For the past year we have been working closely with a multi-disciplinary health team made up or academics, researchers, health service deliverers and health promotion experts from the Inner West of Sydney, to co-design a program encouraging an active and healthy lifestyle for young people with young people.
And now, after presenting the outcome of the project to our team of health professionals in early November, we can share the work so that others might be able to build on the knowledge we’ve created with them.
The report is a powerful tool for change for 13-17 year olds establishing a healthy and active lifestyle. Real change will be possible in the SLHD and the next phase will involve other groups like schools and Councils to implement.
The team is focused on delivering services within what is known as the Sydney Local Health District – a geographic area that stretches from Lakemba and Belmore in the West to Newtown, Marrickville and Glebe near the city and out to Canada Bay on the inner harbour.
Our co-design process moved through all of the normal phases of intent, research, field work and collaborative prototyping and solution development. Young people are SO busy that at one stage we wondered if there would be a program that would fit into their hectic lifestyles at all!
As well as a clear and detailed position on what might constitute an integrated program(s) we also learnt some amazing things about young people who are 13-17 now:
  • The desire to be activists is strong in this group. They understand that there are significant structural reasons why their lifestyles might not be as healthy and active as they should be and they are willing to try and change that.
  • They are experts at multi-modal text analysis. They switch between channels, formats, products and platforms and curate meaning from a range of inputs that many adults can’t even comprehend.
  • They do want to be active – but in many cases their age group is effectively ‘locked out’ of public spaces – if you’re under 12 or over 18 you have a lot more options.
  • They understand WHY they need to be healthy and active, they just need help with why.

During our report presentation and debrief, the team described the co-design process as ‘delightful’ ‘incredible’ and ‘it gave us freedom in a refreshing, liberating, motivating way’ We found that too and are so happy to share these results!

As always, our design projects are collaborative efforts and the full list of collaborators are in the report, but we’d like to call out some particular peers.

  • Renee Morton from the SLHD and Professor Chris Rissel from the Office of Preventative Health who were instrumental in championing and investing in a co-design approach. They were wonderful Project Sponsors and put together a great team for us.
  • We’ve wanted to work on a project with Natalie Rowland from Red Rollers for some time, so it was great to be able to do that with this one. Nat provided outstanding insight and support into the approach we might take with the young people.
  • Youthblock is an outstanding service based in Redfern and Nigel and the team there went above and beyond to support us on the project.

And finally, of course, the 40+ young people who spent time designing with us through interviews, observation and workshops – a diverse and representative group who were motivated to make a difference – we hope we gave your ‘voice’ AGENCY!

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DMA’s office and work takes place on the country of the Ngunnawal people, as such we acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians of this land on which we work and pay respect to the Elders of the Ngunnawal Nation both past and present and emerging.

A note: The following post is our way of describing a topic and spectrum of work that is extremely important to us as designers and people. But we are still learning. So if we use any language or description in the post that doesn’t work for any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, please reach out and let us know.

Back in 2015, DMA was working on an excellent project with a local Directorate mapping the ideal service journey of a range of service cohorts here in Canberra. The final workshop and map we were involved in was with the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

The session turned out to be one of the most humbling, difficult and confronting workshops we have ever been involved in. As we endeavored to ‘move people through our service design methodology’ there was push back at every level. Participants told us we were trying to take their intellectual property and not listen to what they had to say in the way they wanted to say it.

There were elements of the workshop set-up that hadn’t sat well with us, but what we experienced that day wasn’t about logistics. The uncomfortable feeling we had as designers was what we should have felt, because those angry voices in the room were absolutely correct.

After the event we didn’t retreat into ourselves to try and work out what happened and ‘how we could fix it next time’. Instead, we licked our designer wounds, and fundamentally changed our approach to how we work with and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, both in our local community and further afield.

With background experiences with indigenous-focused work from New Zealand and our existing connections to friends and peers in the community, we knew we had a platform to work from.

Connecting and Understanding

Designers pride themselves on empathy, it’s what makes us tick. So the first thing we thought about was why we had missed the mark at an empathy level with this work. We realised that so much of service design’s engagement with the community is on the terms of Federal and State departments and Agencies who come from a deficit point of view.

We’d only ever been asked to work with the community as an identified group of ‘vulnerable people’. We’d never once been asked to work with people to celebrate excellence or success.

So our first step was to move beyond ‘professional empathy’ to real understanding. We reached out. Connected. Listened. Learned. We still have a lot to learn, but we deliberately built a network of formal and informal advisors who started us on our journey to genuine engagement with the community.

Some of this network were already mates, some new to us – all are a critical part of how we shape our practice. As a deliberate business decision now, if approached by Government to work on a project involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we will not even commence a proposal until we have consulted and listened to our network – their advice drives our business decision-making in this area.

Three levels of activity

As well as this conscious decision to connect we also started thinking about how we can help make real change from a service design perspective.

Firstly, we recognised that all policy is political. That’s not a judgement, it’s a fact. That means that all services designed for and delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not politically agnostic – they are laden with political significance. With that as a foundation we decided to look at the issue from three levels where we thought we could drive action.

The three levels are:

1. Using service design to support direct community action

This level of activity is about us connecting with community and bringing our service design approach to specific projects that create real change. Not with service design as the answer, but as a support for our collaborators to navigate existing service systems and political realities. It’s service design as empowering self-determination as defined by our collaborators, not service design as the lead.

You can read about our first project which was driven by Justin below – we are really proud of it.

2. Using service design to demand self-determination in government service delivery

This level of activity is about DMA, as a service design agency, not only taking on the right work, but shaping the expectations of our client agencies and demanding a collaborative seat at the table for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

How this works in practice is that we will not take on work that has deficit language as a descriptive starting point, and we will tell the potential client why. In the preparation of proposals in how to deliver on the work, we will only do so once we have formally or informally discussed the intent with our network of advisors, this is essential as the method we outline in our proposals guide the whole project, so that advice and opportunities for collaboration must be up-front.

