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Design Thinking in Government

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Credit: Photo by Tim Adkins, IDSA
This story originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Creativity:

Barack Obama's presidential election campaign exhibited design savvy heretofore unheard of in American politics. And now that he's won, a segment of the creative community is hoping he'll take one step further and bring design thinking to Washington.

In November, design educator Dr. Dori Tunstall organized the U.S. National Design Summit in D.C. to bring design professionals and government representatives together to figure out exactly what federal design policy could look like. "The perception of design is shifting from superficial aesthetics to something with strategic value and awareness that design thinking can have an impact on politics and business," says Tunstall, associate professor of design anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I think if we raise the idea of holistic design policy now under Obama, who demonstrated savvy about design in a way that we hadn't seen, there's a real opportunity."

The summit focused on design's role in both U.S. economics and governance, which covers topics like R&D, educating young designers, standards for sustainability and the formation and implementation of policy. Tunstall, other educators, federal designers and representatives from design organizations like AIGA, American Institute of Architects, Society of Interior Designers and Industrial Designers Society of America, developed 250 proposals to improve government communications with citizens, promote design in federal agencies and formulate economic innovation policy. A complete report of the proposals will be on Obama's desk by Inauguration Day, says Tunstall.

The design policy concept isn't new to the United States. Under Nixon in 1972, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Nancy Hanks developed a program to improve federal design, which included four assemblies that brought together government agencies and designers to discuss architecture, landscape design, graphics, interiors and industrial design. During the Reagan administration, the NEA design initiatives became inactive.

The summit plan to reinstate the NEA design assembly starting in 2010. Like the 1970s assemblies, the summit hopes to foster direct dialogue between the design community and government. Though, Tunstall says the summit's design policy vision goes beyond the 1970s' focus on government communications, buildings and infrastructure and logo systems--government also needs design frameworks for economic health and growth.

Some European and Asian countries like the United Kingdom, Denmark and India already support economics-focused design policy intended to cultivate innovation in business, create market differentiation and increase exports. Yet, summit attendee and AIGA executive director Richard Gref says those policies aren't fitting models because of their narrow definition of innovation.

"The link between design and innovation is a powerful one. However, it's often an incomplete one. The way innovation frequently is interpreted in the business trades and in public policy realms is about industrial design or product design. And focusing on only that misses design thinking. The real question is: how do you solve complex problems and have creativity defeat habit? Habit has gotten us into the problems we're in."

To provide the government with an all-encompassing design perspective, the summit plans to reinstate the American Design Council, a now defunct alliance of individual professional associations. (AIGA holds the trademark for the council's name, despite its many years of inactivity.) If all goes as planned, this multi-disciplinary umbrella group will organize the 2010 design assembly as well as carry out some of the summit's proposals.
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