Co-design of Products and Services

Interview with Deborah Szebeko, Founding Director of thinkpublic
By Vern Burkhardt
"Take one action now to improve your services."

"Imagine yourself in the year 2018 and describe how successful your service or product has become."

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Would you tell us about thinkpublic?

photo of Deborah SzebekoDeborah Szebeko: Thinkpublic works with the public sector and the charity sector here in the UK. We help them look at how they can improve public services, and also tackle social issues. Some issues are not only about public services, so we work in different ways.

When we are working in relation to public services we use a collaborative design process called co-design. Co-design enables us to involve the public and the staff working in the public services in coming up with ideas about how to improve their service. They collectively define the challenges, identify where there are improvement opportunities, and then they vote on what's important to them. They use that information for example in health and safety to say, "Okay, to me, as a patient, I really want to see improved. "They then work with doctors and nurses to identify what these professionals can personally do to make an improvement.

We help organizations involve their users and engage their staff to create innovative strategies for positive improvements. Our focus is to help our clients gain first-hand knowledge or their users' experience of the services offered. I think that's what is interesting about the work we do at thinkpublic. It's very much about putting people in control of creating solutions. Even though we are a design and innovation agency, we don't come up with the ideas – we facilitate the processes with the people to come up with new ideas.

VB: You mentioned co-design. Is this your preferred approach for successful innovation?

Deborah Szebeko: Yes.

VB: Thinkpublic's motto is, "We help people make things better." Would you explain this motto?

Deborah Szebeko: We use a mixture of design processes. We've got a diversity of designers, including service designers, graphics designers, information designers, programmers, marketers, social scientists, positive psychologists, and even anthropologists. This diversity of experts bring different techniques related to their disciplines, and this mixture creates a unique design process – we call it a co-design process – whereby we capture public views.

In short, our goal is to open up decision making about public services so anyone can get involved and have their say. Design-led thinking can create new opportunities to improve people's lives in practical ways.

VB: Does the diversity of designers and other experts enrich the process?

Deborah Szebeko: Definitely it does. On every project we work with a variety of different groups, and the aim is to engage as many stakeholders as possible within that process.

For example, let's say we are working on a project to deal with the challenges related to dementia. We would involve everyone from people with dementia to doctors, nurses, caregivers, family, and even the local taxi driver.

Everyone has an idea of how things can be improved. The aim is to find the new ideas or challenges, which people have been trying to solve for a very long time.

VB: What led to your establishing thinkpublic in 2004?

Deborah Szebeko: My background is in advertising and design but I've always wanted to do something social, but never quite knew what to do. I decided to go back to university and get a Master of Arts in communications, and whilst I was doing that I also volunteered at the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. I was leading a project to design a touch-screen information system for patients and their families.

I volunteered on the project at the hospital for 9 months, and during that time I saw a series of opportunities for a small amount of design to help improve communications and the patient experience. I encouraged more volunteers to become involved. When I graduated with my MA I asked the hospital management for a job and they said, "There is no designer job in a hospital." So I started thinkpublic.

VB: Thinkpublic is a private company?

Deborah Szebeko: Yes.

VB: You recently moved thinkpublic to the London Fruit & Wool Exchange in London, England. Does your new studio space promote creativity and the generation of innovative ideas?

Deborah Szebeko: This was one of the key reasons we moved. There were only three of us when we first moved into our old office space, so we had sufficient room to create different environments and be creative. As we grew in size we had less and less space for that.

Where we are now we have different rooms for different purposes. The main studio area enables people to desk hop and find a place to work on their laptops. We have a creative room, which is a creative playroom with books and other stimuli. It includes meeting spaces where people can brainstorm, come up with ideas, and write them on blackboards and whiteboards. This creative room also contains materials that enable people to also relax if they wish.

We also have an area comparable to a dining room where we've got a dresser and pictures on the wall to create a homey feel. A lot of the work we do is about communication and it involves making people feel comfortable, and this room encourages it. We have team meetings, and friendly, informal meetings in this room.

