Bringing design in-house

How to find, hire, and support design in your agency
Jan 27, 2023

How to find, hire, and support designers in your agency

Imagine you are an executive in a government agency. You know your organization is struggling to innovate, be more agile, and provide dynamic answers to complex problems, but what to do about it?

Three options come to mind: hiring, staff training, or onboarding contractors to do that work. The second and third seem to have immediate issues: staff training would likely not produce new working patterns, as current employees are likely already striving to innovate, yet your agency seems to be stagnating. Contractor support won’t provide the long-lasting innovation and agility you know your agency needs. For these reasons, hiring, though difficult and time-consuming, seems the best option. But who to hire?

The problems of innovation, agility, and dynamism are vast and amorphous. You have likely heard of innovation teams staffed by human-centered designers, but what is design, who are designers, and how can they help your agency?

In the words of American designer Charles Eames, “One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.”[1] This sounds simple. It also sounds general. Simple and general: how can that help an agency facing complex problems? Eames only concentrates on what to do about the problem: “arrange elements to accomplish a particular purpose,” but what types of problems do designers take on?

For this, design theorist Horst Rittel answers that designers take on wicked problems, which are “problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”[2]

As a federal worker at any level, this probably sounds familiar. So, here we have two sides of design: theory, where wicked problems live and are identified, and practice, where elements are arranged to accomplish a particular purpose. Theory and practice; philosophy and craft. These are the two elements design teams provide an organization. Considered under this light, designers would be a valuable asset to any government agency. 

What doctors and designers have in common

Going further into this thought experiment, what would a design team look like? Are all designers alike? Who would lead them? To answer, you can think of design teams in much the same way that you think of your own team of doctors. Depending on your situation, you might have a primary care provider, a surgeon, a cardiologist, and a dermatologist, to name a few. All of these folks went to medical school, and they all know parts of each other’s specialty, but you wouldn’t go to your dermatologist with a question about your heart, and your surgeon would prefer not to comment on your history of minor upper respiratory ailments.

On a design team, you’ll need a similar spread of specialties. These might be: product designers, service designers, front-end engineers, backend engineers, content strategists, and design researchers. And like your primary care provider, you’d want a single practitioner to consult with about all the specialties, so you need a chief design officer or experienced design lead. To be successful, they need to come to the team with three credentials:

  1. Experience leading teams in government,
  2. Formal design training, and
  3. An active design practice.

They should combine theory and practice; philosophy and craft.

You might be asking “how do I find these people, and how do I know them when I see them?” Designers, like all professionals, have schools and professional organizations where they gather, and you can use these networks to find and recruit them. Then, review portfolios to identify designers that might fit in well at your agency. A portfolio is an arrangement of a designer’s past projects that they provide to the hiring manager when they apply for a job. Beyond the simple resume, portfolios show you a designer’s thought process, as well as their technical skills. That is, a portfolio shows you a designer’s theory and practice; philosophy and craft. Through this intentionally arranged group of projects, you should be able to understand designers’ specialties and imagine how these individuals might fit together to work productively in your agency.

So far, so good: you know where to find designers and how to use their portfolios. Now, how do you evaluate them for hiring, and support them when onboarded?

From a federal hiring standpoint, you might notice a lack of uniformity across designers’ educations, work history, and cultures of working. Unlike your healthcare providers, not all designers will have attended design or art school, and many of them will not have had typical, steady employment. Some will have learned design in a self-taught way and worked as independent contractors or for small firms for years. Others will have bounced around organizations, moving from role to role, non-linearly. Lean on the designers’ portfolios to help explain their career trajectories, and understand how their work will benefit your agency.

How to manage a design team

Finally, let’s say you’ve successfully announced design positions. You’ve gathered portfolios, reviewed them, and either started with a single design lead, or hired a team under a chief design officer to combine theory and practice. What then? What will this team do? How can you best support them? How do you track their productivity?

To support this team, an executive needs to work closely with the design leadership. An executive must also anticipate that design, like all applied professions, has cultural and practical differences that may not match current, familiar office processes. This diversity is what you want; it is a strength, not a weakness.

Your design leadership will help you integrate the designers’ working patterns into the agency and build cohesion with business lines. They will work with other agency leaders to define the skills needed on projects that the design team will support, and conduct design reviews to ensure the work is proceeding in a useful manner.

Internally, the design team will run critiques (known as crits) to ensure that the designers are getting the well-rounded support they need. Design reviews are simply meetings in which the entire project team, not just the designer, presents work that has been done. To contrast, in crits, designers present their in-process work to the design team and have a conversation about the work to generate direction and ideas. In this way, design reviews focus on milestones; while crits focus on process.

Through disparate backgrounds, theory combined with practice, and differing working styles, design teams can help agencies create paths to modernize, become more agile, and be more innovative. The design team must be integrated into agency culture. They will bring new practices and ways of thinking to the agency, going beyond what staff training could accomplish.

Identifying wicked problems and “arranging [their] elements to accomplish a particular purpose” is not easy, nor is it straightforward.

It requires imagination. It requires theory and practice. It requires design.


  1. Eames Office. 2013, July 23. Design Q & A. [video] YouTube.
  2. Buchanan, Richard. Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2, (Spring, 1992). The MIT Press. pp. 5-21. Stable URL: