We were looking for a team who was design-ready and hungry to try something new

In January of 2018, the New York City Service Design Studio launched “Designing for Opportunity,” a competition to select the next city department to work with the Studio on a design project. The Commons’ Emma Coleman visited the Studio to learn more.


“We had to go through a special procurement process just for these,” says Caroline Bauer, pointing to the eight foot tall foam core boards lining the walls of the NYC service Design Studio in the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. Bauer, the studio’s manager, explains that the six month process was worth it because they make the office feel like a real design studio rather than just another government department.

It’s important to have that feeling, because government agencies from across New York City trek here to get advice on their projects and learn more about what design means in government. In January of 2018, the Studio sought to expand the reach of their work by launching Designing for Opportunity, an open call for NYC government agencies to submit project and partnership ideas. Before this initiative, the Studio had found work through mayoral priorities or by identifying challenges themselves. Those first main projects—a homelessness services redesign and an initiative to connect a public housing development with high speed wifi—served as proof of concept that got them funding from Citi Community Development to hire two full-time designers.

Designing for Opportunity was the first time that the newly-formed team got to pick a partner. “One of the main hooks is that we’re free! Anyone who’s had to hire an external consulting firm knows how expensive that can be,” says Mari Nakano, the Studio’s Design Director. “So we were really just looking for a team who was design-ready and hungry to try something new.”

When the open call went live, departments who wanted to partner with the Studio had to act quickly. The team at the Studio had spent four months prepping all of the materials, and wanted to get through the full process within the quarter, so applications were due within three weeks. Mari and Caroline agreed that this actually improved the quality of applications, though, as no one was applying just for the sake of applying.

They hosted two information sessions— the first of which had only one person in attendance. “That was my first day,” remembers Caroline. “We were really worried that no one was going to submit.” But nine people came to the next one, and the excitement built.

When the fifteen applications finally came in, designers in the Studio were impressed by the careful thought that each one displayed. “These proposals pushed the boundaries of what service design can do. The showed long-simmering project ideas that people were excited to finally have a partner to work with on,” Caroline notes.

Submissions were wide-ranging, and didn’t only include direct service projects. The Board of Correction submitted a project to restructure their grievance process. A brand new department at the Administration for Children’s Services wanted help defining their strategic direction. For one of the smaller ideas, the Studio invited the department to work through a short design session to get them started. For another project, the Studio was honest, and told the Department of Consumer Affairs that their application was too good, and advised them to complete the project alone (which they did).

With the first round of eliminations done, the Studio invited three teams to complete a four hour semifinalist workshop in which they began the design process for each project. “In a way, it was sort of like a first date. We thought: we’re about to work together for twelve months, so we want to make sure we click,” Mari remembers.

After the workshops, they sat down to debate the final three options. One of the proposals submitted by the Administration for Children’s Services stood out. “We had instant chemistry with the team,” Caroline notes. “The ACS project was also bigger,” Mari adds. “So there was some questioning over whether we should ease into this work with something less ambitious. But the Studio wouldn’t exist without aggressive passion for this work, and we were hired to continue that mentality.” So they chose to work with ACS.

Even with the winner selected, the other fourteen applicants still benefited from the process. The Studio sent recommendations to all the applicants, offered them office hour slots, connected them with other departments who had encountered similar problems, and even recommended vendors. “We had a policy to not shut the door on anyone during this process. We’re burned in their memories now,” Mari jokes.

The Studio has been working on Pathways to Prevention, the project selected from the Designing for Opportunity open call, for almost a year now. They’re also using the awareness and momentum they gained from their open call to reach other agencies in New York City, as well as connect with service design studios and innovation departments in local governments across the country. “We have office hours that have filled up since the day we opened them, and have done 125 individual sessions so far with people from New York and beyond,” Caroline notes. “We’ve touched over 25% of the departments in NYC government so far, so one of our goals from the next year is to answer the question: who are the other 75%, and how do we meet them?,” Mari adds.

In addition to more people knowing about them, the Studio also wants to give newcomers a clear picture about the services they provide. Too often, designers in government are seen as brochure-makers, but that isn’t the most valuable service they provide. Says Caroline, “I want people in government to see us as untanglers of bureaucracy. We can tease out complex systems and help them understand how to get their work done.”

Mari laughs, and adds, “We always show new people this slide of a guy with tangled Christmas lights, and then the next slide shows a house with lights beautifully arranged. That’s our job. We bring clarity to complexity.”


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