We also have a welcome space which we use for workshops and more formal presentations. Next to the welcome space we have more formal business meeting rooms.

There are different spaces for the different hats you have to put on in a business.

VB: In the co-design process, do your clients usually come to your space or do you go to theirs? Or is it a mixture?

Deborah Szebeko: It is a bit of a mixture. I think it is as important for our clients to come to our space to enable them to step into and understand our world as it is for us to understand their world.

VB: Also to get away from their work routines so that they can focus on the problem at hand?

Deborah Szebeko: Exactly, yes.

VB: How many employees do you have?

Deborah Szebeko: There are 10 employees and then we have a network of freelancers from all over Britain.

VB: In the video on your website describing thinkpublic's services you say, "We work with the public sector, third sector and social enterprises." For those who don't live in the UK would you describe what you mean by the "third sector" and "social enterprises?"

Deborah Szebeko: The third sector is the term used for charities and not for profit organizations. There are in excess of 165,000 charities operating in the UK. Quite a lot of the charities are now being asked to provide public services, so they are having to figure out how to campaign for people's rights, while at the same time deliver a service.

The income for charities is shifting from cash donations to earned income. The current recession has resulted in a significant decline in personal donations for many charities. They're also being challenged by public spending reductions by many local governments. It's therefore important for them to start to think in more business-like ways compared to before when they would focus more on fund-raising. A lot of the work we do is helping them use innovation to design their future services.

VB: You said they "have to deliver services." Is that part of a condition of funding by governments in the UK?

Deborah Szebeko: It is changing because the national government is trying to move more of the delivery of services into the third sector, into the charity sector. I guess it is trying to make the public sector more efficient while also trying to provide services that are more customer-focused. It's possible over here because the charity sector has good relationships with their particular user groups.

For example, people associated with the Alzheimer's Society are the experts in dementia. They should be in the best position to provide services to people with that condition.

VB: Social enterprises – is that the charity sector?

Deborah Szebeko: That's also the charity sector. Social enterprises in the UK are a way of getting small projects off the ground. They're less formal than a charity. They're also easier to start than a charity.

Social enterprises are distinctive in that their social or environmental purpose is central to what they do. They either use funds raised by their enterprise activities to support their social goals or the enterprises' actual operations are targeted to accomplish their social goals – such as employing people from their target group.
The income of social enterprises is derived from business trading, not from subsidies or donations. They have to reinvest their profits back into the business, so it's not a commercial business.

VB: They are purely non-profit organizations?

Deborah Szebeko: Yes.

VB: You have many national, regional and local level clients. Are there some projects thinkpublic has worked with to change and innovate their services that are especially noteworthy?

Deborah Szebeko: I would say the work we've been doing with the Alzheimer's Society is pretty impressive. Designs of the Time 2007 – DOTT 07 – invited thinkpublic to work with North East England branches of the society to investigate the problems and identify new ways to improve the everyday lives of people with dementia, their caregivers, and service providers.

We worked with people with dementia to understand the challenges they face in their daily lives and how design can help improve their circumstances. Our focus was on a wide range of people with dementia and their families from across the country.

Initially we carried out a series of interviews with people living with dementia. People with dementia were asked to keep diaries. A skill-sharing workshop trained people with dementia in interview skills so they could interview others with dementia. At the workshop people with dementia also learned filmmaking skills. An emotional 18-minute documentary film was subsequently produced. Insights and ideas from the subsequent interviews of people living with dementia, their caregivers, and service providers were shared with participants at co-design workshops.

The investigative process concluded people with dementia face a number of serious challenges including social isolation, lack of public awareness and a stigma about dementia, difficulty of navigating the wide range of available support services, and a tendency of caregivers and service providers to be overly protective. It was also found that carers face the key challenge of working long hours on their own and without support.

VB: The co-design process dealt with each of these aspects of the problem?

Deborah Szebeko: Yes, the investigative and co-design process resulted in a number of proposals for action.

