Our government is designed; design it to be better 

Stark columns of the Wisconsin State Capitol building are clear in the foreground while the lit-up dome behind is blurred by fog.

Fog highlights the dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol building. Photo by Anne Petersen. 

By Anne Petersen, design leader, Edited by Michi Trota

When you look at American history, you should note that our government and laws have been designed overwhelmingly by people who look like the majority of our presidents. If you live in the U.S. it’s likely you can picture them: white men.

At every level and in every branch, from the White House to the Supreme Court to Congress, this is what the designers of our democracy and government looked like and who our systems of governance were shaped to serve. Recognizing this helps us understand why government is designed the way it is, and how we can better shape the future of government design.

We have to look at the harms these designs have enabled; why American government is designed the way it is; how politicians and civil servants need to understand real-world needs; the greatest needs that government serves; and how we as designers bring lived experiences and biases that can help or harm the people we’re designing for through what we create.


The design of power

Laws are ideology made concrete, encoded into our society and culture. In America, our predecessors in politics, law, and civil service designed systems of federal, state, city, and other local government and implemented laws to protect power—specifically for themselves and those like them. And beyond the laws themselves, the rest of government—from the policies that interpret the regulations based on law to the agencies responsible for executing them and down to the technology we see implementing them—all of it is designed by those who have power, for those who have power. By politicians, civil servants, government contractors; and then supported by administrators, architects, helpline staff, and more. Their decisions can help or harm those seeking access to tax-funded services.

For example, the terms “grandfathered” and “grandfathered in” aren’t about inheritance; they’re actually about ensuring that only white male property owners could vote. After Reconstruction, six states passed laws which allowed men to vote only if they were able to vote before 1867 (generally), or if their grandfathers had been able to vote at the time. This enabled more white men to bypass hurdles like literacy tests, which were intended to exclude Black Americans, as well as most recent immigrants, from having the right to vote. Those barriers were deliberately created by lawmakers for the express purpose of protecting their power. In some cases they knew the laws they created would be struck down by the courts, but it wouldn’t matter—by that time, the people they wanted on the voting rolls would be there.

But if government and laws can be designed to concentrate power in the hands of a chosen few, they can also be designed to distribute power. A truly equitable system of government and laws that ensure equal rights in practice as well as principle is possible—if it’s intentionally designed that way.


Harm by design—and how our industry is changing

The design profession in America has lionized the input of design thinking and the professional design lens as conceived of and shaped by white people, over the direct input of people directly impacted by those designs, who reflect a wider variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. For instance, large-scale planning requires applying for government funding and compliance with laws and zoning, which function as a means of control and retaining power, and thus contribute to a history of civic planning and design driven by efforts to enforce race and class divides. These methods vary, but have included redlining by the Federal Housing Administration, restrictive racial covenants for real estate, discriminatory financing, and more.

When federal-level courts began to strike down racial zoning laws, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 emerged as another way to restrict access to real estate and property ownership—governments claimed eminent domain and displaced not only individuals, but entire Black and Brown neighborhoods. Our current Presidential administration and Congress have committed funds to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments,” but this won’t undo the damage done to communities by the loss of generational wealth, increase in poverty, and mounting disinvestment over the span of decades. Similar injustices have happened throughout American history, from government theft of Indigenous children as part of a forced assimilation policy run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior, to the Chinese Exclusion Act and thereafter the Chinese Confession Program run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to the racial profiling done by law enforcement to Muslim Americans since 9/11; the list is endless.

Recently, design thinking has come under (rightful) scrutiny, especially from within the industry. One of the most succinct criticisms is Darin Buzon’s article “Design Thinking is a Rebrand for White Supremacy,” where Buzon sharply observes “This self-righteousness that comes with being a Design Thinker consequently privileges the designer above anyone else. The result is a profession of narcissists deepening class stratification…” Pockets of designers are urging a broader reckoning in our industry and working toward solutions by focusing on design justice and decolonizing design in a trauma-informed way. We center those who are most often marginalized and co-design with communities rather than applying an “expert” white Eurocentric design lens. We also have to work toward preventing the harm and trauma that occurs to individuals and communities when design research is extractive and doesn’t adequately support participants.

