Design is a powerful approach – so why isn’t everyone doing it?

[Originally published on Australian Government DesignGov under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

Design/design thinking is an impressively powerful approach for reframing problems in ways that can be more easily dealt with or responded to. It can be the means to the end – the disciplined set of actions that lead you to a desired end state – of a new interaction, product, service, process, policy or even social change.

Personally I have found my time learning about design, working with and hearing from some very experienced designers eye-opening. I feel like I have a much more sophisticated way of approaching problems and a greatly expanded repertoire of tools that I can use.

From our time at DesignGov we have also heard many stories from others in the public sector, in the private sector and in the not-for-profit sector about the power of design. While it might not always be spoken of as design (see for instance Clayton Christensen talking about the customer), the importance of understanding how what you do intersects with the lived experience of those you are trying to affect (be it citizens, customers, clients or collaborators) is being increasingly recognised.

Design is also a very accessible discipline – it is diverse, it can be done in many different ways, and it complements many other disciplines (e.g. public policy, marketing and communications, law and science). There are many fantastic open (and free) resources to help you get started in using design tools and methods such as those on Coursera. Design is also scalable – you can use a little bit until you are comfortable with more sophisticated approaches.

There is also a growing crowd of people interested in design and in using it. Design is not an outlier anymore.

All of these developments are fortunate. Design is a much needed discipline, particularly as the world becomes more interlinked and interdependent and service providers and policy makers have to better understand and work closer with those they are trying to serve. Design offers a way to help the public sector better work with the community on the problems at hand.

Yet in my experience (limited as it is), design is still running into some considerable roadblocks, particularly in integrating with other existing practices within the Australian Public Service, and especially in the policy domain.

The following are some personal suppositions about why this might be the case. It is written from the experience of someone still very much learning about design, as well as someone advocating design more broadly as part of DesignGov. It is no means a reflection on the limitations of design (or designers), simply an attempt to articulate some of the issues that might be hampering the adoption of more sophisticated design approaches.

Culture clash

Policy, programs and services

There’s nothing like working with cross-agency problems and dealing with many different areas of government to help you realise that we are still a long way from realising the notion of ‘one’ Australian Public Service. In different areas there are different cultures and sub-cultures, with different emphases. Policy makers and service delivery providers often do not speak the same ‘language’ (or at least they speak with some varied accents and dialects). There is not always a common understanding around particular concepts or perspectives, and this can hamper collaboration.

Design has primarily entered the public service through the service delivery arms (e.g. the Australian Taxation Office, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection). This is not surprising as these areas of government have a much stronger link and interface with individual citizens. Design has been used extensively in the private sector for exactly such issues and interactions.

Policy makers on the other hand, particularly in the federal arena, can deal with relatively abstract issues – their connection with the lives of individual citizens can be more remote, more ambiguous, and over a lot longer period of time. Policy makers in many cases are relatively removed from those they are seeking to have an impact on. Policy makers can tend to focus on whole groups rather than individuals.

Design is very relevant to policy development – however I suspect that the background of design coming from services means that it is not always apparent to policy makers that this is the case.

Hard vs soft sciences

The policy world is also one that is very much influenced by economics (though that is not to say that all policy makers are happy about that…). Economics has always seemed to be at the ‘harder’ end of the social sciences, and to be more authoritative than many of the disciplines and understandings that have more immediate relevance in the service delivery areas. These include some of the ‘soft’ sciences like sociology, psychology, marketing, anthropology and demography. I would, somewhat tentatively, suggest that economics has been seen as being more ‘legitimate’ and more rigorous when it comes to decision-making.

Design however is more “fuzzy” and “messy”. It does not offer guarantees – you must have faith in the process and that it will get you to where you need to be, because when you are in the middle of it you may not have a good idea of where you will end up. You have to trust that the discipline of design will get you where you need to be because of its focus on people and how they will interact with what you are developing.

Though built on and supported by data, design relies on qualitative measures, clarity of meaning and testing out ideas. This fits uncomfortably with the perceived reassuring certainty of the evidence base of quantitative data, even though quantitative data may mislead as to what the real problem is or fail to understand why the problem is.

Generalists vs specialists

The policy world is filled with generalists. Policy often requires people to take from and use a variety of disciplines, skillsets and capabilities and to have a rough and ready understanding of a variety of subject matters. There can of course still be specialists, but generalists are the default.

I would argue that design is also a generalist ability. Yet there can be a perception that there are designers and then there are non-designers. I think design is an attribute, not a category or class.

To my mind, it is similar to innovation – anyone can innovate, though not everyone thinks they can or has the confidence to do so. Everyone designs, it’s just a question how sophisticated they are in doing it and how mature or comprehensive their design skills are. Some disciplines already teach some design elements, it’s just that design/design thinking can offer a more developed and sophisticated approach and array of techniques. These techniques can be incorporated into existing skill sets.

So, even more cautiously, I suggest that the perception of design as a specialist skill has hampered its adoption within the more generalist policy setting.

Style Clash

Professionalism vs partnership

Traditionally the public service has been a professional occupation, and as such it has been accompanied by a level of respect and authority associated with professions.

Design requires you to admit that you don’t know everything that you need to and that the people most likely to have the needed insights are those that you are trying to influence or help.

This can be a big adjustment – to recognise that your professional knowledge and skills are only part of what is important, and that for many problems a partnership approach is needed. Such a partnership approach requires a set of new and complementary methods and protocols. Though many welcome such a shift, I would suggest that it is still a change from the status quo and not something that is yet well embedded into public service practice.

Working styles

Design sits ill with a culture of ‘desk-bound perfectionism’. It is iterative and relies on fast failure. It is messy. It is unpredictable. These are all aspects that can sit uncomfortably with the traditional working styles of the public service.

Extroverts vs introverts

Design is full of extroverts (or at least it seems like it is to me). I’m not a big fan of mass generalisations such as separating the population into two categories, but I will say that the policy world has a lot of introverts. Design can seem loud and forcefully social in a way that can makes introverted-type people uncomfortable. There are many techniques to deal with this, and design is suitable for all types of people, but I put this forward as a possible explanatory factor.

Fad or forever?

Design thinking has many of the hallmarks of a management fad. It was shiny and new, it may have over-promised, and over time it has become more and more clear that it is not a ‘silver bullet’ for all complex problems. Even some of its past advocates are moving on to other frameworks.

As per my introduction to this post, I still think design is an important and needed capability. But the perception that this was yet another fad may have harmed the readiness for and acceptance of design, or at least delayed its adoption until the hype has worn off and the results are seen in context.

A personal reflection

This post is a personal reflection as someone who has come from public policy background and who has, over time, been exposed to and discovered the wonder and importance of both innovation and design. It is not meant to be a definite analysis of why design may have had difficulty in spreading into the policy world, more a suggested insight into why that might be the case. I’d love to hear from others though – do you think the above is part of the story, or is there more (or less) to it?