One idea that emerged from the co-design workshop was the need for dementia to be openly spoken about in the community, and enabling people with dementia to meet other people in a social space where they can talk and have fun. The prototype to meet this need was found to already exist in the form of the Dementia Café run by volunteers in North East England. The co-design team proposed an extension of the café service to provide safe and informal environments for people with dementia.

Safe wandering can be of great benefit to people with dementia, but many care homes don't enable this kind of activity. The design team worked with Shadon house, a dementia resource center in Gateshead, to develop plans for a safe-wandering garden including raised flowerbeds and wandering paths.

Another idea was related to the supply of quality information. The idea which we jointly came up with was to create a dementia advisory service composed of an on and offline support person. A key person would be designated to help guide people through the early stages of dementia. The service would also include access to a system containing critical information. This access would be provided before the people with dementia hit crisis points. In this way it would help people better plan their life going forward, once they are diagnosed. What tends to happen to people with dementia is that they don't plan, and once they lose their memory it is very hard to make effective plans. The idea is to make the most of it whilst people still have their memory.

When considering the difficulty of navigating the wide array of available support services, the co-design process resulted in the idea of a national Dementia Signposting Service. A key support officer would ensure that people with dementia and carers are made fully aware of all the support services and information available to them, thereby ensuring they would not be overwhelmed by the complexity of the health service. This has led to a national Dementia Signposting Service, which was launched last month across the UK. Dementia Advisors working for the Alzheimer's Society are working in 22 sites across the UK to provide local information to people with dementia and their carers. It has been fascinating to see the project go from something quite small into a national product.

VB: Are you continuing to work with the Alzheimer's Society?

Deborah Szebeko: Yes, I took a team out today on a site visit to one of the societies that is implementing the new Dementia Signposting Service.

We are currently working with the society to design a database tool for recording and storing information about local services that can be accessed by persons with dementia and their carers.

VB: Have you worked on international challenges or challenges that have a Europe-wide focus?

Deborah Szebeko: We haven't, as yet, run a project but we're thinking of it. We've had lots of discussions with people from across Europe and in Australia, New Zealand and China.

Our approach would certainly be applicable as we assist organizations in identifying opportunities for changing the way they do things. We offer assistance in creating new services that tackle the organization's biggest challenges and provide world-class services.

VB: You say you use "creative and design-based" approaches to help organizations innovate and improve services, and to address social issues. Would you talk about this?

Deborah Szebeko: The design industry is going through a change. Designers are now realizing they can apply their skills to make a positive difference on social issues. Designers design processes like ideas generation, prototyping, and testing, whereas people in public sector organizations might not think about using these processes. Even large private sector organizations may not go through the steps of a design process.

People might come up with an idea and say, "Yeah, that's it," rather than testing and finding out if it's the right idea. For us it is very much about encouraging our clients to take a step into the unknown, and ask people what they think of their services. Once our clients hear the results of that listening process, they can examine the facts, and consider how they can improve their services. This design process doesn't have to be done in one go; they can stick their toe in the water. This is the way many creative people naturally go through cycles of idea generation and help others use this approach in their daily practice.

VB: You make extensive use of prototyping in the design process with the public sector?

Deborah Szebeko: Yes. We do a lot of prototyping and a lot of field-testing.

VB: This is a successful approach?

Deborah Szebeko: Yes, very much so.

VB: Is this what you refer to as "social innovation consultancy?"

Deborah Szebeko: Yes. When you say "innovation" and "public sector," you sometimes get bracketed into technology. We've been at innovation events where we've been packaged with technology, but our approach to innovation deals with the more human and social aspects.

Over here in the UK there are many approaches to innovation, but we fit most comfortably within social innovation. Our aim is to create a social difference. It might be for designing and improving public services, or it might be starting social enterprises. Our work is very broad.

VB: It doesn't have entail major innovation initiatives in order to make significant differences?

Deborah Szebeko: It's quite funny, because some of the innovations we do are actually very small. For example, in redesigning a clinic's waiting room for patients simply moving the chairs around made a big impact in that environment and in the patient experience. As with many things, anyone can make changes but the organization often needs someone to work with the people affected to enable them to effectively speak with each other. I call them the common sense innovations.