Designers should question the roots of design thinking and change our practices. The month before a 2020 ban on diversity training for federal government employees went into effect, more than 50 federal civil servants participated in one of Creative Reaction Lab’s “How Traditional Design Thinking Protects White Supremacy” workshops. We found that by adopting certain industry-standard practices, we unintentionally upheld core tools of white supremacy— urgency, perfectionism, paternalism, fear of conflict, the myth of objectivity —which led to potentially extractive research practices, rather than allowing us to work with communities and individuals to improve their experiences interacting with government.


“People's Choice Twelfth President” features a portrait of President Zachary Taylor at the center, surrounded by the previous 11 presidents, all illustrated as white men with white hair except one, John Tyler, shown with black hair.

A hand-colored lithograph called “People’s Choice Twelfth President.” Artist: Nathaniel Currier, 1848. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 


Recent works like Virginia Eubanks’s Automating Inequality: How High-tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, and Charlton McIlwain’s “Of course technology perpetuates racism. It was designed that way.” illustrate how our implementation of laws, technology, and policy can serve to support colonialism, white supremacy, and inequity. Eubanks, for example, shows how poor parents using the government programs meant to support their families are automatically flagged as higher risk for abuse and neglect of their children, nicknamed “poverty profiling.” As Eubanks puts it, “The model confuses parenting while poor with poor parenting,” using a data-based proxy for harm which doesn’t stem from actual abuse or neglect. But these government offices only have this data from those who use its services. An inequitable and oppressive system serves to support itself. That doesn’t happen by chance; it happens by choice.


“Boundless genders” spelled out via a letter banner in front of a weathered portrait of a child, looking upward.

“Boundless genders” by Amy Cousins from “Before the After Party” group exhibition at Co-Prosperity (Co-Pro). Photo by Anne Petersen


Designed to move slowly

A government serving so many people runs slowly for both good and bad reasons; it’s good that our government resists change that’s too extreme and too fast, or else we’d be vacillating from one pole to another by election cycle. But then the changing needs of its public regularly outpace the ability (and often willingness) of government to make changes at all.

For example, the Eurocentric Puritan ideals of only two genders were instilled (or installed) as America’s government first formed. Only recently have various levels of government recognized that not only should genders outside of male and female be counted in formal venues like the national census, but that identity documents provided by the government ought to reflect the actual gender of the person they identify. In Illinois, this has become an issue; while a law was passed in August of 2019 enabling an X marker on drivers licenses and state IDs, nearly three years later it is still not possible. The Illinois Secretary of State, which issues these identity documents, blamed a six-year contract with a software vendor.

For often-ignored groups, especially those who can “pass” or choose not to report the group(s) they belong to, there’s a balance between representation—being counted—and privacy—not being on “a list” anywhere in government, thereby running the risk of discriminatory or unethical use of that information. For instance, Jewish people have found throughout history that being on any official list can often be anything but beneficial. For nonbinary folks, leaning either way can be precarious. If we choose privacy, we won’t be counted and our concerns are unlikely to be represented. If we choose representation, our government will hold that list: do we trust our governments at all levels with that information? Can we in the future? The Lavender Scare—when the federal government fired or forced government employees to resign that were identified as or accused of being gay—is still in living memory, and is a warning that shouldn’t be forgotten.

The X marker solution itself is somewhat of a compromise: it isn’t intended to mean nonbinary, though nonbinary people are likely to use it. It’s meant to be used both for “neither male or female” but also “decline to state.” Cis folks may choose to use it to opt out of being identified. The official terminology used by the State Department is “unspecified or another gender identity,” though individual states’ interpretation varies.

In some cases civil servants are not given much room for interpretation, but in other cases we have a surprising amount of latitude, all depending on how the law or policy was written and who may have already had input—always within bounds, but those bounds can be dependent on budget, which also infers time-constraints. There is often not enough funding to guarantee support of a digital product for years to come. This is a risk to a product’s continued existence, one that happens with units and offices as well; the short term-limited nature of working within the U.S. Digital Service, for example, was originally presented as two years, though now four is more common. This was ostensibly intended to keep fresh industry insights entering into civil service to inform the design of government digital services, but the incidental benefit of any new Presidential administration being able to easily eliminate it through attrition likely wasn’t incidental.

The bottom line is that in all levels of government, civil servants interpret policy and design ways for it to become practical, both in process and in practice. And the choices we make about those interpretations have widespread consequences.


Design better throughout

Politicians are elected to pursue their constituents’ priorities. They create law and design budgets, which then lead to regulation, which leads to policy, which can spawn rules or guidance… and on until you get to implementation, and then ongoing support. If you can’t call a help desk or contact a human behind the system, you may not get the help you need—and all these programs require ongoing funding.

When laws and policies are designed, their outcomes are improved by the early involvement of civil servants—designers, staff at the agencies in question, developers, etc.—and the people who need the law, service, or budget. It’s incredibly clear when the politicians involved in creating laws and policies were not familiar with real-world implementation needs, from requirements of historic Indigenous treaties to the design of an initiative’s website. Early into the current pandemic, one White House office believed the best measure of success for a central informational website about COVID-19 was an increase in page views. Content strategists explained that an increase in page views could indicate that people were lost on the site. Pageviews would go up as the person clicked on page after page looking for what they needed. The people directing this work could not be dissuaded. The resulting information architecture and page length caused confusion and often did not help visitors—tough results for a crucial site.

Much about the design process would be improved by widening public involvement—Taiwan’s “people-public-private” partnerships are a prime example. Taiwan has built technology to support the public’s input on their democracy and lawmaking. Appropriate funding is vital and should include the cost of paying people for their involvement. We should pay people to help co-design implementations that impact them directly, including transportation they may need to get to a co-design session, technology to support their participation, and funding for childcare during their involvement.


The greatest need

It’s easy to think that the difference between government and the private sector lies primarily in its scale—doing the most good for the most people. Over time and with experience, that perspective can shift to prioritize doing the most good where the need is greatest—for the people and lands that need it most. That approach often also helps the most people; accessibility, for example, benefits everyone. A curb-cut benefits those with luggage, strollers, carts, or bicycles, not just people using wheelchairs. Similarly, captions and transcripts help those in loud or public places, those who want to skim text rather than watching a video, and people who process information differently, not just Deaf communities. Creating inaccessible services is a design choice, and in fact means what you’re creating is already broken.

We like to think of design research, design thinking, and our resulting design and code as objective, or at least value neutral. It is not. Because we are not. We bring our biases, our privilege, our training that has taught us to believe that we know best. As designers and design researchers, we have to do better. What are the biases you bring? Can you surface those with your team, along with theirs, so you know to look for perspectives outside of your own? So you can actively work against the assumptions that could undermine the equity in your work; so you can make your designs equitable, accessible, inclusive, and just.

We also bring our lived experiences. If you’ve experienced inequities or needs relevant to your work, you can offer those as input—but alongside people experiencing them now, not as more important or more relevant than theirs. Ask if you’re the right designer for a project and be humble enough to acknowledge when you’re not; work to put designers who can best engage with the appropriate communities in the lead. Recognize that people are the ultimate experts on their lives; center them and their needs when you design, rather than what you have been trained to see. Be reciprocal, not extractive in your research; give back as much as you take away alongside the communities you work for and with.

Can these approaches fix all of the problems we face? Likely not. But keep trying. The more approaches we create, the more we keep thinking about and iterating on how we choose to design our work, the more we share, the better we will collectively be able to do over time. As Mariame Kaba has put it: “Let this moment radicalize you rather than bring you to despair.” We can all work toward decolonizing design and toward design justice: important in every industry, but perhaps especially in the design of government and how it is implemented in the world today. 


Adults and kids in motion blur in front of the statue within the Lincoln Memorial. 

The interior of the Lincoln Memorial, with visitors. District of Columbia. Photo by Anne Petersen

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 023