Finally, we recognise that the ‘service design market’ is large and extremely profitable for many design agencies. Therefore, at it’s most pragmatic level and beyond the outcomes being delivered, if there is money being made in this market then we must make actual meaningful steps and take responsibility to bring Indigenous Business into it.

Our first step in this direction has been our work with the Australian Bureau of Statistics on the Census. They approached us to work with them on the under-count of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in urban locations. We only took on the work once we had consulted our network and built the proposal based on their advice. During the project we continued checking in with our mates to ensure we were on track. Importantly, once we delivered our outcomes and recognised there was more work to do, we insisted that an Indigenous Business be brought in to deliver the next phase. We are extremely proud that the procurement is now complete, and though we maintain a small role, the bulk of the work will be delivered by an Indigenous design capability.

3. The evolution of service design itself from design-led to design as supporting self-determination

This is the highest level of work. A recognition that our practice, our vocation – service design – is enmeshed and intertwined with the very structures that inhibit self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

Our goal with this work is to develop a methodology that brings current service design practice together with existing and successful indigenous practice. The outcome may well be that service design just disappears in this context and makes way, But we know that Departments, policy makers and service delivers increasingly use ‘design’ language and as such we think it’s important to actively think about how this bridge is built.

For the work we are driven by understanding what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service design might look like based on the Australian experience, but also what other First Nation Peoples design practice has worked – such as the Treaty of Waitangi design framework being worked on all the time by our great peers in NZ. Our colleagues in the education leadership space are also strong influencers, with Wendy Cave in particular directing us to thinking from Tyson Kaawoppa Yunkaporta, a Bama man of Nungar and Koori descent, and his 8 Ways of Learning in Aboriginal Languages and processes such as Engoori.

Results of our using service desing to support direct community action

Deadly All Stars Yarning Circle Design
The Deadly All Stars is a group that has been established to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care (kinship and other arrangements) to maintain links to their culture and community.

This award-winning group led a project in 2016 that designed, developed and placed a series of story poles in the front garden of Barnardos’ offices in Downer ACT.

The group was looking to expand this original project to develop more of the built environment around the office. The first goal is a yarning circle for the group itself to use.

Led by Wiradjuri woman Sharon Williams and Katie Martin from Barnardos, the All Stars are a tight knit and highly successful group. They reached out to Justin at DMA for design support.

Working with the group has led to the delivery of a professional quality design research report with you can read here. The following is from the introduction.

The team are now looking to raise $6,650.00 to make phase one of the garden become reality


In 2016 the Deadly Allstars created and built a series of Story Poles in the front garden of the Barnardos offices in Downer in the ACT. The project was empowering for the group, symbolic of their connection to culture and highly successful in terms of the support for and love of the poles by the community that uses the space (Barnardos staff, visiting families and local residents).

An opportunity arose in 2018 to think about what other features could be added to the space, with the primary driver the creation of a Yarning Circle. To support the boys in the group to experience a formal design process it was decided to commence a service design process, which they would lead, to come up with a design for the space.


The Deadly All Stars is a group that has been established to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care (kinship and other arrangements) to maintain links to their culture and community. In this project the group has become the Design Team.

A series of design activities have been set up for them to move through by Design Mentor Justin Barrie, but the team has delivered the design.

Key elements about the team include:

      • The team has been flexible to include anyone who is available at various times – it has been deliberately inclusive – though driven by a core group of around 5 – 7 young men.
      • The team has not been helped to generate content or insight – the results in the project are theirs.
      • The team is not just the young men – the group conveners Sharon Williams and Katie Martin and carers and family members have been active parts of the process as team members over the research phase.


Justin Barrie is the founder and a Principal Designer at Design Managers Australia and long-term volunteer and mentor in the ACT Community Sector.

Justin is a specialist in co-design techniques which seek to deliver projects that are designed along with the users of the service that is being built. His interest in supporting the project stems from a deep personal respect for the group conveners Sharon and Katie and what they are trying to achieve with the Allstars and a desire to support the wonderful young men in the group to work on and deliver a successful project in a context of excellence.


This research report contains a large amount of design-specific language. Readers of the report may (mistakenly) think that the Design Team hasn’t had this language used with them and that it just appears in this paper as the language of the ‘documenter’. This is by no means the case.

Justin has deliberately used this language at all times in the project. The Design Team is made up of capable, intelligent, thoughtful young men and adults.

In fact, a deliberate goal of the project is to equip the team with the language that is used currently by people and organisations that might make decisions FOR THEM, so that in the future they may harness the power of this language and approach to ensure decisions are made BY THEM or at the very least WITH THEM.

This sense of agency through language has been delivered through three key steps:

    1. Deliberate use of the design vocabulary – no simplification of language.
    2. Translation of the vocabulary – to be activity and age specific to provide context.
    3. Debriefing on the design language – when the group hung wall posters to tell the staff of the centre what they had done the previous week.

Not all of these steps, nor all of the language would have been consciously taken on by the whole team each week. Unsurprisingly this is true of adults collaborators we work with as well.

But the project is set up so that they might take away some of this design language and build on the bits that speak to them (and give them tangible results).

Read the report (PDF, 4MB)

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We feel that design is inherently ethical.

For some years we, like many service designers, have argued that design by its very nature and approach takes place within a strong ethical context. We’ve ensured that what we do when undertaking design is ‘ethical’ and have internal processes in place to support and empower our co-design collaborators and design research targets.

We are primarily ‘public services’ designers. In that sense our work is always bound by the protocols and rules inherent in the public sector. But we feel we need to be clear in the articulation of what ethical means to us. The result is the development of, and sharing here, our ethical framework. This framework relates specifically to the ‘how’ of design research, and how one does design, as opposed to the current important discussions about ethics of the ‘what’ of design and how one judges the impacts of designs to be made.