VB: You say, "…we design with people. Our collaborative design processes help our clients develop innovative communications, products and services that successfully address their needs." Would you talk about this?

Deborah Szebeko: It is very much about opening up the design process and the decision-making process. We create tools and platforms where everyone can contribute to developing and then implementing an idea, rather than innovation being the role of just the selective few. It's about opening up innovation.

VB: Would you talk a bit more about "Idea Generation and Visualization," which is one of your design services?

Deborah Szebeko: As designers we are very good at making things look good. Sometimes we undervalue how and when you can visualize something. Visualization brings ideas to life and makes them real.

People could be working really hard trying to create an idea, but until they actually make and visualize the idea it's just words on the page. It comes down to the very basic skills that I think every designer has – draw it and produce a storyboard to show what the idea means and how it works? Draw a picture and it becomes real.

VB: Thinkpublic has a blog and communicates through other social media in the Internet. Have you worked with social media on the to assist in design-based approaches?

Deborah Szebeko: We have used a range of things. We find it is sometimes difficult to use social media because of the topics we are working with and many of the organizations are quite reserved. Also, they are often worried about consent and sensitivity of information issues.

VB: Is the sensitivity due to privacy of information, or people not wanting to publicly identify their problems?

Deborah Szebeko: Both, really.

When we captured the stories from people with dementia we only put their stories online if the people agreed. In another case we were dealing with children and young people in emergency services and we weren't allowed to use any of our design approaches that would reveal identities and personal information.

I think this question of openness is something the governments over here are trying to address – how to open up their organizations so users can be more involved. It's a question of letting go of control, and we try to educate our clients about the benefits of being more open. But it's a work in progress.

VB: Have you thought about using crowdsourcing for some of your social design work?

Deborah Szebeko: We haven't used it, but we have definitely thought about it. It's something we want to try out and test how crowdsourcing could enhance our design processes.

VB: Would the challenge be to figure out how to contact and only obtain input from the target group you're focusing on?

Deborah Szebeko: I guess it completely depends on what the challenges are, the sensitivities around the challenges, and the location of the design work. If one wants input from a subset of the population, such as those with certainly characteristics, it might be a problem. The challenge would likely be to ensure a large enough proportion of the target group are aware of the crowdsourcing request so they could provide their input. I am sure there would be ways to achieve a large enough input of ideas to make it a worthwhile exercise.

Every organization is so different in how open they want to be in terms of engaging people, and how far they want to step into the unknown in the design process. Some clients are more advanced in their thinking than others.

VB: You make films that "explore social challenges, spread best practice and serve as a powerful qualitative element of research." Is this one of the most busy and interesting aspects of the services you offer your clients?

Deborah Szebeko: I wouldn't say that it is the busiest. We've evolved into making broadcast quality films because it's a great method of communicating. It can bring issues to life in a way no other medium can – it captures real personal experiences and emotions.

Film is one of our many methods of communicating and conducting research in the design process.

VB: How do you use film for research?

Deborah Szebeko: We use it for ethnographic research such as documenting first-hand observations of individuals being studied, and recording interviews. It's useful to film stakeholders to help understand the challenges they face, and also to document the inner workings of an organization. We use the insights captured in film to provide valuable data for the co-design process.

VB: Would you talk about thinkpublic's famous Social Lab?

Deborah Szebeko: Our Social Lab has been quite popular. It brings people together to share, develop and support ideas related to a social challenge.

The Social Lab is a space where people can develop concepts for social change. It's a program that helps organizations train their staff in creative thinking, entrepreneurship, and collaborative working. Teams work on approaching social challenges from different perspectives using a variety of design tools and techniques. To ensure The Social Lab benefits from diverse perspectives, a variety of people who represent a range of experience and expertise are invited to participate.

It's a great way to help organizations involve everyone in looking at the challenges they face, setting priorities for action, and addressing those issues using different kinds of creative thinking tools in a rapid design process. It's an event which results in a feeling of creativity and fun, and helps people step out of their comfort zone.

