Exploring the Role of the Big “D” Designer in Government


A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog arguing that everyone designs. In that post, I talked about how those of us with little to no design experience are still designers (just little “d” designers), as we work to improve situations and experiences around us. Big “D” Designers, on the other hand, are those individuals with professional training in the field of design.

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside both little “d” designers and big “D” Designers during my detail to the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management. Though I’m aware that a relatively small but growing number of offices and agencies are hiring designers from a wide variety of backgrounds to support their work, my interactions here at the Lab have been my first with big “D” Designers working inside government. Thus, I have been really intrigued by their roles and their reasons for joining Uncle Sam. In an effort to better understand the world of the big “D” Designer in government, I spoke with two of the Lab’s Designers: Sean Baker and Meghan Lazier.

Talking with Sean and Meghan was interesting because they represent different parts of the Lab’s staffing model. In an effort to maintain thought diversity and creativity, the Lab actively engages staff with an assortment of backgrounds through a variety of staffing mechanisms. For example, Sean is a Human Innovation Fellow, or HIF. HIFs bring external design and innovation talent to the Lab’s team for designated periods of time. In contrast, Meghan is the only big “D” Designer that is a career federal employee on the Lab staff. Her role is to be the thread of design consistency, in terms of the Lab’s design values and principles, as HIFs and individuals on detail assignments rotate in and out.

During our conversations, I learned of the tasks associated with Sean and Meghan’s roles. For instance, as the lead designer, Sean is tasked with guiding the design of a human-centered design curriculum geared towards the government, which, right now, includes updating the Lab’s ‘Fundamentals of Human-Centered Design’ training. He also leads design projects. Similarly, Meghan leads projects and facilitates design workshops with client agencies. Most recently, she traveled to the Philippines to lead design research to help the Millennium Challenge Corporation start to understand the root of poverty issues in that country. She also acts as the communications lead for the Lab, developing the Lab’s website and social media strategy.

In speaking with Sean and Meghan, I learned quite a bit. But what I found really intriguing was how well-suited big “D” Designers are for work in the government. Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. Designers want to make a difference.

News flash! Designers, just like the rest of us govies, join the government to make a difference in the world. For Sean, he was drawn by the opportunity to help create sustainable solutions to big, complex, system-level problems. For Meghan, after seeing prepackaged solutions fail abroad, her desire to encourage co-created solutions led her to a career in government.

  1. Designers have ways to break down complexity.

The work we do in the government is strife with complexity. While it may sometimes make our heads hurt, some designers live, and are trained, to visualize the complexity of a system. In fact, Sean shared that aspects of fine art and design can be applied to help visualize and understand complex systems work in new ways. Actually, in his early work as a designer, he created sculptures to represent an aspect of a complex system and used it as a probe to encourage people to think in new ways. Having individuals with different tools to approach the many multi-layered problems the government faces could be useful in encouraging new ideas and fixes to longstanding problems.

  1. Designers see constraints positively.

Working within constraints is a normal part of any government project. I know that working with sometimes numerous limitations is an oft cited complaint or reason for less than stellar results. On the contrary, designers love constraints. As a matter of fact, Meghan shared with me the following design adage: “the more constrained, the better the project.” In Meghan’s previous work in Afghanistan, she shared that sometimes the best solutions did not involve cutting edge technology. Instead, the solution’s impact came from its understanding of the people it was intended to serve and the constraints around serving them. This type of perspective could be helpful in breathing new life to the perceived limits of projects.

  1. Many of the definitions of design align with government ethos.

“Design in and of itself is transparency,” Sean responded when I asked him how he defined design, because “the form of something explains its function and vice versa.” In my discussion with Meghan, she explained that she shares Charles Eames definition of design as “an expression of purpose.” Both of these definitions embody the ideals for which government employees strive: to work transparently and with purpose for the American people.

These are just a few of the reasons that I believe that big “D” Designers would make great government employees. In thinking about the role of Designers in government, I can’t help but think of another major responsibility that Sean and Meghan hold: molding what future positions for big “D” Designers could look like in the world of government. Whether they realize it or not, they, much like the Lab, are charting the course for what design could mean to the government of the future. Not only is that very exciting, it is extremely important because the world continues to face increasingly complex challenges that require creative solutions.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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