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August 8, 2017

Plain Language | Providence City Hall | Sophie Weston Chien, BArch ‘20

by sophiechien

I have spent the last few weeks preparing a design thinking workshop for my office (Mayor’s Center for City Services), Office of Innovation, Senior Services, and Healthy Communities Office. My goals are to a. learn how to facilitate a design thinking workshop b. begin to unpack my design process and explore how to share it with others c. wrap up my Maharam Fellowship with my colleagues finally explaining what I do and d. share design thinking with people who work in city hall to infiltrate municipal thinking with the people who execute it. No tall order!


It is reminiscent of another workshop I lead this year during Alternative Spring Break. I also proposed working with a government organization (National Park Service, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area) and had them agree to host a group of RISD students (all majors and years) for a 3-day workshop/volunteering opportunity. They presented us with a problem, and I spent the next few days leading my team through the design process to come up with a solution (here and here for spoilers). It’s so interesting to me that so many people see designing as this impenetrable action, versus the parts needed to analyze, synthesize, visualize and create that we are taught in traditional school.


After facilitating both of these experiences I have learned a ton about my own design process, but even more importantly I have learned about how the design process uncovers one’s values. At its core, working for the government, working in public service (service is a word I like to problematize but I’ll keep it for now) is about improving people’s lives, and in the least-cheesy way making the world better for people. Of course, over time this has mutated from many other types of societies and one should argue that currently big government is not doing this but at this level, in the place, people CARE. It was abundantly clear throughout the design process that the chief concern for everyone was if constituents of Providence would be better served.


There were no mentions of breakthrough ideas (which for the record I would normally go for) that would revolutionize everything, no extreme statements for the sake of statements. Just extremely careful considerations of doing the most good for the most people using the precious resources the city has.


It was so beautiful that each office truly acted as an advocate for the people they represent. The department head of Senior Services told her cohorts when anything proposed would be hard for seniors to navigate. The department head of Mayor’s Center for City Services was determined that city hall would become actually approachable and visitors would have access to the services they need in the way that they need it. Everyone was united in their vision for plain language to be used at every opportunity- breaking down the bureaucratic system one step at a time.

Good design is considered design, and that’s why we need more government workers and designers at the same table. 



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