3 Tips for Designers Solving Public Policy Problems—From Inside the Government

This essay is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond.

Design is increasingly recognized as a powerful approach to crafting more effective public services. Governments including the United States (Lab at OPM), the UK (Open Policy Lab), Singapore (Human Experience Lab) and international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank are using internal design teams—often with their own studio spaces—to bring the skills and attitudes of design to the art and craft of making public policy.

As the director of MindLab, the studio I head inside the Danish government, we have for twelve years assisted senior decision-makers in designing better solutions to complex public problems. Our work spans challenges such as implementation of a national school reform, digital solutions that make it easier to start a business and human-centered services for the unemployed. In these areas and others, we use methods such as ethnography, user journeys, system maps, service prototypes and design games to co-design ideas and concepts that help create better policy outcomes.

Through this work we increasingly see the contours of a more relational, empathetic and engaging state that is designed to be much more in tune with human beings. At a time when the trust in our public institutions is at an all-time low and most economies remain fragile in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, we urgently need to discover a new role for the public sector. Rather than simply leveraging bureaucracy and standardization to ensure stability and predictability, public organizations must be more dynamic and differentiated in order to successfully relate to the emerging needs of citizens and society.

The challenge is that no public manager really knows what this kind of public sector would look like. There is no simple template for how to redesign the public business model we have inherited. It might be severely flawed, but it is what we know. This means that the role of the public design studio will be to instill the confidence and determination in public managers to dare to explore what a very different kind of government might be like. The design studio must inspire them to become more adept at shaping radically different but more meaningful futures by way of three core principles:


Design research must uncover the deep human experience of interacting with public systems. Public managers and staff must learn about the outcomes of their efforts by seeing for themselves how real people engage or disengage with the services for which they are responsible. The design studio must use video, audio and other visual tools—and, whenever possible, draw heavily on field immersions—to bring managers closer to the problems, as well as the opportunities.


Society, and the public system itself, is a web of complex relationships that is undergoing continuous change. There is no such thing as a blank slate, a “ground zero” on which public policies can do their work, unhindered. Rather, managers are thrown into situations where they must respond and act without much to guide them through the maze of multiple actors, agendas and interests. The design studio must help instill humility by visualizing the complexity, enabling managers to begin to work with it, not against it.


Not long ago a senior public servant said to me, “If there is one thing we don’t need, it is courage.” I disagree. Many public managers lack the courage to redesign the very system on which they have built their careers, prestige and sense of purpose. The design studio must help by building prototypes and scenarios that are powerful enough to make alternative—and better—futures imaginable. That will perhaps be the biggest contribution of the civic design studio in 2015: To catalyze courage in public leaders to make the difficult decisions that will truly reshape interactions between citizens, businesses and the state.

About the author
Christian Bason is director of MindLab, a cross-governmental design lab run by three ministries and the city of Odense, Denmark. Bason is passionate about transforming the public sector’s ability to better meet the needs of citizens and society, and regularly acts as adviser to leading governments and international institutions. He is also a university lecturer and a doctoral fellow at Copenhagen Business School and author of five books on innovation and change in the public sector. He is speaking at “Gain: AIGA Design and Business Conference” in October 2014.