Civic strategy

Where next for public-sector design, in the dawning age of cuts and austerity? In fact, design is now more crucial than ever to help deliver user-friendly and efficient services for less. Anna Richardson explores the sector’s legacy and why design should continue to play an important role in it

While last week’s Emergency Budget and its announcement of cuts across public services are still being digested, the implications for the design industry are yet to play out. After 13 years of a design-oriented Labour Government, drastically shrinking budgets will certainly tighten the screws on design procurement.

Notable designers such as Sir John Sorrell, Michael Wolff and Colum Lowe have been throwing their private-sector credibility behind public-sector design for years, as have other independent consultancies, and according to many, now is the time when design can show off its effectiveness.

’Design is the catalyst to transform public services,’ says Peter Mills, consulting director at The Team. ’It challenges perceptions, feelings and actions. And in an age of austerity, design has a role to innovate and deliver more for less, to transform efficiencies by preventing duplication,
The relationship between design and the public sector is vital, agrees the Design Council’s Ellie Runcie, ’And the relationship needs to be grown if we are going to get “more for less” from our public services and tackle the increasing pressures on them in the future.’

The range of public-sector projects is immense. For example, the Design Council’s Public Services by Design programme has worked with organisations as diverse as Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs to Lewisham Homelessness services and Total Place pilots, tackling a range of issues from children’s health to adult social care and young offenders.

Equally, the approach to different projects varies, says Fanny Sigler, creative director at the Central Office of Information. Forms and information design require a lot more user testing and interaction to ensure an intuitive user journey that minimises errors in form-filling, while designing services such as Directgov require solutions that provide best Web accessibility to users – designing robust Web architecture, developing prototypes, piloting and listening to that feedback.

Graphic design has, of course, had a long influence on public services, from the London Underground to the National Health Service, and branding has played an increasingly big part. But as Mills says, ’Designers think big. They are great at capturing the essence of an idea – policy, place, people, products and services – and interpreting it so that it can be lived and be real for people both inside and outside an organisation.’

Designers are now influencing strategy rather than just the outcome, says Think Public’s Paul Thurston, with service innovation teams, strategy units and boards of directors now commissioning design services. ’The opportunity for impact at that level is really good,’ he adds.

Design can show civic or political intentions in a very clear way and the best design does that extremely well, adds Jeremy Myerson, director of the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre. ’It it has a lot to offer any area of communication. It isn’t just about spending money, it’s also about saving money.’ Let’s hope the Government says ’hear hear’ to that.


What is the legacy of recent public-sector design projects, and how should clients and designers carry on this tradition?

_Fanny Sigler
_Creative director, Central Office of Information
We are in an era different from the beginning of public-sector information when Abram Games designed posters to recruit women into the Armed Forces or grow your own vegetables around wartime, though those posters are amazing designs that have stood the test of time. Time will tell if [more recent projects] are as long-lasting as the Games work. But to build on it we need to apply more ’science’ to our designs. We need to take on board more behaviour-change tools, nudge principles and consider digital advancements.

_Ellie Runcie
_National programme director of Designing Demand and Public Services by Design, Design Council
The evidence from a whole range of public-sector projects is clear – design has a huge potential to improve services, reduce costs and create happier users and staff. I hope that the legacy of our and others’ work is that this is recognised and that public services embrace design on a large scale.

_Peter Mills
_Consulting director, The Team
The world of public-sector design isn’t just about graphics and brands. It is about customer experience, employee engagement and service improvement. Increasingly, citizens will have more responsibility in society, in part in the delivery of public-sector services and through their own behaviour, to ensure their responsible consumption of those services. The legacy of the work of designers over the past decade will be that Government and public-sector procurers can see the possibility design brings to the delivery of policy, and that is the potential it continues to offer Government.

_Jeremy Myerson
_Director at the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre
The public sector has taken on some of the mantle in innovation that previously was the exclusive domain of the private sector. There has been a sea change in attitude and it would be terrible to change that. The public sector has had better design managers and commissioners and is more design savvy. The gains have been hard-won, but the public sector isn’t going to be the wasteland for design that it was 20 years ago. There will still be public services, but they will just have to be delivered in a more efficient way and that can play into the hands of design.

Latest articles