Design for GOV.UK

October 15, 2012 in Work updates

For most of the year, I’ve been contracting with the talented folk at the Government Digital Service (GDS), helping to design the new single government domain, GOV.UK.

Ahead of it’s public release on 17th October, I thought I’d share a bit about my experience so far and some of the reasons it’s been such a great project to be involved in.

GOV.UK will replace Directgov from October 17

A bit of background

If you’ve not heard of GOV.UK, you can get a good background on the GDS blog. In short though it’s about bringing government run public services together under one roof online. It’s about doing away with costly, disparate government websites and inconsistent design/interaction in favour of consolidating everything to put users first.

It’s a difficult, but exciting challenge — to make the web work harder for the public and in turn to make their (well, our) lives easier.

My involvement

I was initially brought on board by Ben Terrett to create a family of icons for the project back in January. When I started I didn’t really know what to expect, but I guess I had imagined working in part of the Cabinet Office could wind up being a bit dry and bureaucratic.

I was wrong.

The atmosphere and energy at GDS reminds me of that of Airside and one or two startups I’ve worked for. Lots of smart, positive people, wanting to make Good Things. Hopeful that they’ll make a difference.

The team I've been working with at GDS

The way of working is also very transparent — regular updates from different teams, show and tell sessions and workshops, walls covered in work in progress and design ideas/inspiration, design crits, brilliant design principles, public APIs, a public codebase. I could go on. It’s more reminiscent of a creative company than a government department.

I also realised pretty quickly that this was not going to be somewhere bureaucratic. Quite the opposite. I’ve discovered it’s all about cutting through the bureaucracy. Refreshingly, the senior management have the power to make big changes and that spirit of change can be felt throughout the whole organisation.

A few things I’ve learnt

During my time at GDS, I’ve been involved in quite a few different areas from prototyping and sketching to graphic design and illustration. These are things I normally do, but the key difference here has been the size of the task at hand.

When working at scale, everything gets a lot harder. Especially with a broad and diverse audience which essentially equates to the British population.

Designing for over 60 million people across the whole spectrum of abilities and requirements, means your working processes have to adapt accordingly.

These are some of the things that I’ve realised working on the project…

To scale, we iterate

A project as ambitious as GOV.UK cannot be planned out in minute detail at the beginning; there are just too many moving parts. The way we make sure we are consistently putting users first and staying on track is to take smaller problems and tackle them iteratively over short time periods or sprints. An agile approach like this accepts we don’t know everything at any given moment in time and gives us the ability to change direction quickly.

Product, then graphic design

As a designer, I’ve always placed a premium on graphic design as a key differentiator between good and bad products. Which it often is. But in the process of making a large scale product with so many unknowns, treating graphic design as a priority makes little sense. At least in the beginning. The first goal must be to have working software that fulfils users’ needs. Only then does it make sense to properly apply a layer of graphic design to elevate the product further.

Accessibility from the get-go

The GOV.UK audience is the British population. This includes people from all walks of life and with vastly varied requirements and understanding of the web. It’s really important to remember these are real people and to never assume everyone understands and uses the internet as we do. We have to build for inclusion, catering for a wide range of abilities and specific needs to make sure the site is accessible for all.


We achieve much more through collaboration. That the ‘total is greater than the sum of its parts’ is a cliché for a reason. Regularly passing our work in front of each other also helps to remove any assumptions we make as individuals and to force us to justify the design choices we make. The more people see it and poke it with a stick the better.

There is no ‘finished’

We have to remove the idea of ‘finishing’ a product like this — it cannot be finished. Over time it will need to evolve and change, just as society and people’s needs change.

Design is reckoning

A team of people with many years background designing for the web is still just a team putting forward what feels right based on experience. Until real people begin to use the product, we can’t say anything is right with much certainty.