VB: Having fun helps them come up with ideas?

Deborah Szebeko: I think so. I don't think enough people have fun. You have to have lots of different emotions when you are designing different things.

VB: It seems people who are engaged with thinkpublic have lots of fun.

Deborah Szebeko: Yeah, they do!

VB: Is there one Social Lab you have run that you are especially proud of?

Deborah Szebeko: We did one recently for the Prime Minister's "No To Knives Coalition," where we worked to come up with new ideas for addressing knife crime. The goal set by the Prime Minister was to change young people's behavior so that fewer young people carry knives and fewer fear them.

Bebo, the social networking site and founding member of the Coalition, invited thinkpublic to run one of our Social Labs. The aim of the Lab was to "foster ideas that harness social media to affect behavior change." Law enforcement agencies, youth violence policy makers, government officials, social media experts and community organizations attended the first event which was held today at Regent's College in London. Outcomes from the Social Lab included a set of priority challenges, creative solutions for solving these challenges, and scenarios for how they might look in the future.

This Social Lab was a very interesting one. It was great to have a high profile organization wanting to use creative thinking to help them create a strategy.

VB: Did you have some youth that have been convicted of knife crime?

Deborah Szebeko: Unfortunately, no we didn't.

They are in the process of putting together the recommendations for what has come out of it. I think there were about seven groups and there were some common themes across those groups of actions that needed to happen. Some of the ideas aligned to initiatives they already had underway, and can inform ideas for new projects.

VB: Was this in Greater London, or did it have a national scope?

Deborah Szebeko: This was just in London, but people came from across the UK.

VB: When you say "just in London," London is a very large city!

Deborah Szebeko: Yes, it is!

VB: Thinkpublic designed the final prototype of the "Clinic to Go" in close coordination with NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement. Would you talk about this, and has its national launch been successful?

Deborah Szebeko: That was last year, and I like the clinic story.

The focus was on identifying everything you would need to set up a community clinic. In the UK they are trying to move health services from hospitals into the communities to reduce costs.

Our focus in the project was to answer the question, how do you know what things you need to do in order to set up a new clinic in the community? The "Clinic to Go" kit that we helped design and develop gives people very simple guidelines like health safety, patient involvement, administration, finance, and all of the other necessary things down to details such as a CD with store signage on it.

One of the ideas offered by people who had actually set up a clinic in the past was that they didn't have their tea bags and biscuits when they started the process of setting up clinics in the community. It was their tea and biscuits that they really missed! This demonstrates that there are lots of simple things which you need to know, but if you haven't done it before you wouldn't.

We worked with people who were setting up new clinics and the process was one of prototyping. We created a "lessons learned" kit from observing and working with them.

VB: The "Clinic to Go" kit includes a checklist?

Deborah Szebeko: Yes, it has a lot of different checklists, and healthcare professionals have written them all.

VB: Are most public sector organizations in the UK in a position to make the major changes in their delivery of public services that will increasingly be required due to limited government funds?

Deborah Szebeko: I think it is a mixture.

The ability to make the required shift depends on the type of organization and the leadership within that organization. Sometimes the people working or volunteering in the organization want to make the required changes but there's not the support of the leadership, and sometimes it's the other way around – the block is the workers.

VB: It requires a drive from the leadership, does it?

Deborah Szebeko: Yeah, definitely. You need senior level buy in.

VB: It can't just be a bottom up groundswell.

Deborah Szebeko: It depends on what scale of change that you want to make. If you want to create small change then you can do that in a department, but large scale change takes much more radical thinking.

I think that it is interesting how people try to move their ideas forward. It can only get so far until it gets senior level buy in, which is something that would be a great challenge.

VB: It requires resources and focused drive, and that probably requires leadership.

Deborah Szebeko: Yeah. Leadership is so important but it needs to be a new type of leadership, one that is supportive and not dictatorial.

VB: Are people who work for the public sector interested in using thinkpublic's creative strategies and innovation to improve their service delivery? Are people banging your door down for assistance?

