Design: Working For The Man – Stephen McCarthy

Posted August 26, 2016 in Design

Stephen McCarthy is a London-based Irish graphic designer, working at Government Digital Service (GDS). Established in 2011 as part of the UK government’s Cabinet Office, GDS describes its job as nothing less than the “digital transformation of government”. This has taken the form of a number of undertakings and initiatives. The most publicly-noted outcome is GOV.UK, the consolidated online service for providing government services and information to citizens. The success of GOV.UK with users, government and the design community has facilitated a discussion about the best way for designers to deliver impactful digital projects at scale. McCarthy is now currently Head of Design for a programme of work called “Government as a Platform” – building a set of shared products that make services easier to create and cheaper to run.

Having left Dublin in 2010, he completed the MA in Contemporary Typographic Media at London College of Communication in 2012. One of his final projects was England’s Burning – a narrative of the 2011 London riots told only in pictograms. This was a laborious exercise, distilling complex meanings and touch-points using the familiar visual language of signage and iconography.

“It was 2012, I had basically spent a year and a half drawing and studying icons in a bid to pair things down to their simplest form. I enjoyed the process, but I didn’t want to draw icons forever. I wanted to engage with the notion of simplicity and universal understanding on a much grander scale.”



“I’ve always been interested in public sector design. Whether that be Kinneir and Calvert’s road signs, Harry Beck’s tube map, the work of the Design Research Unit [DRU] or even Abram Games’ war propaganda posters. The public sector is where I wanted to work. Then I saw Ben Terrett [ex-Government Director of Design] tweet about an opening at the Government Digital Service and I immediately applied. I very much saw it as the modern equivalent of something like the DRU. It sounds cheesy, but it’s the place where I thought I could do the most good with my skillset.”

McCarthy’s working background was a product of graphic studio culture in Dublin, and the learning curve at GDS was steep: “When I joined GDS I felt drastically underprepared as the environment and way of working was not what I was used to. I learned a lot in a short amount of time. Like how to work with user researchers and design based on user needs. Working in agile multidisciplinary teams was also new to me, coming from an agency background. Generally the designers at GDS work in multidisciplinary agile product/service teams. The team is usually made up of a designer, user researcher, delivery manager, product manager, frontend developer, backend developers, content designer, web ops and technical architects.”

GDS is a highly communicative organisation which has a prominent and articulate voice. With the wider UK government now employing over 300 designers across the country, GDS supports this community, both by its profile and direct interactions.

“From early on we had a clear way of talking about our work and the benefits it will bring to users and subsequently the government,” McCarthy says. “As an organisation we blog a lot and we are open about the things we do and build. This trains you to understand you have to have reasons why you did a certain thing and be able to explain those reasons.”

“It’s important to know who you are talking to and tailor your argument or discussion for that particular audience. For example, when you are talking to a minister don’t talk about fonts and icons; talk about how you are making things easier for people.”



Although the work that GDS undertakes often breaks new ground, McCarthy still identifies “as a graphic designer [although] most of what I do is an amalgamation of graphic, interaction and even service design. Where one merges into the other has become somewhat blurred over time.”

“The term graphic design unfortunately has ‘old school/non-digital’ connotations attached to it,” he adds. “That’s one of the reasons why we have an infestation of new job titles like visual designer, UI designer, digital designer, UX, etc. It’s a bit of a mess really… There will always be a big place for design studios but I think they need to adapt. Studios will need to be more mobile in the way they work and be ready to insert themselves into their client’s product teams and not work in isolation. I also think the model of having the one digital specialist in the studio who ‘does the websites’ is an outdated structure. To do good work you really need to understand the medium and users you are designing for. I think graphic designers should be able to do this and adapt this way of working to a number of different mediums.”

In a constantly evolving digital product “you can react to problems a lot quicker and iterate based on evolving user needs,” says McCarthy. “The difficulties with a lot of agency/client work is you design a site, or whatever – if you’re lucky you can also build it in-house – then you ship it… The site then dies a slow death and in five years time the process starts again.”



“In relation to government services, graphic designers create a common design language that allows us to scale and constantly change GOV.UK whilst remaining consistent and identifiable. I see graphic design as an enabler for content and interaction design; ensuring content is legible and easy to read and interactions are clearly understood.”

So, what would it take for Ireland to have its own equivalent of GDS and GOV.UK? Do the design and political culture, skills and motivation exist here? “I’m constantly in touch with my industry friends from Dublin and am aware of the really good work being created. Initiatives such as the 100 Archive give a great overview of the design output and it’s something I constantly point to when non-Irish people ask me about the design scene back home.”

“There seems to be a more diverse design culture beginning to form in Dublin. The user-centred design approach is taking hold… I think for too long the dialogue of the design scene in Dublin has been dominated by a select few agencies who all do similar types of work. The Irish, or any country’s, equivalent of GOV.UK will never happen until digital skills are moved into the heart of government. All the countries who are doing it the right way are building strong in-house teams capable of carrying out the transformation needed.”

Perhaps this is a starting point for where such change might occur. “Relying on external agencies and consultants […] might work fine in the short term but user needs for services change over time. Government should be able to quickly iterate and adapt its services based on these needs. This is only achievable when you have the skills inside government to do this.”

For more on Stephen McCarthy’s work, check out:

Words: David Wall

Images: GDS Design Team


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