Loading ...
How did you get started in the field of design and end up where you are today? My grandmother was a psychoanalyst in New York City, and her interest in understanding people’s actions and motivations had a huge influence on me. She always looked beneath the surface of people and society, encouraging me to do the same. I did so by studying and participating in the arts. I was moved by the character studies in Greek dramas, the social commentary in works by Picasso and the Surrealists, and the connection with nature found through Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures, just to name a few of my hundreds of influences. Making and connecting with art came naturally to me. I acted, sang, drew and pursued photography throughout my childhood and through college.

I came to design in 1996 after completing a BFA in textiles and printmaking at California College of the Arts. At that time, I was living in San Francisco, where people were migrating from all kinds of related creative disciplines to work on the Web. Immediately drawn to this new medium’s creative potential, I discovered human-centered design early on through the work of Hot Studio founder Maria Giudice. I was hooked.

I walked a winding road through startups and design studios in many industries before dedicating myself to projects focusing on social innovation in 2008. In 2012, I had the opportunity to mentor Code For America fellows who were working on civic design projects with city governments. Their inspiring work opened my eyes to the possibility that design could directly affect civic life. When I learned about the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program in 2014 and saw that the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wanted to bring human-centered design to the organization’s transformation, I knew I wanted to get involved. I applied to the program and was luckily chosen to serve.
We are the government. And we can make it work better.

What are the challenges of using traditional design thinking to transform a governmental organization like the VA? Government is extremely focused on risk aversion. Ironically, the waterfall method of product and service development still prevalent in government—yes, in 2016—works against government’s goals by wasting huge amounts of time and billions of dollars building systems that are often of limited value. I work to help people understand that human-centered design is a great way to reduce risk. By starting with an understanding of real human needs, we can quickly frame up and test concepts and prototypes for viability, feasibility and desirability. This saves time, increases our ability to responsibly steward taxpayers’ money and helps us deliver on our mission.

Like any effort to create change, the biggest challenge is our natural resistance to change. As the systems thinker Donella Meadows noted, the most powerful lever for change exists at the level of the mindset, or paradigms. Without changing mindsets, we can make incremental changes in a system—but not foundational, lasting change. To change mindsets, we have to first consciously identify the thinking patterns that maintain status quo in a system, which in this case is a large bureaucratic organization. It’s tricky, but possible. We’ve definitely seen changes in all levels of leadership at VA since we began the Veterans Experience Office eighteen months ago. Every day’s conversations and meetings are opportunities to reinforce new habits toward more human-centered values.

What do you and your colleagues at the VA envision when you think about a radically transformed VA? Changes are vital because the perception of VA in the news media, and to some extent their own experiences, has led many veterans to believe that VA is broken and that our employees do not have their best interest at heart. Veterans and the general public have lost faith in their VA.

My experience tells me that VA’s employees care a great deal about veterans. This mission-focused workforce struggles under the weight of excessive layers of bureaucracy and cultural norms that have hampered people’s ability to express their caring as fully as they would like to.

We envision an organization based on principles versus rules—an organization whose employees feel supported to do what is right for the veteran standing in front of them because they have the training, skills, resources and incentives to provide unrivaled service. We envision VA employees helping America’s veterans thrive in their lives following military service, supported by easily accessible and understandable benefits and services from VA.

How are you driving radical transformation as the Director of Insight and Design for the VA’s Customer Experience team? Chief veterans experience officer Tom Allin, Julia Kim, Walt Cooper and I created the Veterans Experience (VE) Office in January 2015 from scratch to be the “steward” and “honest broker” for veterans in the VA. It has none of the traditional barriers of bureaucracy: Its sleek, fast-acting, imaginative and all-encompassing approaches are breaking down the traditional barriers of bureaucracy. It brings together teams to identify what immediate and long-term changes we can make to care, products and services that directly impact a veteran’s experience of VA.

The VE Office acts as a hub of shared information that helps our employees, staff offices and administrations come up with innovative solutions and share best practices.

The Insight & Design team conducts ongoing ethnographic field research across the United States to understand female and male veterans from all eras and branches of service. We reflect this data through design artifacts, from personas to journey maps to longer visually driven reports that identify patterns and opportunities for service improvements. Through this work, we are helping the organization think differently about who we serve and what our customers want and need from VA. Back to mindsets—we are shifting the default mindset from putting operations first to people first.

