What Design Can Do for Your City

A simple guide to using design techniques to solve issues in your community

Lex Roman
Lex Roman
May 7, 2018 · 6 min read
Illustrations courtesy the author

I see everything as a design problem. Line too long at the DMV? Design problem. Not enough healthy food in your neighborhood? Design problem. Can’t afford a place to live? Design problem.

If you think of everything as a design problem, then you know you can use design to solve it. Perhaps you’ve heard the Steve Jobs quote: “Design is how it works.” If you believe that statement, then everything is design and everything is designed.

Think about how you navigate public transit in your city, or whether there is public transit at all. What about how your city reacts to emergencies — is there a full-time fire department? How do you get your kids into a good school? What’s it like to go to that school? All of this is designed. And usually, it’s designed by politicians.

As we know from the recent Facebook hearings, the government can heavily regulate how we design. But what happens when design informs how we govern?

Everything gets easier.

Suddenly, you can make an appointment at the DMV so you don’t have to wait in line. You can report potholes on your phone so the city can fix streets more quickly. You can apply for food assistance as easily as you take a survey online. We can put up smaller, more portable shelters using recycled materials. All of this and more can happen when designers get involved in government.

This type of design is called service design. Service design involves understanding and improving everything about that system. It is a practice that goes beyond disciplines like architecture and industrial, graphic, and interface design. It is a human-centered way to look at a system and choose the right solution, no matter the medium.

Many people feel helpless around civic issues. They think government happens to them. But you can change that. Here are a few ways to lift up your community and make it a better place to live through the lens of design.

Focus on one issue

Most of us have more than one issue we care about, but to make a sustained impact, focus is critical. Think about the biggest problem you see in your community. What injustices keep you up at night? As you think about what matters to you, consider where that issue’s surrounding policies and regulation stem from. For example, immigration is a national issue and is hard to make a dent in as one person (though it is possible). Transportation, education, and housing are more locally controlled.

Once you identify that issue, what about that issue really bothers you? Where do you see the biggest opportunity?

Develop relationships around the issue

As you define your mission, try to understand the current ecosystem around it. Who does it affect? Who could potentially help you solve it? Who is working on solving it today? In software design, we call this customer development.

It’s easier than you think to get ahold of most elected officials. Ask them about the issue. Why do they think that problem exists? How can you help fix it? Start with the most local, accessible person you can speak with and move up from there. Also, consider nonprofits that work in that space. They often have close relationships with politicians.

Try to find other volunteers like you who are working on the issue. I meet people all the time on Twitter and at events who are working on homelessness, part-time, like I am. They can not only encourage you but also support your ideas and add power to your efforts.

Find a gap you can actually address

Once you have an issue, look at the entire system. Create a journey or service map. Who are the players? What are the touch points? Where are the biggest problems happening?

For example, I’ve found a couple gaps I can work on around homelessness. One, it can be hard to understand how things we voted for are getting implemented. Two, there’s a lot of misinformation about our homeless population. Both of these problems are blocking housing from getting built.

After talking with the city and several partners, I led a project through the League of Women Voters to develop a simple guide to how our city is solving homelessness. We share facts visually online and at community events to keep people engaged in the issue.

Keep it going

When you work on a large problem, it will not be solved overnight. The government and nonprofit spaces both move slowly, but if you hang in over the long-term, you can start to see some change. You can start to see your impact.

As I work to fill the visual and communication gaps I see around homelessness, it can sometimes feel like I’m not helping anyone directly. We have been asking tirelessly for a service center in our neighborhood so people have a place to get help. We have sent letters, gone to many meetings, and provided materials for others to do the same. Last week, I found out our neighborhood is finally getting one. But we won’t stop there. I just finished designing a visual report for a neighborhood homeless coalition I’m a part of. They tracked down a ton of possible locations for service centers in their area. Walkable services will make all the difference for our neighbors without stable housing and we, a group of unpaid volunteers, are contributing to making that a reality.

Find your focus and start making an impact. The smaller you start, the faster you’ll see change. You can always go bigger as you build relationships.

The more you build on the work others are already doing, the faster we can solve problems. A few tangible ways you can help improve the design of your city:

  • Work on a city agency’s or nonprofit’s website offering content, design, or development.
  • Help market an underutilized service.
  • Rethink commonly used materials like voter registration forms, applications for housing, library card applications.
  • Educate your neighbors about what’s going on in your city with newsletters, social media posts, or a website.
  • Simplify a process in a visual way; for example, visualize how you start a small business or all the education options in your area and share it online.
  • Create and share future concepts for how the system could work — the Hyperloop was just a pitch on paper, and now there are multiple companies actually trying to make it a reality.

Whether or not you actually work for the government, every single person can create change in their city, state, or country. I believe strongly that we can’t leave it to our elected officials to do everything for us. We live here. We have to build the kinds of places we want to live in.


If you want to work in government:

If you want to work on civic issues in your spare time:

General civic design resources:


Helping designers thrive.

Lex Roman

Written by

Lex Roman

Product and Growth Designer. Delivering measurable value. Increasing data literacy. Housing and homeless advocate.



Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Lex Roman

Written by

Lex Roman

Product and Growth Designer. Delivering measurable value. Increasing data literacy. Housing and homeless advocate.



Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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