"It's a marathon, designing for world peace"
From her work for the Obama White House to the designing of the digital U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Dana Chisnell has done it all. Read about her dream project and what Civic Design means to her.
There are several definitions of Civic Design – but what is it to you?
– I think of “civic design” as design in the public sector. But every few months, we get a resume from a civil engineer. And when we first started using the term, I think Honda owned the URL we wanted, because, well, you could design your own Honda Civic.
Ha ha... what role does Civic Design play in the American society?
– Civic design encompasses service design, design thinking, human-centered design — all of it — in the government and public space. It’s starting to be recognized as a thing. Designers have started calling themselves “civic designer.” But generally, the part it plays is that there are a lot more pockets of government and institutions that influence civic life paying attention to users’ needs.
I’m so impressed by your résumé (!) From your work with the Obama administration to the voting system guidelines. What has been the most rewarding for you?
– Well, thank you. I think what you’re seeing is a lot of luck over a few decades.
– It’s really hard to say what’s most rewarding. There have been so many moments I’m proud of. Just working for the Obama White House was pretty spectacular. But the work was the hardest I’ve ever faced — I think everyone who has ever worked for the U.S. Digital Service (and it's siblings across the world) would say the same thing. I spent most of my time at USDS working with a crack team at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). There were small victories. One memorable moment was when the first person who came through the fully digital system at USCIS became a U.S. citizen. I feel like that 2-year tour was a kind of capstone in my career.
– I wouldn’t have ended up there if it weren’t for years of work that I did before that, though, much of it with brilliant research and design partners. In 2011 reaching our funding goal on a Kickstarter to launch the Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent. Having the MacArthur Foundation see the campaign and offer additional funding. Being named a visiting scientist at MIT. Then in 2013, being invited with Whitney Quesenbery to put in a grant proposal to the Irvine Foundation and a consortium called Future of California Elections. The award was big enough to prompt Whitney and me to form the Center for Civic Design. We learned so much! A few years later, we started to see California election administrators use what we had learned to make beautiful, usable voter guides for voters in 40 counties. Last year, the Field Guides were featured in an exhibit on civic design at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. Last year, I was invited to teach a course at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on design in government.
– All of these are pretty special moments. But the truth is, every time someone uses the tools my team has created to serve their users better, I get all teary-eyed. And that, fortunately, is happening a lot these days.
Describe your dream project? What would you like to design to make the world a better place?
– My dream project would reveal the solution to world peace. All of the designers I know are already working to make the world a better place, whether in the public sector or the private sector. It’s a marathon. More than that, it’s a marathon of sprints.
Dana Chisnell will speak at From Business to Buttons 2018. She will also host the workshop Design for Delight — Transforming Your Designs From Good To Great with Jared Spool. (BTW: Half of the workshop tickets are already sold)