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Trials and Triumphs of Designing for Government

Written by
Claire Blaustein
Published
May 2, 2017
Categories

When I joined the federal government five years ago, I didn’t think I’d survive the first six months. After years of working for tiny startups and small arts organizations, the sheer size of what I was approaching terrified me. Some of how I did my job wasn’t just about company policy, it was literally the law. And there was the sense that the “way of doing things” was not so much set in stone as etched in diamond.

One of the things that made it easier for me was finding AIGA DC, and specifically DotGovDesign, a group of designers involved in government who get together to build community, improve standards across agencies, and help each other be better designers.

Through attending events and volunteering with the group, I found out that others shared my feelings about working for government.

That it’s huge. And frustrating. And slow. And often ridiculous.

And powerful. And fulfilling. And so exciting.

Many frustrations are the similar to those we would find most places — we’re overworked, underappreciated, and misunderstood (though at least in my experience, the government takes some of these to new and special heights). But there is a reason we do what we do.

So, I’m offering a few of the particulars of being a designer in government.

 

We’re well kept secrets … sometimes even to each other.

Not many people who do design work in the government get a title of “designer.” IT specialist, Management and Program Analyst, Public Affairs Specialist, Visual Information Specialist (my personal favorite) and plenty of others — any and all of these could be spending the majority of their time in design. If you didn’t know them personally, you’d never know they are your allies.

While the world as a whole is broadening the definitions of what big-d Design is, much of government tends to still see it as a product, not a process. More often than not, it’s the shiny thing you get back when you send your copy off to the contractors. For people like me, whose design work is focused on content and process more than graphics, we have to remind our bosses and colleagues that what we do is part of a larger discipline.

These factors hide how much design work is actually happening in government, which is crazy because there is so much. There are pods of people across agencies who spearhead design approaches to solve really huge problems.

Many of us get around our silos by finding different ways to connect. Through groups outside the government like DotGovDesign or from within via email communities of practice (no Slack for us!) we’re finding each other and working together.

 

We’re fighting for seats at the table.

As we all know, having a voice early in the project is crucial to doing good work. But the strict hierarchy and “chain of command” still in place in a lot of agencies makes that really hard. Unless you’re actually a part of senior leadership, getting in front of the right people can be a process of swimming upstream.

Some of that is changing. We are getting more people in management who get that design matters. There are groups like 18F and USDS who bring design work straight to the top.

And even without those things, good work is still happening. It’s usually because a few people pushed and prodded and presented until the message got through to those who can give the go. It may be grueling, but it’s got to get done, right?

 

We take a lot of crap.

The government is really easy to pick on. No one likes “the man,” right? People have spit at my building (usually around April, so you can guess where that was). The caricature of the government worker who sits behind a desk growing cobwebs? Still alive and well. I wish I could say it was patently false, but I can’t. Hey, there are more than four million government employees. Not everyone can be a rock star.

But here’s where I get persnickety. When criticizing government design, it’s rarely put into context, like a magazine picking random (and some outdated) logos for a design podcaster to critique. Too often, the work is misunderstood in what it’s trying to achieve, and who it has to reach.

Because it’s for everyone.

Government products aren’t for the metaphorical “general public,” they’re for the ACTUAL general public — anyone who needs to interact with the government in any way. It’s a huge, diverse user base, and one that offers incredible, exciting and terrifying challenges to designers.

Which gets me to the best part …

 

We stick around because it’s important.

Designing for the federal government has its challenges. It is also one of the most important places for good design to happen.

  • Can you think of a better opportunity for visual design to resonate with people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities?
  • Can you think of a better purpose for UX design than guiding people in need of healthcare, food or shelter?
  • Can you think of a more important moment to craft information that is crucial to people’s physical safety?

We know that our products could reach every American, and each time we make an improvement, it’s easier for a real person to get the help they need. So we stay, and we evangelize, and we work, and we continue to be that small group of thoughtful, committed citizen-designers who manage to change the world.

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Interested in learning more about design in government? Connect with DotGovDesign. Follow DotGovDesign on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for our mailing list. We have regular events and happy hours. We’re currently planning our conference to be held this Fall, so so stay tuned.

Claire Marie Blaustein is a writer, editor, designer and general lover of good content. Over the past ten years, Claire has worked for a variety of arts and media organizations including NPR and Washington National Opera. Claire now works for the federal government as a Digital Content Specialist. She posts some of her work at clairemarieb.com and tweets very occasionally @museful.

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress

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