Design Thinking in DC

Design Thinking in DC

With recent degrees from both RISD and Brown, Hannah Koenig BRDD 14 is in her element working for the government.

Hannah Koenig BRDD 14 PR, one of a growing number of graduates who have earned degrees from RISD and Brown simultaneously, believes that splitting her time between the two institutions made her a natural interpreter – someone at home in new environments and at ease moving between creative communities with different modes of expression. Shifting back and forth between studio projects at RISD and more traditional assignments for Brown classes, “I had to change my brain over to focus on something completely different,” she recalls. “It was almost like speaking different languages. I definitely developed a better sense of what each community was interested in.”

That ability to cross disciplines and understand differing perspectives has been a godsend in Koenig’s current position at the US Department of State’s Collaboratory in Washington, DC, an office dedicated to designing, piloting and spreading new ways to further educational and cultural diplomacy. As designer-in-residence, she supports the many educational programs run by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) using human-centered design and digital communications tools. Her Brown degree in International Relations and RISD BFA in Printmaking have proven to be helpful in communicating the power of design to provide new insights into the work at hand while also helping to improve processes, she explains.

“Human-centered design is bringing together projects and people from all kinds of organizations, and those networks are doing incredible things.”Hannah Koenig BRDD 14 PR

Koenig got her start at the Collaboratory when she interned there as a Maharam STEAM Fellow in the summer of 2014 – right after she graduated – and then became a full-time employee last spring. RISD’s Maharam program, she explains, enables students to bring design processes to unexpected places – like government offices. She got hooked on the idea of pushing beyond the expected realm of art and design in Making It Understandable, a Wintersession course taught by Graphic Design Critic Lindsay Kinkade MFA 10 GD that focused on communicating with Rhode Islanders about the Affordable Care Act.

“That class really showed me how design can impact people’s lives,” says Koenig – “their healthcare, how they vote, how they apply for a driver’s license or a college loan…. That’s what got me started on the path I’m on now.”

Koenig says she’s thought a lot about how printmaking relates to government work. “I would describe both as layered, vastly complex and messy,” she says with a laugh. “In printmaking I start with a vision and then work backward to figure out the techniques needed to communicate that vision. If you have a vision for what the world could look like, you need to use a similar process to work backward and figure out what steps are needed to get there. Both situations require a lot of practice and many iterations.”

Before she discovered the Collaboratory, Koenig interned for two summers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which prints US paper currency and security documents as well as various certificates like those awarded along with medals by the US armed forces. “The currency system is fascinating,” she exclaims, “and some of the presses they use are as big as city buses! But the training is incredibly specialized and people stay in those jobs for a long time. It didn’t look like there would be any openings for at least 15 years.”

When she switched tracks and signed on with the Collaboratory, Koenig was pleasantly surprised by how well the environment suited her. “What struck me when I started is the caliber and quality of my co-workers,” she says. “Everyone is accomplished in their own way.” Given her RISD degree and experience as a visual communicator, however, she sometimes finds she needs to respond to the misperception that art and design are about making things look pretty. “I explain that it’s more about the way something works,” she says – “that the visual ‘skin’ should not cover up something messy underneath. That’s a concept I learned at RISD: first make something smart and then make it beautiful.”

Koenig was back on campus in August helping to run the first-ever Institute for Design + Public Policy, a weeklong program developed in conjunction with RISD|CE to introduce government strategists to the idea of using human-centered design to solve complex policy problems. “A lot of exciting conversations and collisions came out of that program,” she says. “Human-centered design is bringing together projects and people from all kinds of organizations, and those networks are doing incredible things.”

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