Co-designing with Young People as a focus for articulating an ethical framework

The impetus for us documenting our existing views and practices in the form of a framework was borne out of a current piece of work. We are in the process of undertaking a project with key academic and public policy collaborators such as the University of Sydney and State government department NSW Health. In the project kick-off we were involved in an interesting conversation about how our work (in this case a project co-designing with young people under the age of 18) is different to “research” and relates to research structures such as formal ethics committees and other academic governance.

The result of these conversations is the development of the DMA Ethical Design Framework, which takes inspiration from our own processes; peers whose judgement and experience we trust; and related industries such as academic research which invests a lot of time in defining these things.

Due to the nature of the current project, and our desire to keep the framework focused, this iteration relates directly to co-designing with young people (ie. those under 18 years).

We have been guided in part in the articulation of this framework by the work of one of our key advisor/collaborators in this space Tim Moore who has always advised that the critical element of working with vulnerable and young people in particular is the sense of safety that needs to be created. We’ve always implicitly done this in practice and it doesn’t just apply to vulnerable and young people, it applies to everyone involved in co-design.

Shout out also to Penny Hagen and other Aotearoa New Zealand designers who have spent a great deal of time thinking (and publishing) about these issues.

Following is an abridged version of the framework which we hope will add to the ongoing discussion.


A sketch after a discussion with Darryl Rhea way back in 2007.

DMA Ethical Design Framework
Design is not research.
Design is exploring as part of a ‘making’ process rather than enquiring in order to purely learn.

As a result the traditional governance procedures for research (for example Ethics Committee Approval) are not generally required for the kind of co-design work that DMA undertakes.

This does not mean however that co-design does not take place within an ethical context. With an absence of a formal, industry-wide ethics guide for co-design, DMA has developed its own framework that draws on both the design and research domains.

As a guide to the difference between design and research, we use the definition developed by designer Penny Hagen:

But it is true that the goals and context of design research – learning about the world in order to design new things into it, has some different (though complementary) goals and accountabilities to other forms of research. While both require a thorough engagement with ethics, traditional ethics committees may not necessarily be the right structures to support that in the case of design research and co-design.

Ethics in (Social Design and Innovation) Practice (2016)

Definition of co-design with young people

This abridged version of the framework is tailored to describe co-design with young people (those under 18) specifically.

For DMA, co-design is defined as:

The process of deliberately engaging users of the system, deliverers of services and other experts, being led by experts such as designers, to actively understand, explore and ultimately change a system together.

In the case of young people, they are defined as users and experts (of their lived experience) in design projects that are focused on solutions for their age-range cohort. The act of co-design is guided collaboration in order to make, rather than working with ‘targets’ to inquire. For this reason co-design is quite different to research; the ethical considerations when it comes to young people still stand.

As a guide to the context within which design operates in practice and how that is theoretically similar to research with young people, we use Dr. Kathryn Daley’s work on researching with vulnerable people as a guide. Daley states:

Research is a way of improving the lives of the vulnerable as research informs policy and service provision. Research participants need to be protected, but as their right, they also need to be able to participate in research as a way of being heard on matters which affect them. [This article argues that] ethical review of research is so heavily focused on minimising risk that young people’s right to participate in discussion is often overlooked.

The wrongs of protection: Balancing protection and participation in research with marginalised young people (2013)


Our goal in designing with young people is to:

Ensure young people are engaged in the design process in a way that protects them as vulnerable individuals, whilst supporting them to be active participants in the development of solutions with them, for them.


Engagement Principles for Co-Designing with Young People

Our principles for engagement with young people in co-design processes are based on the findings of the Lifehack project in Aotearoa New Zealand. Lifehack was a systems-level intervention in youth mental health and wellbeing and provided a strong articulated principle approach.

With the guiding question “how do we ensure the co-design process provides a safe, supported environment for young co-designers?”, we follow these principles (and deliberately embed the related DMA behaviors and processes):

Autonomy – how does the participant maintain their freedom of choice, right to chose and independence when engaging in this intervention?

  • Voluntary engagement in the process, not nominated participation.
  • Ensuring freedom of choice at the start of the process but also in all individual design activities.

Nonmaleficence – causing no harm to others, above all doing no harm. What if things don’t go right – what are your responsibilities for the wellbeing of people involved with your project?

  • Ensuring participants understand they are not ‘accountable or responsible’ for the design outcome.
  • Check-in and debrief opportunities after all design interactions.

Beneficence – How does your intervention contribute to the wellbeing of the person or people you are serving?

  • Ensuring all participants, regardless of how they present, are actively engaged in activities by providing a mix of activity structures to suit all.
  • Showing direct line of sight between their input and the outcomes.

Justice – treating equals equally and unequals unequally but in proportion to their relevant differences.

  • Respecting difference and having reflective practices that ensure this is catered for.
  • Ensuring participants understand the concept of ‘lived experience’ and how there is no single answer to the design problem.

Fidelity – How do you intend to follow through with what you said you would? What happens if you don’t?

  • Formal hand-over to clients that includes any requests from young people for action.
  • Providing our contact as follow up for any queries after the activities have taken place.

Legal – What is the legislation that you need to be aware of? eg are you working with young people, how are you intending on keeping private information confidential?

  • Following anonymisation and privacy principles for all inputs.
  • Working within legislative boundaries for privacy working with vulnerable people in the States and Territories in which we operate.
  • Being clear about disclosure responsibilities and reporting agencies in the jurisdictions in which we work

Safety – Key points of safety when working with a target group what things will keep them well and safe? How do you enable people to tool-up before engaging in the conversation? How much of your own experience do you intend on sharing, to what ends and why?

  • Keep our relationship professional and driven by structured, planned activities.
  • Running through all agendas, process and approaches as the start of the activity to ensure ability for young people to feel supported and safe.
  • Have access to support contact details in case a participant expresses a support need outside of the project (e.g. health, mental health, bullying, abuse)

Design Research Processes to embed the Principles

The Framework is completed by five areas of specific application of these principles at a project or design research level. These areas are evolved from ‘Understanding Consent in Research Involving Children: the ethical issues. The Handbook for Human Research Ethics Committees and Researchers’. The areas take research ethics insights and apply them to the co-design process.

