The Role of Design in Government — Part 1

How designers can lead positive change.

Written on November 12, 2016

Let’s imagine a classroom; in it are thirty students. No two students are alike. Each comes from a different State and has a mix of cultural heritage.

Fifteen of the students have lollipops and the others are given nothing.

The teacher comes into the classroom with a timer and declares, “Every 15 minutes I want one student with a lollipop to hand it to a student without a lollipop.

The students grumble and a few shout out, “That’s not fair!”

Some students tearfully grip onto their lollipops; while others rip off the wrapper and start sucking. Their internal dialogue is something like, “I deserve this treat. And it’s mine!”

Ding! Ding! Ding!

As time progresses the students become agitated and more vocal.

Why can’t I keep my lollipop?!” They shout, “This isn’t fair!”

The students who are handed half eaten lollipops are equally annoyed.

What am I supposed to do with this gross lollipop?”, they wonder.

Some of the students hand the lollipops back to their original owners. Others throw them in the trash.

There are less and less lollipops and more and more unhappy students.

Eventually, one student gets up onto a chair and calls out to the group, “Everyone with a lollipop rise up! We will no longer willingly hand over our candy. The next time the bell dings punch every student without a lollipop in the face.”

That student is Donald Trump and those lollipops are white privilege.

This story is an over simplification of the issue, but it represents the concept of what happens when one group of people who expect to have something feel threatened. And it also illustrates that what we’re fighting over is inherently flawed to begin with.

Everyone agrees the political system needs reform. But here’s the thing, the role of government isn’t to fix everything. The role of government is to support. The changes we need are not going to come from a single source and they will not occur without citizen engagement. We are government. It is us.

Yesterday I had the distinct honor of bringing together the City of Austin’s Innovation Office and my colleagues at MU/DAI in an important session at Austin Design Week. (Side note: I applaud the organizers for putting on an incredible event and holding it during the 2016 US Election. The timing was serendipity at it’s finest. Bravo ladies and gentlemen!)

Three years ago, I met Kerry O’Connor the first appointed Chief Innovation Officer at the City of Austin. To say this intelligent woman impressed me is an understatement. In speaking with her I realized how deeply profound the role of a designer can be. Every time I meet with her I learn something. It was an almost instantaneous thought to involve her in some way with Austin Design Week.

Designers have skills to share.

My day job at MU/DAI entails a lot of “grey matter” and ambiguity. As a UX Designer and Researcher I draw inspiration from design constraints. I’m not really interested in what could be if there were no limitations because unless my end-user is some sort of perfect alien I must always acknowledge the poetic flaws of human beings and design with them and not against them.

I’ve had the honor of working on Government projects and I hope to do more of them. To some they are “bad” clients, but as I age and develop an an individual I see my role as a designer to teach and co-create. As a facilitator my job is to create the space for new ideas. There is nothing more rewarding to me than using my professional skills to improve the community I call home.

Initially Kerry and I planned to conduct a workshop, but after the election results Kerry called me saying she was inspired. She asked if it was ok to conduct a talk and not a workshop. When someone you consider a mentor tells you they’re inspired to deliver a message after one of the most profound events in American history you say ok. No questions asked.

Kerry opened the floor by asking attendees why they came to the session and how they’re feeling after the election. She honored each person. Everyone shared their thoughts and emotions. The result was powerful. A few tears were shed. We were no longer a group of strangers. We were friends in a shared emotional experience.

Within the Innovation Office, Kerry and her team have established a Design Fellows Program. One of the projects they’re working on is solving homelessness in Austin. Kerry spoke of the process being part of the solution.

Let’s pause on this thought for a moment.

The process is part of the solution.

Try repeating that sentence a few times. Maybe say it aloud.

The process is part of the solution.

What we find when we observe other people are aspects of ourselves. You could put two of the most opposing individuals at a table together and eventually they will find some shared experience or behavior.

The answers we seek are often in what makes us the same; not what makes us different.

Can the homeless teach us something?

In terms of the homelessness issue, what the team identified as a shared truth is that just about all of us struggle with adapting to new behaviors.

Kerry gave the example of weight loss. Initially you may just have the flashing thought, “My doctor says I should loose some weight. I wonder if that’s true?”

Later you’re playing with your dog and feel out of breath and you think, “I think I should start exercising more. I feel out of breath pretty easily.”

So then you start looking into options for what you might do to exercise more.

After some contemplation you find a gym to join.

You sign up for a bunch of classes and start exercising three times a week.

After a little while things get busy at work and you skip a few classes.

Before you know it you’ve stopped working out all together and you’re wondering if you should cancel your gym membership.

Sound vaguely familiar?

This is the same sort of cycle of behavior experienced by many people in our homeless population.

For those who find themselves on the street they’ve established friendships and have a strong sense of familiarity in their environment. Moving into temporary housing is a big adjustment; as are all of the activities that come with maintaining the ability to afford housing. Many times people feel isolated in their new environment. They relapse back into homeless because it feels familiar.

Returning to those students and their lollipops.

If you’re fortunate enough to have things that you value, it’s hard to let go of them. We feel secure in our right to the things we have; it’s very hard to receive the message that you need to share or you’re undeserving.

As the lesson from the homelessness research shows; changing behavior is really hard.

But I would argue that changing our perception is even harder.

What is the role of design in Government?

The role of design in Government is to cultivate empathy. On all levels. With all people. We need to learn to understand ourselves and each other in order to solve problems.

The types of problems we need to solve are organizational and societal. And it’s not about better ways for people to share lollipops. It’s questioning the existence of lollipops in the first place. And if we do in fact need them, how can we create more of them? And potentially more diverse flavors? Maybe our lollipops are limiting us to think small? Maybe the distribution model is flawed because we haven’t asked enough questions in order to really solve the problem.

In summary

There is so much more to say on this topic.

But for now I’ll end by sharing the call to action from our session yesterday.

Designers are uniquely qualified to teach others how to handle the unknown. We have a duty to our fellow American’s to lead them through self discovery and unpack their biases and assumptions to uncover the opportunities lurking below the surface. Go out into your community and teach. Find groups in your local area and ask to participate. Because we are all designers. Design thinking has nothing to do with aesthetic. This is not about drawing a picture to hang on a wall. The role of design in government is the process of producing ideas for change to create more inclusivity and diverse thinking resulting in innovation to fuel progress.

Designers go out and teach. Your country needs you.