Use your design skills to make your city better

Code for America's Cyd Harrell makes the case for civic design: using your skills to help your city.

How are you using your design skills to make your city better? For most of us, the answer is‚ "I'm not, really, but I would if I could." Many designers entered this field in order to make the world a better place, but most are stuck working on commercial projects with relatively narrow impact. I believe that one of the best things designers can do to reconnect to a sense of purpose is get involved in the emerging civic technology movement.

Why government needs design

For a long time, government services have been perceived as almost outside the realm of design. Aside from perhaps road signs and buildings, your average UX or graphic designer had few ways to affect the day-today experience of being a citizen. But in 2014, more and more people are going online to interact with their governments, and we know that design can improve online services of all types. It's time for us to sign up, and there are lots of new opportunities.

Code for America is a US-based non-profit that pairs coders and designers with local governments to make cities better for everyone. We strive to build government services that are simple, beautiful and easy to use. If that seems like table stakes, it's actually much more.

Imagine if the process of getting on a list for housing benefits were as well-designed as the best commercial experiences, if it were designed to respect the citizen's time, dignity and abilities. It would reinforce a key principle of democracy – that the citizens and government are on the same side. I'm lucky to spend every day supporting designers, inside and outside government, who are working valiantly to express this principle in the myriad websites, phone systems, walk-in counters and signs that make up our touchpoints with government.

We're making progress. Code for America designers have created systems like BlightStatus, which brought together data from seven municipal departments to offer a simple, clear view of abandoned properties after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

In April, 85 people gathered in San Francisco for the first ever Civic Design Camp. Industry designers and public servants joined forces in a series of skill-shares and workshops that have led to greater understanding and further collaboration. More camps are being planned for other locations. There's a tremendous amount of work to be done and I'd love to invite everyone reading this to join me. While there are relatively few design jobs in government, there are many ways to participate.

Fellowships

Code for America offers a year-long fellowship for designers, developers and researchers to work with local governments across the US. City Halls and government agencies have also begun offering fellowships to experienced designers.

Civic hacking

Local groups have been established worldwide as part of this citizen movement: developers and designers gather on evenings or weekends to work together with local public servants on prototypes and applications. Check out brigade.codeforamerica.org to find the closest group to you.

Mentorship

Many public servants are doing the best they can at design tasks, with minimal training or institutional support. Efforts to include them in your local design community can make a huge difference. Consider offering government rates to local design events, and reach out and invite people from City Hall.

And if you want to do this full time, look at the GDS Team in the UK or 18F in the US – both serve national governments by making great digital services. How better to use your design powers for good?

Words: Cyd Harrell

Cyd Harrell is UX evangelist at Code for America, where she helps create better experiences for citizens. This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 256.