In these areas of application ALL young people under 18 are considered to be ‘vulnerable’. That is, each young person is afforded all protections regardless of how confidently they present themselves as a matter of course. For DMA ‘vulnerable’ means ‘being under 18’ – not the standard social policy definition of vulnerable in terms of socio-economic or interpersonal circumstances.

Area of Co-design Process Focus
(abridged from ‘Designing Research with Children: FAQs’)

  1. Approval. The processes DMA has in place to ensure approval for participation of young people has been done ethically and overtly.
  2. Engagement. The processes DMA has in place to ensure ‘assent and dissent’ are respected and supported once a process is underway.
  3. Context. The processes DMA has in place to ensure the participants are aware of the broader context of the co-design project.
  4. Relationships. The processes DMA has in place to ensure an unfair power balance or incentive does not exist between the designer and young person, including financial and interpersonal power.
  5. Data (access). The processes DMA has in place to ensure the young person’s data is protected.

In our full internal framework each of these five areas contains a scope, processes and examples.

There is certainly a growing amount of thinking and literature around this topic. And the key elements of our framework presented above are not meant to answer the larger question of whether design itself is ethical – they provide a cornerstone for our own activities in relation to those we co-design with.

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2017 saw the culmination of the delivery of our DesignInSchools pilot project with our trip with the team to the Service Design Network Global Conference where we picked up an award.

Lots of talk at the conference and since then was/is about design at scale, and we’ve been contacted and asked a number of times about how we were going to ‘scale’ DiS. With the word scale there is an immediate perception of increasing numbers – of moving more people through a program.

At DMA we are interested in impact and influence, not just volume, so we thought we would give you an update on what we have been up to.

The journey to deliver the first DiS was not just about the project at Macquarie Primary School itself. It was about the kids and the design problem, but it also became about building an ongoing and meaningful relationship with educators and thinking about influencing the education system in Australia at a systemic level.

Young People – Educators – Education

The more we thought about these three levels – capability of young people, education leadership and the service design of education itself – the more we realised that the type of scale we must focus on had to be across all three.

So, rather than scaling the product people know as DesignInSchools by running multiple projects, we’ve scaled by developing and delivering DesignInSchools approaches across three deliberate levels of collaboration with the education sector.



Level 1 – The Core DesignInSchool Project Approach

Student Capacity for Design as part of the Australian Curriculum.

The core and original intent of DesignInSchools was to work with young people (primary school age) to solve real design problems in their community, and that intent remains.

This level of the product involves DMA directly leading a specific design project in a school with a small group of students as the primary design team as we did with the Macquarie Primary School group. There are a number of prerequisites or conditions that must exist for us to take on a design team – in essence they form the guiding principles of the first level of DiS:

  1. There is an existing ‘real’ issue/problem that effects the school community – practical design is required.
  2. There is an intention and commitment from the Principal or Vice Principal to support the project and manage the school community expectations – the design project has a sponsor.
  3. There is an identified cohort of 10 to 20 Year 5 to Year 6 Students able to be committed to the process. Students don’t need to belong to the same class, but common teachers help – the team is right sized, multi disciplinary and diverse.
  4. There is professional Design Support in a leading, mentoring or validation role – professional designers lead.

The Level 1 product is still in the form of the original Macquarie project. It has a curriculum (three workbooks that fit neatly into the Australian Curriculum ‘technologies’ component) and template artefacts (intent documentation, design specification format).

We look forward to delivering more of these Level 1 projects directly with young people as they arise.



Level 2 – Mentoring Educators to Deliver Design

Educator Leadership through Teacher Capability Building

When delivering our core product the first time around with Macquarie, we were blown away by the feedback and reflection from our Educator-Partner Faith Bentley, about how much DiS had helped her as an educator. By exploring this concept we started to plan for this new level of delivery.

Level 2 of the product involves DMA tailoring the design project approach and materials to facilitate delivery in collaboration with a key educator at a mentoring level. In this level of the project the focus of DMA is on skilling the educator and supporting them, so that they can deliver the facilitation of the project in a way that builds their capability.

The conditions of Level 1 remain – real problems and real teams. The design led process becomes design mentoring. Our aims are pretty clear with this level of product – deliver DiS to many more places BUT only if and when it leads to direct teacher mentoring and capability building.

The Educator Leadership product is a ten session structure.

  • DMA leads a large-scale Design101 kick off and runs the process at the key ‘design-heavy’points (research, analysis, prototyping), but the teacher leads the project with the aim of a single composite workbook and session running sheets. The teacher can then be flexible in delivery depending on the availability of the student design team and their own confidence and strengths.

We are currently running a Level 2 project with local school Red Hill PS through Term 3 after being approached by Red Hill Principal, Louise Owens, about undertaking project focused on the design of an outdoor space at the school.

We were keen to work with Red Hill for a number of reasons, including the Red Hill philosophy which aims to create partnerships with parents and the community that assist students to be active compassionate, lifelong learners who are internationally minded global citizens. This commitment to partnership and compassion is an important value in DesignInSchools.

Also, delivery of DesignInSchools at Red Hill would be the first time it has been delivered in an International Baccalaureate setting. The IB Mission Statement, that it “aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect” fits directly into the aims of Design In Schools and DMA.

We have worked closely with our Educator-Partner, Helene Halliday, to structure the program to ensure it can be assessed in the IB context. Mentoring Helene has allowed us to translate key design approaches and language into her IB and artistic practice, ensuring she acquires new skills and approaches, but does so in a sustainable way for her work as an educator.

This alignment of DesignInSchools with the practical necessities of fitting curriculum requirements is essential for it to create an impact, rather than design being seen as a ‘fun, project based add on to the ‘real’ work of education’.


Level 3 – Supporting Education Leaders to Design their World

The Service Design of Education through Executive Leadership

The final level of scale is our focus on the design of education and education leadership. This level involves DMA directly mentoring school Principals and Executives to use service design to shape the school itself.

