When most people think about design, they think about the kind of work that graces the cover of magazines or elevates a sleek ad campaign. It’s easy to picture a design legend sitting at their MacBook, creating visual genius from thin air.
The reality of design work is much different. In the government space, a designer’s work is often less flashy and requires more collaboration with clients. And because our government dates back hundreds of years, there’s often an existing body of work to adapt. Today, I’d like to share my observations about specific ways designing for government differs from designing for other clients.
Collaboration and Inclusivity
Designing for government clients means that we’re constantly collaborating. Whereas a freelance designer may impose a limit on the number of revisions, we frequently iterate with our clients in pursuit of the best possible solution. When others would throw in the towel, we lean on our core value of tenacity to find the best answer.
Finding that answer means asking the right questions and the right people. When it makes sense, we try to engage stakeholders at all levels of government and speak with partners in the private sector. When possible, we interview and work directly with the intended audience of the product to ensure we deeply understand their needs and can shake off any preconceived notions we have about the solution.
What we don’t do is use inaccessible industry terminology or pretend we know it all, because the design process should be inclusive and accessible to all. Many of the people we speak with do not have a design background, but that does not make their input any less valuable. We work with them to articulate what is in their head, then synthesize their inputs to make the final product the best it can be.
Making that product the best it can be means designing it for the American people—all 328.5 million of them. Our work must be accessible to people of all ages, education levels, religions, races, gender identities, physical abilities, and walks of life. Even when a product has a specific target audience in mind, designing for inclusivity yields a better solution for everyone. We take seriously our obligation to consider the needs of the audience and meet them where they are.
The Right Solution for Each Opportunity
With 15 executive departments and two million civilian employees, it’s no wonder that design differs across government agencies. There are common design patterns across the government, but each agency has a unique identity and mission—a design that works for one might not be right for another.
For example, compare the site for the National Park Service and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association. Visually, both websites focus on what our planet has to offer. But their missions differ, and so do their designs.
Design changes not only between agencies but within them as well. Leadership and contract support periodically shift, giving the government an opportunity to reimagine existing products and solutions. The solution that worked best a few years ago might not be right for today. As contractors, this provides us with a unique opportunity to leverage new technology and evolutions in best practices to provide the American people the best possible services.
As a member of the Design Team at HWC, I’m not only used to working with these constraints, I delight in it. The constraints push me creatively and help me give my best to my fellow Americans.
Graphic by Christina Wagner