We also lead a program of service design interventions based on our field research. One example is the letters we send veterans. We learned from veterans that the letters VA sends them are often confusing, too long and bureaucratic, and not clearly actionable. This leads many people to pick up the phone and dial a call center or reach out to a veteran service officer or member of Congress for help deciphering their meaning. As a result, we have begun a project to rewrite all of VA’s customer-facing letters to provide useful information that speaks clearly, respectfully and directly to veterans and their supporters. This is one element of a larger effort to improve the onboarding experience.

What excites and frustrates you about the design field right now? I’m excited by: designers taking on complex adaptive challenges and learning more about systems thinking; dialogues about implicit hiring biases in the workplace that disproportionately affect women and people of color; civic design; the myth of the lone genius designer biting the dust and the rise in recognition of the designer as a catalyzer, convener and cocreator; and founders who are designers.

I’m frustrated by: technological utopianism; software companies overusing “save the world” language to describe the challenges they tackle to make the world more comfortable for highly privileged people; and big data without big stories on why the data matters.

Should more designers apply their talents to the government/public sector? Absolutely! Over the last two years, it’s become clearer to me that government is not monolithic. Like any institution, the government is thousands of individuals working at the federal, state and local levels. We are the government. And we can make it work better.

But government hasn’t moved at pace with the innovations in design and engineering in the private sector. Those of us who have worked with modern practices are uniquely qualified to share what we’ve learned with dedicated civil servants.

We have a lot to learn from each other. There are career civil servants in every agency, at every level, working to make change without the support, resources or top cover that shiny new programs like the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the United States Digital Service have. It’s important to learn from these folks about how to be operationally feasible, align to government budget cycles, navigate the land of government procurement and build alliances within the agency to get things done. Working in government as a change maker is hard. It requires a lot of entrepreneurial spirit and boundless patience, and it’s best approached with humility and a spirit of partnership.

I can guarantee there will be moments when you want to throw your ancient government-issued PC out the window while attempting to navigate a terrible piece of software designed and built by the government. Oftentimes, it feels like upside-down land where things that should be hard are easy and things that should be easy are hard. But the work matters. And it’s fulfilling. It affects the everyday lives of millions of people. Your work can help a struggling family get food stamps. It can help someone achieve her or his dream of becoming a US citizen. It can help a veteran access mental health resources, a senior citizen get social security payments or help the US Department of Justice crackdown on cyber bullying. These are just some opportunities that working in government presents.

Designers, bring your talents to the public sector. Think of it as a tour of duty to serve your country. Consider taking six months or a couple of years out of your long career to contribute.

What would you say to designers who don’t believe in design’s ability to create positive change? Design is an optimistic endeavor. Every designer I know believes she or he is changing the world in some fashion by virtue of creating something new or improving what already exists. The question is: How and at what level do you want to change the world?

I commonly hear that designers are problem solvers. Yes, we can and do solve problems. What is exciting to me is that we can also do so much more. We can work in the realm of complex adaptive challenges such as poverty, global income inequality and structural racism. These challenges defy the problem/solution paradigm. A higher order level of self-awareness and systems thinking skills is required to work at macrolevels that shift systems toward regenerative, healthy modes of being. Designers working toward shifting systems is one of the main reasons to be hopeful about the possibility of maintaining conditions conducive to life on this planet. That is a hell of a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Sarah Brooks is the Director of Insight and Design at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)’s Veterans Experience Office, part of the team leading the VA’s transformation efforts. In her role, Brooks is responsible for the strategic leadership of the customer understanding practice and a dynamic portfolio of service design projects to ensure that VA becomes a modernized, veteran-centric organization with a seamless customer experience. For the past fifteen years, she has led multidisciplinary teams at startups, design studios and organizations of all scales and has created products and services including food systems, healthcare, media, education, finance and civic innovation. Brooks lectures and teaches internationally on the theme of design toward social innovation and systems thinking. She is an active essayist, a published author and serves as a mentor for numerous social enterprise incubators. Brooks served as a 2014-2015 Presidential Innovation Fellow. In 2016, she was named one of Washington, DC’s “Powerful Women Designers” by coalition DCFemTech. She holds a BA in film from Boston University and a BFA in textiles and printmaking from California College of the Arts.

With a free Commarts account, you can enjoy 50% more free content
Create an Account
Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber or have a Commarts account?
Sign In

Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber?
Sign In