Our goal with this level is to move beyond ‘design as the education topic’ to ‘service design as the driver for strategic education decisions.’

The inspiration from our approach to this level of delivery came after a series of conference presentations to the Education Sector about DesignInSchools. We quickly realised that we weren’t simply reporting on the outcomes of DiS from the perspective of the young people involved, we were starting serious strategic design conversations with the audience about how service design could be used to organise and ‘design’ their education approach and community.

In working with a Principal we have regular catch-ups (generally an hour a week and a three hour per term intensive session) to define and deliver a clear educational intent for their school and school community. Through the regular mentoring sessions a design approach is brought to education management questions and the technique of visualisation is utilised to build a narrative for the principal around what they are trying to achieve.

We are delivering one Level 3 engagement at the moment, with one of Canberra’s oldest schools, Ainslie PS. 2018 saw the school appoint a new Principal (and old Collaborator, Wendy Cave) and we are working closely with her to build a service design approach into the journey she is taking the school on. The school’s emerging intent of ‘delivering sophisticated and playful education services’ is a result of our work with the school and service design is now influencing a range of pieces of work and decisions such as the school strategic plan and school improvement plan – with empathy and children at the centre.

The Level 3 approach now allows us to work with the Principal on what this emerging intent means, and we are supporting her to now design her education world. That includes student journeys, teacher capability and capacity, school improvements and engagement with community partners and stakeholders – all the kind of work that service design naturally supports.


Our Measures of Success

Working across three levels of the education system is an honour and a challenge. The shape of DesignInSchools has evolved in response to natural influencing opportunities that have emerged. These opportunities have come from listening to educators and education leaders about what might be missing from their current approaches and how service design can help.

DesignInSchools as a foundation, becomes a way for educators to think about approaches and thinking that go beyond their traditional pedagogy and practice and bring in whole of community and student agency concepts. Not as an add on but as an integral part of the education system within which they deliver.

Our success is predicated on making the delivery of education child-focused, building teacher capacity at a time when requirements on them are heavy and, in the end, supporting the goals of the Melbourne Declaration – which always sums up outcomes better than we ever could:

“That Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence. And that all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.”

With this deliberate focus on influencing the system at these three levels, we feel strongly that the appropriate scale is not on growth in terms of numbers, but on depth in terms of making the changes and thinking stick.


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Since commencing our respective design journey’s almost 20 years ago, the importance of ‘intent’ has always been front and centre.

Defining, articulating and sharing intent is key to the commencement of any design project we work on – it is the focal point that all subsequent design and design research activity derives from and the source of the design question itself.

For DMA, articulating intent with our design partners (the people or organisations that engage us) is a formal first step. We don’t embark on designing our research or co-design approach until we have a signed-off a Design Intent statement – it’s a critical part of our engagement approach. It’s usually incorporated into the overall design project as a couple of up-front days.

But two recent projects have allowed us to move beyond using intent articulation as the ‘kick-off’ to the project, to thinking about the articulation of intent as the initial design project itself.


Project 1: Co-designing a health program(s) with, and for 13-16 year olds

Starting Point for the Client Three sponsoring organisations (a University, a State Health Department and a local Health District) with an initial goal wanted to immediately undertake a range of co-design activities with a ‘cohort’ of 13-16 year olds.
The Intent Challenge The three organisations had very different language and goals for the work itself, and we’re new (but extremely keen) to the concept of service and co-design.
Our Approach Instead of pitching the full potential design project we asked the group to invest up-front in a phase of work where we would co-design the intent with them BEFORE we embarked on the co-design project with the cohort they had in mind.

Through a series of facilitated conversations and the use of co-design techniques with our partners we collectively shared and merged the intents of health professionals, bureaucrats, academics and research specialists.

The result
  • The creation of a shared language between three organisations
  • A refinement of the concept of who the co-design would take place with (much broader than an age group)
  • A visualisation of the service system so that we knew what connected and associated work must be taken into account.

And from a business perspective for the client, the artefact produced gives them communication messages, a range of descriptions to explain, engage and get endorsement for progressing within the reality of their business processes.

Now we can embark on the co-design process with a clarity and focus that might have taken time out of the design project itself, because intent was invested in up front.

Project 2: Co-designing support the formal process of ‘identification’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Starting Point for the Client A Federal agency looking for solutions to improve services and results based around identification activity.
The Intent Challenge The junction of identity and identification is complex and detailed and jumping straight to ‘co-design’ as a kind of discovery tool was not the right course to take with a cohort who are the ‘most researched group in the world’. (Aboriginal Research Institute (ARI), 1993, p. 2; Smith, 1999, p. 3)
Our Approach Drawing on the advice and support of our established cultural advisors we set about working with the team to invest in intent up front so that when an effort is made to co-design solutions the Agency can work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities directly knowing that they have already made sense of all of the research and work that has taken place around the topic.
The result A series of thinking tools and insights developed from existing knowledge and lived experience from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collaborators (who helped us shape the tools), so that now the organisation can embark on a broader co-design project from a position of shared and articulated intent.
For this project is was critical that co-design wasn’t only seen as ‘discovery’ and that the community were suddenly asked to be part of a design process that didn’t acknowledge what was already known.


The reflection that articulating intent is a necessary discipline when engaging on a design journey or project (no matter how big or small) is increasingly important as the language and currency of co-design in the public sector takes firmer hold.

Without intent as an anchor, co-design (as described in an excellent recent article in The Mandarin about findings by the University of Melbourne Policy Lab) risks becoming a roll-out of techniques that Departments think they ‘should do’ with no real depth to the actual design question the techniques are seen to be answering.

This investment in intent is actually part of co-design itself. There is no distinction for us between the articulation of intent and what is increasingly being seen as co-design – the workshop or interview or journey map.

