For many creative types, getting involved in the public sector is a bit of an alluring mystery. The idea of working with a government-owned organization or initiative allows people to be part of a bigger cause, a stronger mission, and the possibility to impact thousands of people – often rarities in the private world, where projects are for business clients and only impact the people who interact with the company.
But while the public sector can provide a sense of virtuousness, it comes with some unique challenges and processes to navigate.
Michael Courtney should know. As the founder of Michael Courtney Design, a Seattle-based graphic design firm specializing in wayfinding, he has spent 26 years working in the public sector arena, with half of his clients in that space. His projects include working with the Washington State Convention Center, Seattle City Light, the area’s publicly-owned electric power utility, along with wayfinding projects for Kansas State University and the University of Washington.
We caught up with Courtney to learn more about partnering with the public sector.
Find the perfect project for your skillset.
“I’d recommend design firms reach out to their state and local municipalities and see if there is a government or municipal service that gathers and distributes information about opportunities for design services. And then get on that service’s email to be able to search for opportunities,” says Courtney.
Besides finding an email list, Courtney recommends looking for other designers who might bring you onto their project teams. “Architects and landscape architects do a lot of public projects, so connecting with them is a great place to start,” he says.
Land the project.
Unlike the private sector, where a lot of clients are based on relationships, the public-sector process is more stringent and follows an application process. “You need to go through the steps in the order they specify,” says Courtney. This could mean filling out one page, or 50, depending on the project. “They will ask the same questions by the same committee members in the same order every single time, so they hope they are getting an apples-to-apples answer. They don’t want someone coming back and saying, ‘I wasn’t included.’”
If you meet the criteria, you get an invitation to interview and only then do you get to do a proposal. “Sometimes, it is a really long journey to find out if you did or did not get that project, which is part of why some people don’t do public sector projects,” says Courtney.
Explain your process, as well as your intended result.
Once you land the project, you need build trust with the various stakeholders. And there are many from different organizations.
“Most clients and these community groups don’t do projects like we do all the time,” he says. “We have to help them understand what we can do, how we can help them, and what it is going to look like, not only the end product but also what the process is going to look like, so they get comfortable.”
Build that bond through transparency.
For Courtney and team, they do a few exercises to help develop a cohesive vision.
“We do a visioning session where we have key phrases that we want clients to respond to, like, What do you want people to feel when they use the project? What do you want people to think when they leave this project? This provides a lot of input.
“And then we bring in images of other environmental graphics projects we have put out. We talk about them. Why did you like this? Why didn’t you like this? It allows us to talk about concepts like scale, colors, materials, and comprehension nature of a program, And it lets them have their say.
“It also helps our team. When they start designing, they have a clearer path, a roadmap to go by. When we bring back those concepts, we remind them of what we have gone through and how we are going to do that.”
Play the waiting game.
“Most designers in school are trained to work quickly and efficiently and when they get out of school, that is reinforced even more. With the public sector, it’s not the same.”
Decisions needing to be made by various stakeholders can make the process stretch out, says Courtney. Sometimes it can be months before starting back up on projects.
“[During the break], you have to be willing to not change your ideas. They have approved things and even though you might have come up with something that was even more distinctive in the three months, don’t do it. Stay the course.”
Imagine the community as your client.
For those looking to work in the public sector, it often comes down to telling a bigger story around the community, says Courtney. “If we do a fabulous project in an office building [for a private sector client], then only the people who get to see it are the people using that building. But with public projects, we have thousands of people who get to see these projects. And it lasts. A lot of our work has been up for literally 20 years.”