Design for Government course at Aalto University

Government departments
Aalto University
€8,000 per department
14 weeks


Design for Government matches civil servants with multidisciplinary student design teams. The programme is part of Aalto University’s Master’s degree in Creative Sustainability which encourages students to apply design methods to addressing complex governmental and public sector challenges. The course participants have backgrounds in a range of fields such as design, business, engineering and social sciences.

The course develops and applies design skills for government through approaches like user research, systems thinking and behavioural insight. The course takes the form of hands-on projects in collaboration with government ministries and departments. The aim is to introduce design as a valuable competence in strategic policymaking, and to create opportunities for designers work at this level.

The course runs for 14 weeks every spring, with two to three different ministries as the client-collaborator each year. Students have worked on issues including: how changing building standards can enable independent living, how sustainability policy impacts on plastic bag usage, or how school children learn about health and nutrition. Proposals are created through a design process that combines human-centred design and ethnographic inquiry along with systems-level and behavioural understandings. Events are held periodically to present these learnings to a wider audience of civil servants and members of the public.

Design for Government was created out of an urgent sense that designers are needed in the realm of public policymaking. The programme builds on existing expertise at Aalto University such as its renowned courses in User Inspired Design and Designing for Services. These grew in popularity and recognition during Helsinki’s time as a World Design Capital in 2012 and through the influential work of the Helsinki Design Lab, which is powered by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. These initiatives and the learnings from them have contributed to the development of the Design for Government course.

How design helped

The university teaching team works with the government ministries to identify projects, which student teams then create proposals for using design processes. Design is approached as a mix of different competencies that allow problems to be understood from a variety of perspectives. Design methods are used to engage both empathetically and systematically with many levels of government, as well as with the everyday lives of citizens and communities. In this way, design moves upstream of traditional approaches that might simply address the problems identified by the client – design becomes a way to re-frame policy issues and tackle the root causes. The course does not stop at strategic design and design thinking, students then work to identify ways to tangibly improve everyday interactions with policies.

Student work: a design probe to understand plastic bag usage (left) and systems model for an EU school fruit and vegetables scheme (right)

The course’s approach is broad and covers practical as well as analytical aspects. This is ambitious in its short timeframe, but the experience and feedback so far has shown that the course provides a valued perspective that complements how such issues are usually understood and developed in the governmental context. The participating government departments have even expressed interest in offering a similar course for public servants.


  • 11 design-led projects commissioned by Finnish government to date
  • 53 interdisciplinary designers trained for ministry work
  • 250+ civil servants actively participating

The Design for Government course is about rethinking not just the future of design education, but also the future of policymaking and public service provision.

So far 53 students from a range of educational backgrounds have completed the course. Five projects have been commissioned from two government ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office within two years, which have all received very positive feedback from the client-collaborators.

Lively discussion among civil servants at the Design for Government final presentations event

More than 180 people attended the final presentations from the 2015 course including public servants from five ministries, the Prime Minister’s Office, three municipalities and 13 government agencies, eight NGO and foundations, 15 design or business consultancies.

The course develops and delivers policy design proposals but also, and in terms of larger and longer-term impact, it helps to develop competencies and new ways of working both for government and designers. These are detailed in a recent whitepaper published by Demos Helsinki called ‘Design for Government: Human-centric governance through experiments’ (full report in Finnish, main chapter also in English) which examines in further detail this new model of Finnish policy design.