Having design partners who are happy to invest in intent up front bodes well for design outcomes and builds real capability in organisations as they understand they need to agree on the question and understand its importance for them, not just put it to the community to answer in creative workshops (no matter how well they might be delivered).

Imagine if every future design request for tender had a component of articulating intent with designers, rather than simply listing the perceived co-design activities that the client thinks should happen and asking designers to ‘quote on that’.

Intent pinpoints what really matters. While the challenge of intent is making sure you are not trying to decide what the problem is too early, the design, business, collaborative and creative outcomes of a defined intent phase is borne out in real practice. And in real design results.

Intent means design starts with ‘why we want to change something’ not ‘what we want to change is…’

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“We need design to tackle the world’s wicked problems!” is the familiar catch-cry that we are used to hearing from designers. It is a noble call to arms.

But what if we were at the point where Wicked Problems (as they have evolved in people’s approach to design thinking) ceased to be the issue that designers needed to grapple with?

What if the great challenge for designers wasn’t the Wicked Problem itself, but the desire for leaders to make Wicked Decisions?


Surely there are still problems?

We first heard about Wicked Problems in 2000 directly in relation to the work of Dr Richard Buchanan when he was a design mentor of the Integrated Tax Design Project in the Australian Taxation Office, of which Justin was a part, and a few years later in New Zealand’s IRD as Mel was involved in the journey to build professional service design capability there. The term Wicked Problem is older than this, of course, but Buchanan really brought it into focus for us in terms of applying design methodologies to address these problems.

As we learnt, and have been practicing for the following 18 years (15 of those across multiple service systems at DMA), the way we should strive to look at Wicked Problems is through a number of levels:

  • Take a systems thinking approach and deconstruct the ‘wickedness’ by defining and understanding the related systems at play.
  • When designing use a multi-disciplinary approach focused on facilitating a design-led dialogue about the problem and potential solutions.
  • Design the solution with a ‘fourth order design’ mindset – that is, don’t design products or services on their own, design the experience of service systems and their constituent parts.

Our work in this space has been predominantly and successfully focused on Wicked Problems in the public and community sectors. And as we move through our 18th year of practice, we have started to ask ourselves some critical questions about Wicked Problems.

From our point of view (public and community services in Australia) we and our peers now have 20 years of experience taking a systemic view of the problems that are presented to us – so why are a range the social outcomes within which we have been delivering excellent design not demonstrably better?

Continual reference – and sometimes reverence – to Wicked Problems suggests new problems emerging. But increasingly, though some elements might be new, the core systemic drivers of access, equity, resourcing, ownership and regulation in the public domain remain.

We (the design community, not just DMA) have established, built and evolved an expertise in diagnosing, researching, hypothesising and designing solutions for Wicked Problems. As experienced designers we can and do pull apart these problems quickly and expertly.


So why do Wicked Problems keep presenting themselves?

Firstly because the same ‘types’ of problems emerge but with new elements. AI as we know it now didn’t exist in 2000 – nor did digital for that matter. But we would contend the problems are no more ‘wicked’. The underlying design questions, needs and outcomes are the same.

Secondly, and most importantly, the Wicked Problems that we know about continue to present and emerge because of people. The greatest element of complexity in all Wicked Problems! And in this case, we don’t mean citizens, users, or consumers, we mean in terms of people who are supposed to lead and do the decision-making.

The most elegant design can present the most extraordinarily basic solutions to complex and so-called, Wicked Problems. We are then left with the question – why haven’t they been actioned?

We’re prepared to posit that at the same time we as an community have been evolving an expert capability in design’s response to Wicked Problems, the opposite is true in the field of leadership.

In the public sector people in leadership positions are still rewarded in the same way they were in 2000. The management constructs and hierarchies surrounding those making decisions has, if anything, become more narrow in the last 20 years.

Brave decisions to implement complex design responses that at their heart question and alter pre-conceived notions of ‘how things work’ are rare and generally result in ‘pilots’ or ‘trials’. Whilst the emergence of digital and technology solutions, as they always have, provide respite from the Wicked Problem, on their own they can’t and don’t address the underlying societal complexity of the problem itself.

So if the Wikipedia definition (yes, Wikipedia not Buchanan) of a Wicked Problem is a “problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize” then we have to ask ourselves:

how do we admit that maybe the Wicked is in the decision making and not the problem.

Otherwise – what have we been learning and achieving for the last 20 years…

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We were beyond proud to be one of 14 shortlisted projects in the global Service Design Network Awards 2017 for our work with Macquarie Primary School: Design In Schools. We’re even prouder when we won.

SDN said:

We are delighted to announce this year’s Service Design Award 2017 Finalists selected by our international jury of Service Design experts. These shortlisted projects are internationally recognised as benchmarks of world class Service Design. Congratulations to the nine Professionals and five Students for their fantastic work and the contribution they have made to the field of Service Design.

It was great to meet our fellow finalists and designers and share the experiences of outstanding service design projects and achievements.

Our trip to Madrid with our Macquarie partners, Wendy Cave and Sophie Mendick, (our dedicated Teacher Partner, Faith Bentley, the brilliant 18 little designers, and Executive teacher Brendan Briggs will be there in more than spirit) in November for Service Design Global Conference SDGC17 for our nominated category: professional, non-profit / public sector was capped off with our winners presentation on Day 2.



For a history of the work see our previous posts:



The only reason public service design takes place in the first place is because government has decided to offer a service. If there’s no government service, there’s no public sector service design. And at the heart of government services are rules and regulations. Even supportive services and information and education services have legislation or government ‘programs’ at their heart. And therefore the design is driven with wanting people to ‘comply’ with the core of the service offering.

We’ve recently completed a project with a client that had us re-engage with our regulatory compliance past. Helping the client design a multi-layered compliance strategy not only proved again to us the power of service design in normal project delivery processes, but reconnected and reminded us how critical ‘compliance’ is to the public service design work that we do.

