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Nov 30, 2005: This really ticks me off

From an announcement on the UK Design Council's site:

The UK public will be given the chance to help design the places where they live, work and play - and the services they use - as part of a £50 million, ten-year initiative to re-design the UK that begins in North East England in 2007... The aim each time will be to improve national life through design.

Here are the 2004 GDP per capita figures for the United Kingdom and the United States, according to the CIA World Factbook:

United Kingdom: US$29,600
United States: US$40,100

And how much is the US federal government spending to improve national life through design?

Look, £50 million is a drop in the bucket, especially when spread out over 10 years. Annually, it works out to US$0.14 per citizen. But apparently the government of the country that has a 35% higher GDP would prefer to spend US$0 per citizen. Sacrificing a bridge to nowhere would more than enable the US to catch up to the UK, but I guess that's another story.

I realize that I'm hardly unbiased (not to mention quite naïve), but it seems like it would be Really Smart for a major US political party to include good design as a plank in its platform. No matter how much we try to shrink government, it's not going away. So why not be the party that, through good design, gets credit for enabling the government to actually improve the lives of the nation's citizens?

For example, why not tell voters that, if elected, you'll make damned sure that each public-facing government agency can smoothly address citizens' five most common needs in a useful and usable way? Why not tell citizens that, as long as they've got to pay taxes, you'll make damned sure that the IRS site makes it as easy and painless as possible? Or that, if they need health care benefits now they're finally back from serving in Iraq, you'll make damned sure it that using the VA web site doesn't require yet more personal sacrifice?

I'd love to see a major political party use good design to "improve national life" and score political points in the process. And if you think we can't afford it, I've got a bridge to sell you.

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Comment: Livia Labate (Dec 1, 2005)

The other day I saw a presentation from the person responsible for firstgov.gov. The presentation was about the future of the Internet and I came in very suspecious about what the "government" had to say "officially" about this topic.

I was absolutely and most positively impressed and overwhelmed with predictions of what the Web will be like in 5-10 years, and more so with firstgov.gov's plans to design and coordinate governemnt websites to serve the public through good design.

They even presented a prototype of what a public service portal trully tailored to the public would be like. Hopefuly this will gain more attention soon.

So, don't lose hope Lou ;)

Comment: helge (Dec 1, 2005)

excuse my biased european perspective but quality of life doesn't seem to be on the agenda of US governments while it's the main issue for most european administrations.

Comment: Lou (Dec 1, 2005)

Livia, I'm not too hopeful. I realize that at least some people inside government agencies are trying their best to make headway. Although I've seen firsthand what a difficult, thankless task this is.

But I really believe that there needs to be at least some senior-level support. And that the first political party to figure this out is going to make some hay.

Comment: Nico Macdonald (Dec 5, 2005)

Not everyone thinks that government manipulation of design is an unalloyed good to be taken at face value. Note some of the commentators in my articleon design and social policy.

Better by Design (http://www.rsa.org.uk/journal/article.asp?articleID=575 ), Nico Macdonald, RSA Journal, August 2005, Volume CLII, No 5518, pp26-31. Design used to be associated purely with aesthetics. Today it has been embraced by business leaders and is advocated for social policy development. Nico Macdonald investigates these claims. [Documented, with Acrobat facsimile of the article, on my journal including facility for responding (http://www.spy.co.uk/Articles/RSA_Journal/FutureDesign/ ).]

Comment: Sally (Dec 10, 2005)

Great ideas. So what office are YOU going to run for:)?

Comment: Paul Nattress (Dec 13, 2005)

Hi Lou,

I'm from the North East of England (where this scheme is being started) and the fundamental problem is that this area of the country is badly in need of development in industry.

Traditionally, the North East of England (Newcastle upon Tyne and Northumberland) are coal mining regions. When the mines closed, a lot of jobs were lost. Also, Tyneside was a great shipbuilding region and this industry is suffering.

Rather than fund a resurrection of industry here, the government instead is pouring money into the arts. We now have the Sage Gateshead (a world class music centre) and the Baltic Art Centre situated in Gateshead (the town that border Newcastle on the south of the River Tyne). Gateshead is a deprived neighbourhood, badly in need of good housing and jobs - not international arts and music centres.

Let's hope that the people of the North East (known as "Geordies") will vote for jobs and better neighbourhoods, not designer buildings, arts centres, or anything that does little for the people living in the poor parts of the region.

Comment: Andrea Gallagher (Dec 14, 2005)

Nico is FAR better placed to comment on the UK design efforts, but I do have perspective as an American formerly living in London.

The *average* experience quality of places and services in the UK is lower than in the US. Many of the small and gradual experience improvements we see implemented company by company in the US just haven't made it to the UK yet.

Basically, I bet that the US economy as a whole spends more on experience design than the UK economy, it's just spent by the private sector in a way we can't measure.

Comment: Lou (Dec 14, 2005)

Drea, that may be the case, but there is something to be said for a national government taking an active role in improving design for its citizens. It can't all come from the private sector, because we don't interact exclusively with the private sector.

Sometimes this stuff comes up in the most banal settings. For example, consider how much better life becomes for urban commuters when the various mass transit and toll agencies standardize on a single method of payment. That's design, and it's design that requires some level of enlightenment and participation from government.

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