Fixing the broken windows and making design matter


Image – Steven Pisano

Many of the companies we look at as being successful are what we call design-led. They put design right at the centre of everything they do.

When we hold up examples like Apple and Pixar as companies that ‘get’ design we don’t just mean they design great things. We mean that they also care about their business environment and culture. The way they do things.

I choose these examples because they had leadership in common. Someone like Steve Jobs who understood the importance of design.

Broken windows theory

There’s a now famous story of the New York police department’s attempts in the early 1980’s to reduce an out of control crime rate in the city.

The story goes that they adopted a broken windows policy – first introduced in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. They believed that small things like broken windows matter in a community and, if nothing is done about them, they lead to worse things like an increase in violent crime.

The results of this approach are now disputed 30 years later but there’s something about the idea that’s always stuck with me.

The small things all around us in the places we live and work really matter. If not dealt with as smaller things they have the potential to grow into much bigger things.

You can look at this another way. Starting with the small things around you is a real opportunity to shape the big things that will eventually determine how we live and work.

Valuing design

People are rightly worried about how we not only hire great digital specialists, especially designers, in government, but they’re more worried about how we keep the great people we’ve already hired. I’m worried about this as well.

The point gets made regularly that we need senior leadership to value design in our ‘ways of working’.

I agree, but I think we have an important contribution to make to this. I don’t think it will just happen.

I think you have to actively put design at the heart of everything that’s happening inside your organisation as well as making sure the things you create or deliver are well designed.

Fixing the small things first

You can start with the small things. This acts to show the value of a ‘designed company’ – it can amplify a culture where you have real leadership buy-in for design.

Start by fixing the things you can see and more importantly the things you can already reach. This is how you get closer to the things you can’t fix right now.

The problem of ownership

The problem in large organisations is the obsession with ownership. Whether it’s communications, product design, facilities or management. The real question is whether it’s designed and works well.

Has anyone thought about what the experience of working in your organisation is really like?

For example, an onboarding process for new employees is a service, and an experience that matters if you want people to settle in quickly and do their best work.

Building signage and branding also matters when people take away a first and lasting impression of your company.

Most importantly, consistency matters across everything you do and it all needs to be designed.

Going back to our New York police department example, it didn’t matter who owned the buildings. They realised they had to fix all the broken windows, despite issues of ownership.

Every detail matters

In the long run this is the reason I think successful companies become design-led or user-centred.

Companies like Apple care about the environment their people go to work in – you just have to look at their latest building project.

It’s the environment and the culture you create that makes people want to be part of your values and if you have one, your purpose.

Even Apple started with the small details – everything from the design for the inside of their early computer casing designs and microchips as described in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography.

Design what the public don’t see as well as what they do. All the details matter, but most importantly it sets the tone for everything else.

This way, everything has to be designed. It has to work as well as it’s possible for the people it’s designed for.

Earning the right to be a company centred around design

Where I work in government we’re in the process of fixing lots of the small things. We’re getting on with it pretty quietly most of the time.

Everything from our hiring and onboarding processes, sharing our digital portfolio, through to the design of our data and dashboards. We’re then looking at all the little things we can be involved with. Stickers, posters, and even infographics and content design for policy whitepapers. These are the sorts of little things that have the potential to become big important things.

We still spend most of our time designing services, interactions and content for our products but everything else matters as well.

The key questions are always “can design add value to this?” and “can we communicate this more clearly and concisely, or be more consistent?”

Most importantly a designed company puts people first. It’s user centred in the way it delivers products or services but also within its own culture. In the civil service this challenges what we think of as traditional management hierarchy, grade structures, and even how invested we are as individuals, thinking about our culture and how we work.

Design your community

All service delivery and its success is a result of how we work together.

Broken windows policy was ultimately about people. Improving lives by improving communities.

If you want to make design matter, start with the broken windows.

Ben Holliday is an experienced designer, leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.