DMA interpretation of the Triangle

For us, a critical and essential design tool has always been the compliance triangle. The triangle evolved from outstanding applied research work by Valerie and John Braithwaite at the ANU (and many others who worked on the associated projects). As part of the Centre for Tax System Integrity, their work developed what we all know today as the Compliance Triangle.

The triangle is a strikingly simple concept, underpinned by deep, complex bio-psycho-social theories. It was key to thinking about the range of options open to a regulator to support, direct and enforce compliance – with voluntary compliance as a key element of that support.

Any designer could read the theory of the triangle and understand immediately that it can be applied to any government created system. The more we think about, and reapply it, we think it may, inadvertently, be one of the great public sector design models.

If you think about this (almost) twenty year old model, you realise that service design projects aren’t only about doing research about the question at hand and then developing innovative solutions for the now. They are also about building in the knowledge of the past, understanding the key drivers and motivations that are inherent in the service system and the service deliverer and then researching the current and future states.

And so to the recent project.

Working with a federal agency that is implementing a new compliance approach to a critical environment means that the work results in real action and is managing real risk. This work isn’t a hypothesis, it requires definitive compliance approaches in order to minimise the ‘consequences’ of non-compliance (an understated description in this case).

The compliance work itself is asking the Agency to commit to a new model. One that broadens compliance from a narrow view of rule management to one where voluntary compliance, use of interventions across international borders and trade channels in different and new areas and collaboration within the Department are key.

The work requires us to co-design with our project team, not just a compliance approach, but a compliance posture for the Agency and the actual ability for the Agency to deliver on this posture (build the right capabilities, have the right people processes and systems).

In working with the team, we’ve brought out the triangle again. Luckily, in this case, the Department uses a version of the triangle itself, so in this case we are working with it to draw out what needs to be done. The triangle isn’t a ‘strategy’, it’s a thinking tool that allows the team to design what needs to be done to take the triangle from theory and model to practice in their very specific service system.

In working with the team, and bringing the triangle back out, we’ve been reminded of some key practices ourselves:

  • Mature compliance isn’t about rules (black and white), it’s about behaviour (decisions made in the grey).
  • In order to implement a modern compliance regime you must have knowledge:
    • Of the risk you are managing, of the service system in action (now and in the future).
    • Of the current and historical behaviour of all players within the service system. This takes data and intelligence.
  • Due to the structure of modern public sector organisations, data and intelligence is not the preserve of one team. Invariably it isn’t even managed by the team delivering the compliance strategy. So, implementing a compliance regime requires collaboration and integration of effort across the organisation, and increasingly connected agencies.
  • Integration, as a principle of compliance strategies, must be stratified across three levels or it undermines the outcomes immediately: strategic integration means the team’s strategy and approach must be in line with government and Departmental goals. Operational Integration means that the strategy must support and deliver on the departmental compliance posture and approaches. Delivery integration means that the strategy must acknowledge and design for the fact that a range of existing and new capabilities and processes will drive the strategy

These layers of integration (common to most new design efforts, not just compliance) show us how the triangle is still at the heart of the design work of the public sector. Without strategic, operational and delivery integration the department would be setting the public – the service receiver – for failure, for non-compliance.

Think of the triangle, think of the outcome of the interaction of the service receiver with the service, and invariably the triangle will inform how you design and support the right kind of service system.

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Having completed our DesignInSchools project over a year ago now (though the relationship with the wonderful Macquarie Primary School remains strong) we are using the 12 month anniversary of our win in the Good Design Awards to officially launch our paper about the project.

Co-authored with the outstanding educators we collaborated with on the project, Delivering Outcomes for People and People as Outcomes, (opens a PDF) explores the intent and outcomes of the project from the perspective of two methodologies and two practices – design and teaching.

During the project we learnt an amazing amount about the thinking that goes into constructing a context for literacy for young learners and how education leadership involves constant planning between inquiry based learning and instructive teaching practices.

We hope the paper helps build the case for inquiry-based learning, which we think is essential to helping build future generations of critical thinkers – we certainly need them!

The thinking that went into the paper is also particularly resonant for us now as we support the ACT Education Directorate as their design partner in the Future of Education conversation – a wide-ranging and ground breaking conversation between government and those interested in the experience and equity of education systems.

As always we look forward to reflections and thoughts about the work, and as always thanks to our Macquaire Primary School co-authors (and co-conspirators) Wendy Cave, Faith Bentley, Brendan Briggs and Sophie Mendick.

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In our first post we introduced the notion of service-based investment as a way of managing the maturity of digital into ‘interactional’ (not transactional) services.

Our second post looked more directly at what we see as the impacts of the investment approach on the ICT Management Model and organisational design, specifically:

  • Interactional service drives a new integrated investment, and opportunity.
  • Parallel organisations within an organisation can’t remain. The investment model for interactional services demands that ICT integrates itself into business investment planning, so that business understands what the total investment in their service offering is, from their end-to-end.
  • The organizational investment model needs to be re-thought and re-positioned as Integrated Service Investment.

In this third post we look specifically at what this service reality means for the ICT Management Model. We suggest that not only investment management but the ICT Management structure itself needs to course correct – to ensure it supports Integrated Service Investment of the future public service organization.



Evolving from Information to Investment – ICT Management Model Evolution

After the emergence and settling of the notion of digital as a disruptor, when talking with CIOs and business leaders we work with, the current management debate seems to be focused on a couple of key questions:

  • Should ‘ICT’ and ‘Digital’ be separated in terms of strategy and delivery?
  • How close should ICT be to the business?
  • What role does the business have in ICT strategy?
  • Why is a CIO even called a CIO?1

#Disclaimer 1 – we made that one up, but seriously, Chief Information Officer – what does that even mean in the current construct?

The ongoing integration of key ICT roles or even teams and investment from ICT to Digital, or Digital and ICT to the business, is a deck chair game that doesn’t really answer the real questions about quality and direction of investment in relation to services.

Even considering moving the CIO into the business undermines the scale of investment and operations that are currently being managed by those roles. Like it or not, large-scale enterprise-wide platforms, products, applications and infrastructure are here for the long haul, and they need to be managed.

