How Ariel Kennan Solves NYC’s Most Intractable Design Problems

Kennan, who heads a design and product team for Mayor Bill de Blasio, is bringing service design to the city.

How Ariel Kennan Solves NYC’s Most Intractable Design Problems

Doreen Lorenzo: Tell me a little bit about your background. What was your first exposure to design?
Ariel Kennan: I took to design early. My mother is an accomplished landscape architect, and like a good mom, she would tell you that I had a design eye from a very young age. As I got older, I started exploring visual design and art. My mom was the only woman in her architecture class when she went to design school. Because of that she was really excited about my interest in design and encouraged me and taught me that you can be smart and be creative at the same time.


And how did you end up in your current role in the New York City Mayor’s Office?
I first came to New York City to go to Parsons’ Integrated Design program, which was one of the first design school programs in the United States to embrace a multidisciplinary perspective. They knew that in order to solve the world’s hardest problems, designers needed to work with people from multiple disciplines.

After college, I went on to work for ESI Design, where I had the opportunity to design a new city in China. From that point on, I knew I wanted to build and design things for cities. Because government controls a lot of what happens in cities, I knew I better understand how it all works. So I applied and was accepted to the Code for America fellowship program.

Code for America helped me gain the vocabulary, knowledge, and expertise to have an informed conversation about what drives change in an urban context, along with the core design skills that I already had. So when I came home to New York City, Mayor de Blasio was just taking office. I had seen him speak previously and was so impressed. From there, I knew I wanted to serve my city.


What does it mean to have your title, director of design and product, within the context of a city?
Government is really good at organizing itself into specific issue areas, and thinking about which policies govern which pieces. But it’s not necessarily looking at the individual resident who has to touch five different agencies to have something change in their lives. My job is to ask the question, how do we bring better services across all of those points?

We’ve been doing this in a few different ways. One has been using design as a service. We currently have a design team made up of public servants that are also full-time designers. They worked on the mayor’s new street homelessness initiative, HOME-STAT. But what we quickly realized was that stakeholders across the city didn’t understand the service from end-to-end, even if they understood their part of it. So we talked to everyone who touches the service including people who are actually on the street. We journey mapped the entire experience from end-to-end and brought different stakeholders together to co-create changes that they would like to see — from policy to communications to data to tech.

We’re also working to build capacity and create tools not only for ourselves to do the design work but for others across the city to learn and have the tools to do it themselves. We’re developing a new design playbook for different services and departments within the city. We’re also creating a framework to be able to evaluate design interventions in the city and know if they’re effective. We want to know that we’re not just doing design for design’s sake.


Design definitely means different things, and it’s changed over time. So what does design mean to you today?
I’ve always been interested in design from different angles. To me, it’s really about systems, how things work, and how the users experience it. I also hold aesthetics in high regard. If it works well and it looks terrible, then it’s not a total success.

I was lucky that from early on I was taught in a multidisciplinary way. Still, a lot of design schools and firms today have a design leader who gives very strong direction and everyone else implements against that. It can stifle your own creativity. Now that I lead my own teams, I’m working to ensure we have a collaborative and co-creative process. We should not only be working among ourselves as designers but working closely with stakeholders and users to check our egos.

You are in a role where you’re leading people that you also manage—do you think there are leadership approaches that come more naturally to women?
Fortunately, I work with a lot of very emotionally intelligent men. Sometimes I find that they don’t see when bad behaviors come from other men. They’re almost blind to it. I’ve really tried to be a stronger force for that by letting them know when something doesn’t feel right to me.


Overall the City of New York is the most diverse place that I’ve worked. The workforce within the city, by and large, is very reflective of our residents and the people that we serve. Just within our office, we speak a number of languages and reflect many different nationalities and backgrounds. For me, it’s been a dream to work in a place that’s so diverse and full of strong women leaders.

The rise of urban innovation programs is becoming something of a movement now. Do you get together with counterparts in other cities to share best practices, or are programs different city-to-city?
There’s definitely a lot of sharing. New York’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) is a pioneer in this space and regularly shares program data and research. It was originally founded in 2006 to build and test new anti-poverty programs but has evolved now to focus on human-centered design practices and digital tools.

There are also great events and communities focused on government innovation, which we try to share best practices with regularly. Last year we hosted a gathering of Code for America alums who have worked with the organization and who now work full-time in government. We have a peer group where we talk, completely off the record, about challenges that we’re facing and how can we support each other. We also share innovative approaches, and then try to apply them in our own cities. It’s amazing that there are other people that have similar jobs to me because my job often feels like no one else’s. Having other folks nationally and internationally whom I can share with has been really empowering.


How have those that are being impacted, i.e. New York residents, embraced this?
We’re finding that program leaders in the city are really thankful to be listened to and understood. Since we get to touch a lot of programs, we start to see the connections across them in a different way. People are happier with the results.

I’ve also been doing a lot of work with members of CEO’s team who may not have a design skill set already. For example, one of our product team members had never done user research and didn’t understand it. She sat at the table cross-armed and was thinking, ‘This is hopeless; every time we’ve tried to engage with the users of our product, it seems like nobody’s willing to do it.’ My team came and built a relationship with her, and asked her about the challenges. We asked her to tell us how it works and share her process. We did workshops and activities in order to build that understanding. Then when we went to do field research, we helped her learn those skills too. Now she leads the user research interviews.

I know we can’t hug in the workplace, but are you a hugger?
I think I’m more of a high-fiver. As much as this work can be really hard, when we have a big success and breakthrough I’m celebrating it. We give high fives in the office and say, “Yay! We did it. We changed something.”

About the author

Doreen Lorenzo is Assistant Dean at the School of Design and Creative Technologies, and Founding Director of the Center for Integrated Design, both at The University of Texas at Austin.