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Design

4 surprisingly great examples of government design

4 min read
Shayna Hodkin  •  May 2, 2019
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As the world of digital products leaps forward, it can feel like governmental agencies and offices are left behind. The joy of stumbling upon a usable government website is what those “design for delight” designers dream of.

It’s an unfortunate truth that government design is more often a joke than an inspiration (ask anyone who was around for the launch of healthcare.gov about that). With that in mind, the surprise announcement of Public Sans, the United States government’s custom font, was…well, a surprise.

Reactions ranged from excitement,

to jealousy,

to straight up pouring haterade on Helvetica.

That got us thinking: governments get a bad rap when it comes to design. But the tide is turning. Let’s take a deeper look into three other exciting—and hopeful—wins for design in governmental design history.

1. Gov.UK design system

The UK government may be experiencing some difficulties right now, but as for design, they’re among the world’s best. With active—and beautiful—Tumblr, Github, and Instagram presences, their aesthetic could be described as royal…ly hip.

We’d put a crown on it.

Now, here’s the tea: The GOV.UK’s design team, Government Digital Service, celebrated its 7th birthday in November 2018.

It’s been seven years of operating under the radar. As such, when they released a beta version of their design system in June 2018, there wasn’t much fanfare.

Or, really, any at all.

Still in beta, the design system is comprised of styles, components, and patterns, all of which are fully WCAG 2.0-compatible. Speaking to the future they’re building around—and within—this system, the team wrote in their launch blog post,

The Design System and all of its contents are now fully supported by a dedicated team at the Government Digital Service (GDS). There will be someone to talk to if you need help and a number of ways get in touch—including a dedicated Design System team email address and Slack channel—to offer suggestions for making things better.

“We are constantly building, evaluating and working hard to make things better.”

Government Digital Services
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In the six months since its release, the design system has been celebrated by those using it. Software designer Marc Belle documented his experience of applying the new design system to app design, and how something as innocuous as a design system has widespread impact on the collaborative process writing,

“What else have we achieved? To sum it up: we talk more. We schedule a weekly meeting between design, development and testing teams to talk about anything happening cross-team that might impact the components or design system…Everyone in the team is accountable for the way things look and function, with designers and developers pairing when designing and creating new components. We are constantly building, evaluating and working hard to make things better. Of course, things will change: this will be one of many extensions of the Design System. But the process of involving and talking to each other more will help us scale and extend it well into the future.”

Some examples of their work include:




And if the UK government can get this together in between “everything else” they’re dealing with—well, take that a sign. You can do it too.

Want to see what it takes to make design Gov.UK-compatible? Check out the standards here.

2. Finland’s embrace of experimental design

Rarely will you find a government willing to embrace risk with screen design choices. And yet.

Meet thisisFINLAND, the Finnish government’s website—and the direct result of their experimentation mindset. In 2015, the Finnish Prime Minister released his 10-year strategic plan, including a section on experimentation—the need to explore unchartered design territory in order to make design progress.

“Experimentation will aim at innovative solutions, improvements in services, the promotion of individual initiative and entrepreneurship, and the strengthening of regional and local decision-making and cooperation.”

“Design isn’t just aesthetics (and it might not even be about aesthetics at all). “

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Snuck in between the “bioeconomy” and “structural reforms” sections is a plan for developing a governmental culture of experimentation and digitalization, including the creation of a “growth environment…for digital business operations.”

It’s not about experimenting for experimentation’s sake. The digitalization of public services was a key agenda item because it’s critical to meeting a better Finland in 2025.

As the agenda states, “With the help of new operating methods, public services will become user-oriented and primarily digital to enable the leap in productivity necessary for the general government finances…Digitalisation will be a cross-cutting theme in the government strategy.”

A widely-publicized example of Finland’s new openness to radical design is its two-year universal basic income trial. The idea came out of a 32-hour government-sponsored hackathon on the topic of basic income, where a team of coders, researchers, politicians, communications specialists, graphic designers, activists, and information designers worked together to brainstorm new plans for social security.

According to the OECD Observer, “Finland has taken a systems design approach in its policymaking. And it’s telling its civil servants not to be afraid to try out new ideas.”

“With the help of new operating methods…Digitalisation will be a cross-cutting theme in the government strategy.”

Experimental Finland
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The Finnish website’s resemblance to Tumblr feeds of yore (as opposed to other government websites) isn’t a coincidence—it’s a sign of recognition, showing we speak the same digital language and we’re moving in the same direction, together.

And if you want to send that feeling forwards, there’s official Finnish emojis for that.

3. New Zealand’s Digital Service Design Standards

The opening statement of New Zealand’s digital transformation directive reads: “We want all New Zealanders to be thriving in a digital world.”

Diagram used in New Zealand’s discovery sessions

Released in April 2019, the four-point plan clarifies what those in Oceania have been hard at work on creating a forward-thinking design culture to benefit all New Zealanders.

New Zealand’s web presences aren’t as slick as the UK’s, and they aren’t as young or fun as Finland’s. They’re…practical.

Which is an important note! Because design isn’t just aesthetics (and it might not even be about aesthetics at all). New Zealand’s digital design practice is a clearly-drawn map towards a new, design-forward world.

“The joy of stumbling upon a usable government website is what those “design for delight” designers dream of.”

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The accessibility standards that New Zealand set for itself encompass, and surpass, the traditional WCAG 2.0. Beyond that, though, they come with guides for every step of the web process, from writing copy to assessing risk.

By laying out their standards point-by-point, with resources for every step, they’re helping build the inclusive internet we’re dreaming of, all the way from Oceania.

Want to learn more about the future of design?