The igloo ideal: building design systems that work for the public sector

A 5 minute read written by Paul January 20, 2015

An illustration of an igloo.

As Canadians, we joke that Americans think we live in igloos. Americans don’t really think this – right? I don’t live in an igloo, but I did build one once. We learned how in elementary school using plastic shovels. An igloo is an amazingly efficient, sustainable design that can be created quickly by a small team using readily available tools.

At Yellow Pencil we build solutions to complex design problems: issues that haven’t been solved before or solutions that are not readily available. This never-ending stream of complex problems requires clever people with rare skill sets to constantly be available (plastic shovels optional.)

For our customers, this means constantly “outsourcing” design to access our rare skills. In the short term, this is good for our business. However, public sector organizations often have a lot to do on a minimal budget and simply can’t sustain this. They need to be able to deliver some of the work via internal staff.

For our team, it’s hard to guarantee a high quality, consistent design system when we are working with internal resources who do not share our background or techniques, so we constantly search for methods to foster a common approach.

The igloo and the pattern library

Austrian architect Christopher Alexander, author of The Pattern Language, created patterns to solve the problem of managing design systems. He describes the igloo as an ideal example of architectural design because the architect is the inhabitant who makes the mistakes, improves the design, and passes along the lessons learned to form a complete feedback loop. In modern architecture, the feedback loop is broken because of the distance between the architect of a building and the inhabitant. Architects and designers needed to start collecting repositories of design concepts that have proven to be effective. Alexander calls this collection a pattern language.

So here is the best description for the business value of a pattern library I’ve heard:

Patterns allow people of average capability to solve complex design problems. It’s an effective method for sharing design work to a team who may not possess an identical skill set or background while maintaining the integrity of the design system.

Atomic design, design patterns – whatever the name – it’s about solving problems with a design system, not just a design. That’s a pretty powerful opportunity, if you ask me.

How can patterns help our public sector clients?

There are a lot of characteristics in public sector technology and communication projects that bring unique challenges which the private sector does not face:

  • Budgets and procurement: while public sector always has some money to spend, it’s rarely enough to accomplish everything that’s needed. Projects fall into annualized cycles, making it hard to build long-term relationships. The RFP process typically means you work with vendors who best fit the RFP requirements, not necessarily vendors who best fit the project needs.
  • Being all things: private sector has the opportunity to focus on a specific market and service. They work to ensure profitability across all organizational activities. Public sector, on the other hand, must deliver multiple services to a diverse community, making it challenging to set clear objectives and priorities.
  • Union-driven culture: most public sector organizations have a collective bargaining influenced culture, which means that there is a strong desire to deliver work with permanent staff not consultants and contractors. This culture can be in opposition to bringing in the right (necessary) skill sets for complex projects.

Here’s what we discovered when using a pattern-based approach with our public sector clients.

  • Creation and testing become more atomic. Rather than creating an entire design, we test specific elements of the design. Every time the client pays to put something through user testing, they know that investment will come back through re-use. The client realizes return on investment past a single project and transcend the limits of the procurement and budget cycle.
  • Rather than creating a website design, we create a design system. Clients start to understand that design is a series of related interaction patterns that have dependencies. This helps us to move past the “being all things” problem by focusing and prioritizing the work at hand.
  • Delivering design as a resource that allows internal resources to own it, but bring in rare skills to solve specific problems is compatible with a unionized corporate culture, where the permanent staff become responsible for the long-term evolution of the design platform.

We are constantly working to find a balance between selling our clients fish when they need it and providing our clients with fishing lessons.

Meet City of Surrey

We’ve seen positive results through the pattern-based approach with our client partner, City of Surrey. We created a design system for them during the responsive redesign of their website in 2012 and gave them a style guide (our version of a pattern library) at the close of the project. Their IT team wanted to know how they could bring their web apps into alignment with the new look of Outsourcing all that design work to our team would have been pretty costly.

Using the style guide as a design standard, Surrey IT has started on the process of reskinning their apps and is considering using the style guide as a requirement for third party application developers. They still have the opportunity of bringing design work to our team where a specific skill or capacity is required, but going forward they can solve many design problems internally.

How to have a thriving design relationship

The wonderful thing about an igloo is that it’s a solution that everyone can implement. It’s been refined until it just works. We aim for that level of usability and practicality in all of our work, but we also recognize that there is a strong innovation component to the work that we do. Innovation is a challenge for public sector organizations, but we’re finding ways to build more effective design relationships.

Our pattern-based approach combines our collaborative culture with our commitment to deliver the highest quality work, on-time and on-budget. A design relationship thrives when clients continually bring us challenging design problems, giving us the opportunity to respond with highly effective, useful solutions.

We’re not at igloo level yet, but we keep improving the way that we deliver innovative digital work, enhancing the everyday experience for real people. If you’re interested hearing more about our design system approach to project work, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch!

Some resources and examples

If you haven’t worked with pattern libraries before, here are four of my favourite examples:

Want to dive deeper? Here are some of the best books on the subject: