What can design do to help fulfill government's promise of change?

As the new Obama administration adopts a progressive vision and a mandate for change, the nation is expectant with both optimism and apprehension. The design profession has in large part felt encouraged by the prominent role design played in President Obama's campaign and by his continued promise of openness, transparency and effectiveness. So we rightly ask, what role can design play in fulfilling government's potential and addressing the challenges of our times?

Although Thomas Jefferson may have been the first design thinker to occupy the White House, the most comprehensive recent approach to design in government was initiated by Richard Nixon, in 1973, who said in his address to the inaugural assembly of the Federal Design Improvement Program: “There should be no doubt that the federal government has an appropriate role to play in encouraging better design.”

What would it take to reach the same level of collaboration that existed between designers and government in the 1970s? In November 2008, leaders representing the major U.S. professional design organizations, design education accreditation organizations and Federal government agencies involved in design assembled at the U.S. National Design Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., to develop a blueprint for a new U.S. national design policy.

Redesigning America's Future, a policy brief documenting the group's recommendations, has been sent to all members of Congress and the incoming leadership of major U.S. cabinet departments and agencies. Insofar as they support AIGA's mission to advance designing as a professional craft, strategic tool and vital cultural force, AIGA will actively pursue the implementation of four actions within the context of the summit report.

1. AIGA recommendations for government support of design

AIGA has developed a set of recommendations in support of design's role in the civic experience, many of which reinforce and complement the findings of the Summit. Here is a list of the most far-reaching objectives of this advocacy agenda:

  • Propose that any stimulus package should consider the value of projects that improve the citizen experience through improved information and service design.
  • Propose that the principles and successes of Design for Democracy's election design reform be embraced. Add a requirement in reform legislation for taxes, immigration, social security, Medicare, home finance, customs and census that calls for effective information design to improve user experience, lower the costs of processing, reduce errors, enhance understanding and encourage compliance.
  • Propose a U.S. National Design Assembly in 2010 and Federal Design Improvement Program in 2011, similar to the activities to revitalize federal design standards and implementation in the 1970s (initially chaired by AIGA medalists Ivan Chermayeff and Richard Saul Wurman). AIGA would seek National Endowment of the Arts support for this endeavor, which would include:
    • A White House Conference on Citizen Experience (two days with White House mandated participation of agencies but led by design and corporate leaders)
    • A two-day Federal Design Assembly in 2010, modeled after the one in the early 1970s, to bring attention to the issue of branding America consistently and effectively around the world, and to enhance the citizen experience through clarity, accessibility and effectiveness
    • A Federal Design Improvement Program that engages the best communication designers in America, to be launched in 2011 and implemented by 2012

2. Election design reform

One of AIGA's imperatives is to demonstrate the value of design by doing valuable things. Under this directive, AIGA has been active in election design work, as AIGA Design for Democracy, since 1999. AIGA's design guidelines for election materials have been adopted officially by the federal Election Assistance Commission and are slowly being implemented in states and counties across the country, and AIGA is an active participant in many of the think-tank discussions on election reform.

We have encouraged local jurisdictions to use the AIGA Designer Directory to find local designers to implement the guidelines. AIGA has also helped to place designers in two Secretary of State offices (Oregon and Washington) to aid in implementing the guidelines, and has extended an invitation to help other states hire designers in this critical role. There is still much more work to do.

3. Keeping designers at the table

AIGA works in a variety of national forums such as the National Design Policy Summit and the Council on Competitiveness, made up of CEOs of major corporations and presidents of universities, to advance design as part of a national agenda on competitiveness.

The purpose of AIGA's involvement with these organizations—as well as the Aspen Institute and INDEX: via the Aspen Design Challenge—is to see that designers become part of policy discussions, demonstrating that designers can make a meaningful contribution through their mastery of integrative design thinking.

4. Volunteer advocacy team

In order to bring citizen attention to the potential for design and also to alert the Obama team to this issue, a small group of passionate AIGA volunteers—led by David Gibson and Ann Harakawa, of Two Twelve Associates, and Sylvia Harris, Office of Sylvia Harris—have formed an advocacy project to craft a specific set of recommendations on the role of communications and service design in improving government service. This is an action-oriented initiative that will include a web presence to invite wider volunteer activism.

How can designers get involved?

AIGA's next steps will involve creating briefing materials, an advocacy strategy and an advocacy kit for grassroots support to encourage the involvement of all members in advancing our collective interests.

This is a unique opportunity for designers to make an impact and improve the role of democracy in our everyday lives. Let's make “change” more than just a campaign slogan.

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.