Stephen McCarthy, design lead at GDS, on why his first job rejection was a blessing in disguise
Rather than obsessing over purely aesthetic elements, it was the functionality of design that interested Stephen as a visual communications student. More intrigued by pictograms and the idea of a universal visual language, it seems only natural that he had found himself working at Government Digital Services, where simple usability for the entire UK population is the name of the game. As design lead, his entire output is determined by understanding people – forever asking what they need and why. Stephen opens up about the need to keep teams happy, learning to scrutinise his own work and why his first job rejection was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Head of Design for Government as a Platform, GDS (2012–present)
Owner and Designer, Loft 27 Design, 2010–present (Company owner/freelance work)
Digital Designer, Imagination, 2012 (Contract position)
Designer, Detail Design Studio, Dublin, 2007-2010
London College of Communication, MA Contemporary Typographic Media (2011)
Dublin Institute of Technology, BA Visual Communication (2004–2007)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a design lead for a programme of work called Government as a Platform (GaaP). This involves creating a set of products and components that make government services easier to create and cheaper to run. This includes building common technologies for things like taking and processing payments or sending emails, text messages and letters to users.
This work involves coordinating design delivery across multiple teams within GDS, and a lot of engagement with wider government organisations. We have three core user groups: public users, civil servants building government services and civil servants running government services day-to-day. We have to make sure we are listening to these user groups and building products that meet their needs. Building for each of these user groups brings different challenges.
What does an average working day look like?
I generally get up at about 7am and do some work at home for a couple of hours. I then head into the office for about 9.30am (I like to miss the rush-hour crush), and my commute takes about 30 minutes.
Every day is pretty different; it could range from being in the user-research lab, to management team meetings, to design planning and prioritisation sessions. I try to have an uninterrupted few hours every day where I can get through design tasks I need to get done.
“I was always interested in the functional aspects of design rather than the purely aesthetic.”
How did you land your current job?
I have always been interested in the functional aspects of design rather than the purely aesthetic. The legacy of public sector design projects such as Calvert and Kinnear’s UK road signage or Cook and Shanosky’s transport pictograms had always fascinated me.
I had recently finished a masters where my focus was on pictograms and the concept of universal understanding. I was on the lookout for a role that suited my interests. I had become aware that the UK government was beginning to do some interesting work and then I saw Ben Terrett tweet about an opening on the design team at GDS. I applied, got the job and nearly five years later I am still here.
My background in graphic design gave me the edge over other candidates, I think. My skill set mixed well with the other members of the design team, who came from more interaction and digital design backgrounds.
What are your working hours?
At GDS we are generally pretty good at keeping to a 40-hour week. We always aim to deliver projects in a timely fashion and if there are things stopping us from doing this we try solve them, rather than work an extra 10 or 20 hours a week to counteract bad project management. GDS is aware of the need for a good work-life balance and how this improves morale and productivity.
How collaborative is your role?
Being able to collaborate and work effectively as part of a team is a very important part of being a designer in government. I work with developers, user researchers, product managers, delivery managers and technical architects on a daily basis. I also work with the wider government design community on items of common interest, such as reusable design patterns and guidance.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable part is building things that users actually need. Building towards a better public infrastructure is very satisfying.
The least enjoyable aspect is when meetings become repetitive and delivery begins to slow down due to a lack of clear direction. This can happen when working across multiple product teams and is a common issue in large organisations. It’s important to act when this type of thing starts happening.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Helping to deliver a suite of components that enable service teams around government to design, build and run services that meet government standards.
What tools do you use most for your work?
We use the office walls a lot to talk through problems; I use Adobe Creative Suite to make posters, documents, stickers, illustrations, iconography, screen mock-ups and diagrams; I prototype in code (Sublime Text is my text editor of choice), I don’t use tools such as Axure or Invision. We have a prototyping kit we built to quickly spin up html prototypes that look like GOV.UK. We use Google Docs and Sheets for our admin work. I have a 15.4 inch MacBook Pro; a Wacom Bamboo tablet; Moleskine notebooks; and a Pentel black sign pen.
What skills are essential to your job?
The ability to ask ‘why?’ and scrutinise things from different angles is valuable. Being able to work as part of a team is essential. Having good communication skills is really important and being able to listen to people is even more important. As designers we have many soft powers when it comes to conveying our ideas and opinions. We can prototype and visualise better than other professions. It’s important to use these skills and show the thing at every possible opportunity.
“I learned more about being a designer in my first few months working than I did in four years of university.”
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to design football jerseys (I wasn’t good enough to be an actual footballer so this was the next best thing). I was also obsessed with statistics and had a brief flirtation with the idea of being a statistician.
I was always pretty good at art so I knew I would end up doing something in that area. It was only when I was about 14 that I became aware of what a graphic designer was.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied visual communication, so it’s been very useful. Though I think design education can be greatly improved. It’s outdated and focuses too much on design as a deliverer of artefacts and not enough on the consequence of design (both good and bad). I like to stay involved in education and regularly guest lecture at universities.
What were your first jobs?
When I finished my undergraduate studies I was picked to take part in the nine month internship programme in Dublin. It involved three-month stints in three of Dublin’s best design studios: Detail, Zero-G and Atelier David Smith. It’s a great programme and is still running 10 years later. I ended up working at Detail for three years after the internship ended.
I learned more about design and being a designer in my first few months working than I did in four years of university. That’s not a slight on my education, it’s just a fact that nothing can really prepare you fully for working day to day in a busy studio.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
Not getting a job was one of the best things that ever happened me. I applied for a role when I finished uni and I didn’t get it. I was disappointed at the time. It was a blessing in disguise and meant I ended up doing the Threex3 internship programme.
My early days working with Brian Nolan and Paul McBride from Detail was very rewarding. I learned a lot from their respective styles and strengths and it helped me consistently improve the quality of my design work.
Was there an early project that helped your development?
Working with Mark Hurrell and Ben Terrett on GOV.UK really helped me reformat how I approach designing at scale. Mark in particular had a lot experience in this area and his approach helped me lot in my early days at GDS. They helped me think of the long game and not be short-sighted in my approach to design. This short-sightedness can stem from the culture of working in agencies, when you are trying to get work out of the door promptly and move on to the next client.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I have learned to see the bigger picture and not get lost in the small details. I have a better understanding now of how my decisions can have an effect down the line. On a more practical level, my coding and development skills have improved. It’s important to have a good understanding of the medium you are working in. My medium is mostly the internet.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Moving from agency life to working in multidisciplinary product teams was a difficult shift to make. Establishing good working relationships with members of your team – such as frontend developers – can be challenging. People have different opinions on what’s important and you have to be able to navigate conversations in a way that keeps a cohesive team unit. I haven’t always done this in the best way and it resulted in strained relationships at times. Everyone wants to deliver something great at the end of the day.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
The context in which graphic design sits now is different to 10 years ago when I started. The term has old-world connotations that need to be combated if we aren’t to be succumbed by roles such as ‘visual designer’ or ‘UI designer’. Graphic design sits in a wider sphere that includes ‘offline’ media, but we need to be engaged in the digital world of design if the role is to remain relevant.
What would you like to do next?
Help improve the design of Irish government services.
Could you do this job forever?
Yes. But in my later years, I’d like to do it three days a week, from a balcony in Cascais, Portugal.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
There aren’t many bigger problems than those in government.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a designer in government?
Care about problems and want to fix them.
This article is part of a feature on Government Digital Service.
Interview by Indi Davies
Photography by Ryan Evans
Mention Stephen McCarthy
Mention Government Digital Service
Mention Atelier David Smith