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Maybe it’s because I’m six months into my own pregnancy, but I feel like I’ve just given birth to my very own research report baby.
That baby is Design for Public Good, a report looking at how design can be used to deliver better public services and improve policy making. It was written for the European Commission with colleagues at the Danish Design Centre, Design Wales and Aalto University.
The work took just over nine months and certainly gave me some back pain along the way, but now that it’s here I think the pain was totally worth it. So, for all expectant report writers, here are my top 10 tips for a successful delivery (and don’t worry, for the squeamish amongst you the pregnancy metaphor ends here!).
1. Find the story you want to tell
Let’s not pretend. Reports aren’t intrinsically exciting. We don’t write them for sheer pleasure. Yes, the press coverage, the Twitter talk, the outcomes they spark off may be exciting – but the development process is just hard work. So if you’re going to embark on it you want to care about the story you’re telling. Think about why you want to tell this story and, importantly, what you want to change as a result of the report. Always come back to that if you start to lose your way. This passion will guide you through when you’re getting lost in the quagmire of intellectual discourse!
2. Pick your partners carefully
If you’re working on an EU project, chances are you’re working with a diverse group of partners – some of whom you won’t have met until your first project meeting. Choose carefully, it’s great to work with people you’ve worked with before but also try and mix it up to bring in some fresh blood and new thinking. This may mean making that awkward cold call to a new partner, but just be clear about what they can offer and what you can offer them.
3. Build trust – play a little
It’s great to be agile and work collaboratively but being part of an international project team with people you don’t know and rarely see means it’s hard to build up trust quickly and come to a consensus on things. The fact is you can’t keep it professional all the time, and nor should you. It is worth socialising, and dare I say it, trying to do some team bonding activities. The Danes were great at this. Good food and good company (and yes, good wine) meant that issues that appeared intractable in the boardroom often resolved themselves after a good chat and a hearty meal.
4. Work your other skills into the process
Think about what’s in it for you. This might not sound like the most communal belief but at some point in the process the report writing will end up taking over your life, so it’s important that you feel you are gaining as well as giving. My expertise is in education policy and design thinking and the work on this report came in amazingly handy when I gave a seminar to a group of Department for Education civil servants on how they could use design thinking to develop better policy.
5. Cast your net far and wide
As much as you’ll want to start off sharp and focused, you need to think broadly and incorporate lots of ideas, see what you collect, recalibrate, and then define your argument. While we were clear on our aim – to exemplify the value of design for the public good – we didn’t know which examples would tell the most convincing story until we really started digging. It takes a long time but great discoveries often do.
6. Be realistic about how long it’s going to take
International working is brilliant. The learning experiences are amazing and it really gives you an alternative perspective on your work. However, everything does take a lot longer – time differences, government strikes, differing bank holidays, working practices… you name it (and then double it). Allow twice as long for everything.
7. Edit ruthlessly
You can’t be precious about beautifully honed prose or a case study that you love. No one else knows what you left out, they only notice what you include. For a long time I was very attached to a little design story about bananas bruising on the shelves in a supermarket. It demonstrated our argument nicely, but we realised our readers are intelligent and didn’t need to keep being hammered over the head with our design message. So we dropped it and no one misses it. Except maybe me…
The basic rule of good writing, generally reserved for fiction – don’t tell, show. But it works across the board. There are only so many times you can state a belief, without the evidence to back it up before it simply becomes propaganda! Admittedly we may be slightly evangelical about design approaches but our evangelicalism is based on the results we see and the stories we hear.
9. Choose a lead author
Ultimately someone needs to be empowered to make the final decisions and to look at the report as a whole and make ruthless decisions about what enhances and what detracts from the key message. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.
10. Don’t get lost in translation
Let’s face it, there are cultural differences between East and West Londoners – so there are bound to be a few with our northern European neighbours.
Address and acknowledge the differences and find out what you all need to do to communicate effectively. Our Danish partners would apparently interrogate our emails for meaning, sensing that we were couching our criticism within British politenesses. And they were right, we were! So we learnt to say what we mean and mean what we say. Equally they did the same for us.
So my other tip is: build a thick skin quickly! Criticism is hard to take but it's necessary – it’s how we learn and improve. So there are my top ten tips.
Baby delivered, but the big question – would I have another one? I’ll let you know in three months’ time, once the real one arrives! If you’re interested, here’s my version of baby photos: The Design for Public Good report.
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