Designing in Bureaucracy

A letter to fellow designers and the next generation of designers working in bureaucratic institutions

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

That’s why I am pausing to reflect on this past year and offer fellow designers and aspiring designers in bureaucracy (and frankly, for me too!) a few lessons learned and tips to navigating these spaces:

  • Frontloading v Emergence Planning. In bureaucracies, plans are required to get permissions and greenlights. Things can’t move without the plan. This frontloading is commonplace. However, for a designer the plan comes to be as it emerges. This puts any designer in a “chicken-and-egg” situation. A designer in bureaucracy needs to learn how to satisfy the frontloading and in parallel, set expectations of iterations to come and needs for agility going forward.
  • Producing v Acting. In bureaucracies, what designers may think of as a “process” or “act” (with multiple steps), is often an output. For example, “strategy” is a strategy document and “concept” is a concept note. For a designer, strategy is the act of strategizing and concept is the act of concepting. A designer will need to find opportunities to create the action beyond the product.
  • Solo v Group Play. Building off of the point above, a strategy document, concept note or project brief is often drafted by one person and commented on by others in a bureaucracy. As designers, you know that design is a team sport and therefore, the draft cannot be made unless the team does it together. For a designer, this means proactively asking to create moments with colleagues that feed into the drafts, as opposed to asking them for thoughts after.
  • Discursive v Embodied Practice. Connecting to the last point, the “team play” in a bureaucracy is more often than not a series of meetings, in which discussions take place. For designers, much of the discursive can be converted into the embodied. This means a designer will need to facilitate meetings that invite the “doing” even when colleagues may not always be up for it, owing to time constraints and other pressures.

What does this mean for design and designers in bureaucracy? Given these differences, how can we still be effective?

I have four simple tips:

  1. Learn the mundane stuff. Bureaucracies are filled with structural constraints. What are they? Is it the contracting modality? Is it how the budget flows to your team? Is it how your institution connects to its related institutions? Find out what makes the institution tick, and learn those processes. They might not be the sexy aspects of work (or the ones you expected to need to know), but they are the important ones.
  2. Untangle the dependencies. Remember the wheel that keeps turning? When does that wheel stop? What enables the wheel to stop turning? Bureaucracies are big and often come with complicated structures and an intricate web of relationships. Who does your team rely on and listen to? Who does that person report to? What does that person care about? Your work is dependent on many connected up structures and people, so map out what that looks like to begin navigating it.
  3. Identify and work with the “technocratic” and the “political”. Roadblocks in bureaucracies can be less familiar to designers — two common ones are technocracy and politics. When people are experts in their subject matter, they can become technocrats who are driven by the substance that they care about. Bureaucracies have hierarchies and politics play out as one might expect, with many moments of “looking toward bosses”. Determine what motivates the people around you: politics, technical subject matter, or something else. This will help you learn their mindset and collaborate with them.



Changing the status quo || | Accountable & Participatory Governance | Design Strategy & Research

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Nicole Anand

Changing the status quo || | Accountable & Participatory Governance | Design Strategy & Research