Deborah Szebeko: It has changed. When we started thinkpublic in 2004, people were focusing more on the design of work environments.

Within the last year it has started to shift and more organizations understand why they need to improve their service delivery – particularly now. We've got budget cuts and more pressures on the public sector and charity sector.

I think they are realizing that even if you have an efficient service, you need to provide what people need. You only know what people need if you ask and work with them. That realization is definitely spreading.

VB: Does this realization enable the public and charity sectors to provide significantly better justification resources?

Deborah Szebeko: Yeah; I think there has definitely been a shift in the importance of understanding the public's needs and involving them in identifying those needs, which is really great.

VB: Is the third sector in the UK suffering in today's economic climate, or are many that you are familiar with adapting to the pace of change by creating innovative strategies for positive improvements?

Deborah Szebeko: There is a lot going on in this area. For some of the organizations we're linked to it's fairly challenging. It requires a massive culture change for organizations, but I guess it is necessary.

VB: Would you say it's a good thing?

Deborah Szebeko: I think so. My observation as a creative person is if you have all the money in the world you're not as creative as if you have little money. So I think budget cuts should force everyone to think more creatively and use their resources wisely.

VB: You referred to little money. What about little time?

Deborah Szebeko: Yeah, little time too. I think time is the biggest challenge. The way in which this challenge can be met is definitely hearts and minds stuff. If it's perceived to be important it will get done. The question is how do you make the right people believe a particular innovation is really going to make a change – and a positive difference?

VB: Your thinkpublic Brand Book 2009 is published on Issuu. Would you talk about the book and how our readers may acquire it?

Deborah Szebeko: You can read it online at our website for free. We published that book last year and we're currently working on our next one.

In addition to this book there are some shorter briefs on Issuu. These short briefs are titled Service Cards, Experience Based Design, Routine Operation, Pitch Your Project, and Talk to Me.

VB: What does the book contain?

Deborah Szebeko: It's a mixture of stories, case studies of what we've achieved with some of our clients, what we believe as a company, the services we provide, and testimonials from clients.

VB: About how many pages?

Deborah Szebeko: It contains 46 pages.

VB: It's the story of your company – a prospectus? Would it be a good reference if people were thinking about using your services?

Deborah Szebeko: Yeah.

VB: On June 22nd of this year, you went to Number 10 Downing Street to hear about the strategy for Building Britain's Future. Which of the strategies were of greatest interest to you when you think of the pace of change Britain and the rest of Europe will need to address?

Deborah Szebeko: Digital Britain is very interesting – the digital divide, and the power of the Internet to include but also to exclude citizens.

VB: Is the strategy for Building Britain's Future going to have a significant impact and help Britain emerge out of the recession and be strong economically and socially?

Deborah Szebeko: I don't know; I hope so! We live in hope! It is quite a difficult question. We hope it creates a vision for what needs to be done.

VB: How is it that you were invited?

Deborah Szebeko: I don't know! I'm still not sure. I just received a nice invitation through the post.

VB: Was it the first time you had been to Number 10?

Deborah Szebeko: No. I've been a couple of times before. For example, in May 2008 we met with Greg Beales, Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister for health and social care issues.

I got to see a bit more of the building this time.

VB: They gave you a tour of Number 10? Was it interesting?

Deborah Szebeko: Not a full tour, but a partial tour. It was really interesting, and it's quite funny, because it is actually quite homely – quite friendly.

VB: When one sees pictures of Number 10 it looks like a store front door. It's big, I gather.

Deborah Szebeko: Yeah. It goes back from the street quite far.

VB: Did you have an opportunity to speak with Prime Minister Gordon Brown?

Deborah Szebeko: I only said "Hello," and he also greeted me. That was all, unfortunately. I was a little bit upset to not be able to speak at greater length. The first time I went, I got to speak to the Prime Minister's advisor on health.

VB: You are one of the few who has been able to say, "Hello" and shake the PM's hand.

