Dear Designers

Something is happening in the public sector, and it has to do with you

I’m sorry. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but something has been slowly building in the public sector, and it has to do with you. You see, we’ve been working for some time on making “innovation” a priority, and along the way we were exposed to the magic of design. Don’t get me wrong, human centered design and design thinking and really, all things design, are good for us, but I’m a bit afraid we’ve done a bad thing and I may have been complicit. Some of us have cherry picked the shiny bits of design, the tools and techniques, without understanding what design is all about, without questioning our own assumptions, and without doing the work.

The thing is, a lot of us in the public sector are very aware of the great responsibility we bare to do our jobs and serve our communities to the very best of our abilities. Being intentional about the design of policies, programs, and services is very important, and many people feel the way we have done it in the past hasn’t quite met that benchmark of “the best possible”. Designers have done an excellent job in recent years of making the practice more visible and growing the field to great work for human services. My worry is that we in the public sector have plucked out what’s easy and what supports the current systems and structures, and have left out all of the ‘magic’ that makes design so important and valuable for the public sector.


For the last few months I’ve had the delight of working as part of the InWithForward team. InWithForward is a social design agency that looks to make human services more human, by moving from social safety nets to trampolines. It’s an interdisciplinary team with a practice that is rooted in ethnography, design research, anthropology, social policy, and visual and industrial design. The designers and design researchers I have worked with are amazing at what they do because they are diverse, challenge and support each other, are dedicated to the craft and process, and have the hard skills needed to do the work. They have a solid understanding of how complex (and beautiful) human motivations, stressors, and values are and how they show up in the design of systems, services, and interactions.

Of course there are many public servants who are working to challenge the status quo and who bring different experiences and skill sets to the mix. But a real understanding and grasp of how to apply design with social sciences and produce impact takes time to acquire, develop and refine. Even though this is the case, there is an abundance of labs, groups, teams, and projects that are “using design” in the public sector without any actual designers. I myself have taught others about human centered design and how to use tools such as empathy and journey maps. As a social worker, surfacing and examining values is in my wheelhouse, but taking those values and weaving them into a tangible product or interaction through a rigorous design process is not.

This can’t be done by sitting in meetings. This can’t be done without critical self-reflection. And it certainly doesn’t work if we stick within our government walls and only talk to each other. Learning about design thinking and adopting the mindsets is a great start, but we can’t go calling ourselves designers after a half day human centered design workshop any more than I can call myself a paramedic after completing a CPR course.

We need to work together to build the beautiful magic that happens when design and social science are blended.We can start by asking; Who is not here? What are really the limits of our own abilities? What makes us uncomfortable? Where’s the product? And, where are the designers?

So designers, I am sorry, and I hope we can keep working on making design a critical element of government services, and that we can do it together.

With love,



Michelle Garraway

Michelle has worked in social services for almost 15 years in both government and …

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