Conversely, the Chief Digital Officer (CDO), who right now must drive digital strategy and execution, isn’t a role that will replace the traditional Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Those roles will likely always continue because of their specialization and because the management of, and investment in, technology must continue. ICT is a heavily invested resource and public service organisations in particular are dependent on its execution, stability and scalability.


The new CIO – Chief ‘Investment’ Officer, investing in service, not simply ICT

What might change though, is the focus of the CIO.

The role must stay in the ‘technology’ business. But it must be answerable, in an integrated way, to the overarching aims of the organisation – to deliver service, not to accumulate enterprise technology.

The CIO’s measure is to respond with the business (i.e. the service strategists and deliverers). The CIO needs to answer more than just, what is our technology direction and how is it being managed. They need to answer:

  • How does our ICT investment map to the business’ interactional service strategy?
  • How does our internal delivery match the service promise the business is making?
  • How does our technology investment and management pre-empt transaction and enable interaction?
  • What return (not just expense) is our ICT investment giving to the organisation in terms of evolving the service model and the organisation’s future capability?

The CTO then, can continue to manage the ICT Services implementation – the solutions, products, platforms that drive the CIOs investment platform above.


The Chief Digital Officer – assimilating digital into the business as service

The role of CDO to embrace digital platforms, steward organizations to be digitally savvy and get the house in digital order is absolutely necessary, for now. Digital requires the organization to get sorted on immediate investment, capability and competency upskilling, complex vendor management and innovation/disruption as the norm.

That said, does a Chief Digital Officer even exist in the future? We believe, through our experiences, that it will not. We believe the ‘Chief Digital Officer’ is actually a transitional title for the evolution of the digital business – driven by technology opportunities – to the interactional service business.

Rather than the CDO morphing into the CIO role, we see the CDO role integrating into the service strategy part of the business. Inherent in this observation is our position that the modern public service organisation does not need to make the distinction between its business and digital. They are the same.

Essential to this is that the importance of a CDO stops being about a ‘person’ or a position, and starts being about the competency of the next generation of public service leaders (in the business).2 Leaders who plan, strategise, administer and deliver services. Business owners who say ‘I will take care of the law, compliance, communication, HR, my stakeholders but I expect ICT and the CDO to deliver the innovative solution to my service needs’ are inadequate. All elements of the service are their business.

#Disclaimer 2 – we are NOT inventing a role called Chief Service Officer. Enough with the C-Roles. We simply believe that the modern public service executive should be both a service strategist and delivery expert and this encompasses the digital component.



Roles are important, but it’s language that drives action

If the modern ICT capability is driven by a CIO focused on service investment, a CTO who retains the role of pure technologist, and the CDO who is replaced by the business, how does that shape the organisation itself?

Encouraging business to re-engage with strategic notion of services is key to:

  • break down the parallel organisation.
  • invest in service, not technology accumulation.
  • support interactional service design, delivery, sustainment and evolution.
  • Truly honour client and staff experience, right through to service delivery technology solutions.

But this is difficult when ICT language dominates the strategic conversation. Disciplines must have language, but ICT language, the language of Enterprise, Agile, SCRUM, Waterfall, ITIL, SIAM, TOGAF, et al is seen as prevalent often, because it exists and is codified. Other than standard project delivery language (which has also come to be owned largely by ICT) the business doesn’t have a neat descriptor of why and how it goes about its work – it just ‘delivers’.

The issue this poses for the organisation is that with ICT language dominating, and methodologies such as Agile being invested in, the organisation is still simply ramping up the ICT investment while business investment shrinks. These ICT terms and methodologies, whilst increasingly aware of business outcomes, are still, in essence, ICT product delivery methods.

If the organisation only invests in these, expecting them to take care of broader experience measures they are in for a shock. There have been plenty of well-documented ICT-based issues in the past six months that highlight relying on ICT methodologies alone can harm the reputation of a public service agency.

One way for business to ‘win’ the language battle, and to end the parallel organisation, is to take back terminology that has drifted to ICT.

A classic language example is the term ‘architecture’

Somewhere in the 1990s the term architecture in any public sector organisation became an ICT term. Enterprise architects are critical to an organisation’s success, but even they would argue that their level of architecture is only a systemic representation of the implementation of the overarching of business strategy.

What business hires the world’s leading architect to only work on the foundation.

Architecture isn’t an ICT domain, it’s an organizational scaffold.

The answer is to not take architecture off anyone, but to share the language. Recognise that multiple levels of architecture exist in an organisation and that the top of the architecture tree in the public service is, the service architecture.

  • Service Architecture (staff and client – the experience layer)
  • Business Architecture (Delivery – the organisational layer)
  • Enterprise Architecture (ICT – the solution enabling layer)

A direct line of sight between all three layers must be visible:

  • This is our service offering.
  • Therefore we are organised to deliver as such.
  • And delivery is enabled (and often led) by the ICT systems, platforms, applications and infrastructure we have in place).

If this kind of shared language isn’t possible, there is simply no way an organisation can deliver sustainable, available client and staff experiences through service.

Once language (business and ICT) is acknowledged and addressed, and the conditions of a business-led service organisation are recognized, the final question to be answered is ‘what shape are we in to deliver this’.


Taking on language, investment, and organisational structure is a big task. Starting from scratch is a lock-in to kicking off one of those ‘transformation’ projects that (in our opinion (and experience)) rarely work. So how do organisations start the process of evolving to this new reality?

Our belief is that the course correction starts with a diagnostic of where the organisation sits in relation to interactional service, ICT and digital maturity. We start this process with clients through a DMA Service Diagnostic – an approach that enables ICT and Service Delivery executives to start the evolution they need to make.

As a senior executive said to us once when we undertook a diagnostic on his ICT organisation end-to-end with a service perspective:

“I always thought this was what our business looked like, but because I hadn’t seen it mapped out in that way I couldn’t manage it or measure it.”

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