Deborah Szebeko: He's a very nice guy in real life, and he's very funny. I think that it's a shame his personality is lost somehow on the "telly." (Vern's note: "telly" is a television.)

VB: On July 6th you spoke at the NESTA Reboot Britain event. What were the key points you made about how co-design can "reboot" Britain?

Deborah Szebeko: I was one of three members of a panel that focused on the topic "Policy Making in the Future." Mick Fealty of Slugger O' chaired it; the other panel members were Steph Grey of the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills and David Price of Debate Graph.

It was very much about the kind of things we need to do with less money and resources, and how creativity can play a crucial role given those limitations. I referred to regeneration of services and organizations, which tends to be led by creative people. Creative people are very good at doing this type of thing with limited resources. That was one part of it.

I also spoke about language barriers in terms of the jargon governments use when they think they are communicating – particularly related to policy matters. The language used is at a completely different level compared to Joe public. We need to get real in our communication if we want to design services or make a difference in the world. We need to effectively and actively listen to people, not just patronizingly listen. Some ways to accomplish this is using clear language, drawings, videos, and other methods of communication than the written or spoken word.

VB: You're talking about trying to eliminate "Government speak" or "bureaucratic speak!" Does Britain also have an issue in communicate with its diverse ethnic groups where English may be their second language?

Deborah Szebeko: Yes. The Sun, one of our newspapers which has the highest readership, uses very basic English. We advise our clients when writing to know what they want to say, have a positive tone of voice and keep it short and simple.

The type of communication provided by government is often the reason people don't engage in social issues or politics. If government wants people to take more responsibility it needs to change its language and approach to communication, because presently it's fairly old fashioned. We need a new kind of modern government that people can relate to.

VB: On your website, you have a link to a presentation the 99% Conference by Scott Thomas, who was Design Director for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008. Is that the kind of approach you are thinking of to engage citizens?

Deborah Szebeko: Yeah. There is a mixture of things that need to be done. The Obama campaign was really interesting and we should ask ourselves, "What can we learn from it?"

VB: What can we learn?

Deborah Szebeko: Lots! There are a couple of quotes in his presentation that are worth noting. "It's all about getting people involved in the process and to participate in the process." A second quote that is instructive is, "By putting all the assets online and being transparent we were able to activate and allow people to participate in the political process."

VB: Last year the British Council recognized you as the "Young Design Entrepreneur of the Year 2008." Would you talk about this recognition, and was it presented at a special event?

Deborah Szebeko: It was presented at an event called "100 Percent Design," which happens once a year in the UK to promote good design. I think it was quite brave of them to pick me, because it was the first year for this type of award and typically design is seen as being design of products. Not the design of services and intangible, social stuff.

I was very proud they recognized the value of what I was doing with thinkpublic.

VB: How many finalists were there?

Deborah Szebeko: There were 6, I think.

VB: It must have quite an emotional high when you were informed that you were the winner.

Deborah Szebeko: Yeah, it was funny because I was the outsider. I think I would probably be the least likely person most people would have considered to be the most likely to win. Everyone else in the finalist group was a very different kind of designer.

VB: So the reward value was even higher!

Deborah Szebeko: Definitely, it as more than just person satisfaction for me. It reinforced that the kinds of design work we are doing in the charity and public sectors is really important, and it needs to happen ever more often.

VB: Extensive dialogue and prototyping seem to integral to your process. Who are the major influences for your co-design approach at thinkpublic?

Deborah Szebeko: I wouldn't compare our approach to any other design agencies.

There are many people who do graphic design, but social design is still very young. Social design is an interesting new area, and there isn't necessarily anyone that I aspire to follow in this field.

I have probably learned more from the advertising industry in terms of how to segment and understand your market. This is the key to everything we do. If we don't understand the kind of people we are trying to work with then they're not going to want to get involved with us in our design processes.

VB: History will show you were a pioneer in social design.

Deborah Szebeko: Hopefully!

VB: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers about thinkpublic?

Deborah Szebeko: The final thing I would be to say that we are moving into a stage now where we are outwardly reorganizing ourselves with the aim that our business will create social change.

