enlighten.


What is Design Thinking?

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” — Tim Brown, president and CEO, IDEO

Design thinking is a fluid, research and data-driven approach to identifying a problem, the people it affects, exploring solutions with users, and continually integrating and improving the solution with the end users. In the industry, design thinking is typically used in software or product design, but the implications of this process reach farther beyond tech design.

Design thinking already influences business strategies as well. Companies like Airbnb, Square, Pinterest, Wunderlist, Kickstarter, Twitter, and Flickr were founded by designers (source). Their successes are a tribute to the power of design as a key pillar of business.

What does Design Thinking entail?

User research is a key aspect of Design Thinking. Identifying who your target users are, and speaking with them 1:1 (and frequently) is critical to the process. Building a rapport allows you to personally understand the problems they face, and what they would need in order to solve their problems. Along the way, designers continually touch-base with users in the form of interviews, user testing, usability studies, (as well as a few other methods) in order to test and validate their solutions.

There is no such thing as a group of designers huddling in a cave for months and gloriously emerging with the holy-grail of designs, gilded in shimmering light, having perfectly solved their users’ needs in the first go. No-way. Designers have a mantra we live by: Fail fast. Succeed faster. Because the faster you fail, the faster you learn; and learning necessary to solve real problems for real people.

Stand-up guy, that Edison was.

A Problem with our Government

In our current state of affairs, our government seems to have a mantra that is the antithesis of progress. Written loud and clear, they live by this concept: Disrupt, Repeal, Repeat. And if you don’t get your way, throwing a temper tantrum may help.

Disrupt, Repeal, Repeat.

Politician happily engages in civil discussion with disagreeing peers. Image source: NPR

Disrupt: Any time there’s an issue that arises from public interests, leaders and government officials are quick to pass radical legislation that comes with swift, sometimes life-changing negative effects to our people. When Obama reformed health care, although the bill passed the house, it was a completely partisan vote (no Republicans voted for it). There was no agreement or compromise. Seemingly overnight there was a positive change and an equally negative wake hitting people and companies that were not anticipated.

Repeal: Leaders and government officials love to pull the ‘mulligan’ card and simply repeal whatever laws were passed, regardless of any directional progress they may have initiated. Didn’t like Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act)? No worries, President Trump is already repealing it.

And Repeat.

Peanut Gallery. Image source: Washington Post

Why We need Design Thinking in Government

This is the frustrating whirlwind ride we all go on. Disagreements between parties keep us from making any stable form of progress. They happen so often, and are so uncompromising that Government Shutdowns might as well be considered a trend.

Our politicians live in a bubble, where they shut themselves in a cave for a period of time only to emerge gloriously with ludicrously lengthy bills, preaching their glory as if they reached their solution by grace and wisdom of God. Sometimes, they simply pass what they think they should pass; sometimes they pass what has an earmark with their name on it. And if or when things fail, they repeal the entirety of it, and try again.

The designers of our laws, our freedoms, our rights, and the processes they abide by are broken. It only takes a glance at the introduction to our great constitution to see we’re not on the right track.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. — Preamble to the United States Constitution

In order for our government to better serve us, the People, their process should be user-centered. By the people, for the people.

We need to thoroughly research the problems themselves. Who are the people most affected by the problem? What is the problem, really? How does it impact the people it affects? And how can we try to solve it? And never taking a biased view from the perspective of special interest groups or corporate entities that seek financial or regulatory gain. Once we identify a problem and hypothesis, we test. Test and iterate.

The easiest way for us to start is to iterate upon that which already exists. The solution to the perceived “failure” of the Affordable Care Act is not to throw it away and disrupt the People and the systems again. The best solutions come with research and iteration. And the iterations must be watched with a sharp, keen eye, as to identify problems the instant they become visible, so as to buffer any major impact they may create down the road.


I work within the realm of user-centered design and its benefits are very familiar to me. Design Thinking is a scientific, human-centered, and empathetic process that yields the best designed solutions. It gets us to a platform of understanding the people and their problems; with firm understanding and empathy, along with continuous innovation, we can create the best solutions.

I hope that more people can agree that regardless of political party or stance, a government educated and practicing design thinking methodologies will help us all to create a more perfect Union.

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