“They say they want to be a design-thinking nation.”

In 2010 I worked for a small (and rapidly growing) government contracting firm — a beltway bandit with big, monotonous proposals that generated 7 digit sums and covered about 3 encyclopedias-worth of information. I was their graphic designer, and while I toned it down and dressed up business casual every day, I somehow still stood out as the resident creative. I maintained a human element in my approach to things that people really liked – people enjoyed having me around, liked working with me, and were always surprised by how quickly and thoroughly I got things done.

I wasn’t nearly as well-educated or hard-working as most of the people in that office; a lot of them were brilliant Navy veterans and business-thinkers. I wasn’t more intelligent; I’m just a design-thinker. I got things done faster because they could be done faster, so I did them that way. Did no one else see the insanity in receiving 40-page Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that could have been written as 2-page project briefs? Apparently not, because we sent back proposals over twice as long.

Graphic designers and design-related creatives haven’t always been viewed as powerful thinkers and innovators with skills applicable to almost every business, but today it’s becoming the universal understanding. Every time I’m back home in the Washington DC area surrounded by the government suits, I want to shake someone and yell “DON’T YOU SEE WHAT YOU’RE MISSING?”

Well I feel a strange sense of personal pride in observing that, in fact, they do. This Metropolis Mag article on IDEO’s growing numbers of government clients illustrates that slowly but surely, big business and government is changing their snide looks to total envy. Their projects with the Social Security Administration and the General Services Administration created a huge buzz in the DC circle because word got out that employees who participated in the IDEO workshops had a ton of fun. Finally government is understanding that maintaining the human element doesn’t make things too casual — it makes people work harder and produce better work.  

My mother works in the State Department, and there too it’s clear that what the government needs isn’t necessarily complicated policy solutions: they are just desperate for more young, energetic, tech-savvy creatives, and they’re doing all they can to attract them to government jobs.

Beyond my excitement that creative-izing my home city of Washington, DC might be in the process of realization, it’s incredibly important to the country as a whole that a major change is brewing in Washington. The solution to the government roadblock on progress will be adopting design-thinking, and governments around the world are realizing that for themselves. In the high echelons of the Singapore government, “they say they want to be a design-thinking nation.”

Peter Hall, author of the article, ends with an insightful note on design for all:

Design in the twenty-first century, after all, is not really about brilliant solo designers imposing solutions on lucky recipients. It is more about designers introducing methods that can be adopted and adapted by their host organizations. This is a big, ambitious redefinition of the term, far removed from the widely held view that design is ultimately about the styling of consumer products to boost the sales curve and, eventually, the landfill. To that extent, IDEO’s government work seems a worthy and important project for the profession as a whole.

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