Underneath that are three areas which, as a business, we want to prioritize as the areas we will work in. One is "Active healthy living," and it's very much about how do we promote wellness. How do we encourage people to look after themselves? How can we help people create social enterprises around active, healthy living? And what does health prevention, an active, healthy UK or any healthy country look like? We are currently putting together ideas and projects around this social issue.

We also have a program called "Human Government," which is looking very much at how do you make government less impersonal? How do you create self-improving public services that people can take ownership of, and be able to adapt the public services to fit their local needs? It involves thinking of different ways of organizing the delivery of government services, including enabling online solutions to public services.

The third strand is called "Social Potential," and it is about how do we tap into people's individual strengths and community strengths in order to collectively make a difference.

All three areas are very much centered on co-design.

VB: Thank you for taking the time to tell us about the work you are doing to improve the lot of citizens and social groups in the UK. Best wishes for the continued success of thinkpublic.

Deborah Szebeko: Thank you.

Innovation in the public sector should focus on the user experience of a service, as well as how to improve and make it more efficient. One of the challenges is engagement – getting the people delivering the service and the users jointly involved in the design process and in making changes. Another is being able to look at public services holistically when making innovations to a subset of the total of the services, such as health care. "…improving public service isn't just about listening to service users, or asking them to sit on committees. It's about empowering people to improve the services they use, and to act for themselves."

One of the design tools thinkpublic uses to assist in the development of products and services is prototyping and testing with users. They recommend prototyping to make the concepts "real." Prototyping can be done on paper – quickly draw and sketch the concepts for your planned new product or service. The drawings should be done quickly, be flexible, and subject to many changes. The prototypes should answer the following questions:
  • What will the public see when they encounter your service for the first time?

  • What are the various ways people will interact with your product or service?

  • How will they find information about your product or service?
    Thinkpublic's pioneering use of creative tools and techniques for co-design of services in the UK is worth examining to see what lessons can be learned. In June 2009 thinkpublic was selected by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) as one of twenty-four high growth companies to be mentored by leaders from the creative industries. The intent of this program is to build the world-class businesses of tomorrow in a new initiative aimed at boosting the UK's creative industry.

    Deborah Szebeko's Bio:
    Deborah Szebeko is the founding director of thinkpublic, a social innovation and design agency that works with the public sector and third sector to innovate and improve public services. She understands how to use collaborative methods and tools to enable service innovation and improvement.

    Over the past six years, Szebeko has successfully used her co-design approach to inform and develop communication products and service innovations that have been rolled out nationally across the UK. In partnership with the NHS (National Health Service) Institute for Innovation and Improvement, she developed The Experience Based Design methodology and tool kit, which enables NHS Trusts to capture, understand and use patient experience to improve health services.

    In recognition of Deborah Szebeko's pioneering work she was awarded The British Council's UK Young Design Entrepreneur in October 2008. Also in 2008, for her dedication to social innovation, she was listed in the Top 10 of the "Courvoisier The Future 500." Szebeko has presented her work at international design and health conferences including: NESTA Reboot Britain (London, 2009), Reinventing Design (Hong Kong Design Centre, 2008), Design of The Times (Newcastle, 2007), NESTA Young Innovators (London, 2007), The European Forum on Quality Improvement in Healthcare (Prague, 2006), Doors of Perception (New Delhi, 2005) and Doors Leaders Round Table (Amsterdam, 2004).

    Deborah Szebeko has a BA in Graphic Design & Advertising, MA in Communications, and Diploma's in Organizations, Relationship and Co-active Coaching. She is undertaking PhD research with Middlesex University, exploring the challenges surrounding user-centered design and innovation in the public sector.

    Articles about thinkpublic have been in The Telegraph, Design Week, RSA Journal, Journal of Public Mental Health, Health Service Journal, Hospital Development, and Financial Times.

    Share on      

    Reader Comments

    Thought provoking interview with Deborah Szebeko, Founding Director of thinkpublic.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Posted by Anumakonda Jagadeesh on November 7, 2012