These 3 Fellowships Will Change Your Perception of Public Service Design


What happens between obtaining an architecture degree and a practicing license typically goes one of three ways: work, return to a university for post-grad studies, or abandon the profession altogether. However, this window of opportunity has the potential to be much more exploratory, both creatively and professionally.

Coming out of school, graduates are brimming with excitement, full of ideas, skills, and hopes for how to change the world one building at a time. Soon thereafter however, reality settles in and the creative, gravity-defying 3D models draped in mesh surfaces give way to monotonous drawings of restrooms, elevator shafts, and staircases. (Don’t get me wrong—service and circulation spaces are some of the most important elements of a building.)

But how might someone bridge the gap between education and practice by continuing creative interests and grounding oneself in the practicalities of design and building?

Fellowships have traditionally offered a tract for graduates and young professionals to research and experiment.

The Rome Prize, Wheelwright Prize, and Loeb Fellowship are well-known entities offering architecture graduates and professionals the ability to explore thesis topics, perform design research, and experiment as a supplement to practice. There are also a number of lesser-known opportunities.

The Van Alen Institute, for instance, is one of the longest-standing fellowship programs in the country. Originally founded in 1894 as the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects, the fellowship program sent one student each year to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris to supplement the atelier-based education in the United States. After over a century of operation, the Institute—renamed Van Alen, after Chrysler Building architect William Van Alen—has evolved to focus broadly on architecture in the public realm.

Participatory workshop in Kibera

One of the key Van Alen Institute programs that came out of the evolution was the New York Prize, which ran from 2007-2010. It focused on research and practices; and according to Director of Research Jeff Byles, “engaged the public realm and raised interesting design questions regarding ways to use technology or participatory processes as tools to bring innovation to design of the public realm.”

Prize awardees, and founders of Kounkuey Design Initiative, Chelina Odbert and Jennifer Toy spent their fellowship term in 2008 exploring participatory design and research in Nairobi’s slum community of Kibera while concurrently building relationships and support networks in New York.

“The fellowship played a strong role in both conceptually advancing their project but also practically by providing professional connections and a forum for them to have conversations,” remarked Byles. Due to the early stage support from Van Alen’s Fellowship, Kounkuey has since developed and installed four public space projects that continue to thrive in Kibera.

Public house in Kibera

Along with Van Alen’s public realm-focused fellowship, two new programs have sprung up in New York and San Francisco to support public service design through multi-disciplinary teams and experimental installations.

Nonprofit Public Policy Lab (PPL) launched their fellowship in 2011 and opened the application process to designers with an interest in working on public and governmental services—an area of work nearly unheard of in design and architecture education.

“[The organization] came out of work that my cofounders and I had done in different design fields while working with public agencies,” explained the nonprofit’s Executive Director Chelsea Mauldin. “We saw how there was a need inside of government for design skills of any kind. Then further, design skills not only had values of creating end products that were more satisfying for users but also that a design-based approach could help agencies to figure out new ways to solve problems.”


The fellowship program attracts designers from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, including storytelling, user experience design, urban planning, writing, politics and architecture. For three to six month terms, teams focus on one of three phases for public sector projects: participatory research with both employees and end users; design of ‘real-world mechanisms’ to improve service delivery; and piloting and evaluation of those new service designs.

“We work with public agencies the whole way through,” remarked Mauldin. “We won’t just come in at the end and make something look nice.”

Although the fellowship is centered on service design—an area that focuses on planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and materials for providers and customers—the methodology of incorporating customers’ behaviors, needs, and motivations is being taken up more commonly by designers interested in public interest work.


As demonstrated in the pilot project, “Designing Services for Public Housing,” PPL fellows teamed with Parsons Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) Lab students to spend four months conducting exploratory research. The clients of the project included the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development staff, the public, and service providers.

Only after this research phase did they design service options, refine concepts into a How-to Guide, and implement four pilot projects. PPL continues to work with the Housing Preservation and Development Staff to monitor the pilot installations and publish evaluation reports. By focusing design on end users’ behavior, needs, and motivations, success should be measured by the response to and use of the product, place, or service.

A year after Public Policy Lab began in New York City, the City of San Francisco and Code for America launched the first-ever Office of Civic Innovation to introduce an entrepreneurial approach to government services. Under the banner “we keep government accountable, accessible, and responsive,” the Innovation Fellowship program has attracted fellows with backgrounds in investment banking, urban development, communications, crowdfunding, civic engagement, and research.

One of the Office’s most prominent public space initiatives is the Living Innovation Zones (LIZ). The model was created for artists and designers to easily and affordably install urban “hacks”—a term commonly used for quick, iterative, and often times inelegant but effective solutions to everyday problems. The program has opened up underused public areas as showcase spaces for innovative and creative installations with sponsorship from private companies and cultural institutions.


In a recent Atlantic Cities article, Innovation Fellow Jake Levitas, who previously worked in urban planning at ARUP and as Research Director at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, commented on the unique opportunities created for designers by LIZ.

“Normally with installations, they go through a design-and-engineering review and then get approval,” said Levitas. “The LIZ program is designed to allow change over time, so if people don’t like one part or another it can get taken out.” Due to the multi-disciplinary team of fellows and staff, these types of iterative and responsive initiatives are providing new opportunities for designers and the general public to interact and improve civic life.

Four more fellowship opportunities in the US

Additional organizations are providing similar opportunities that push the boundaries of where and how design is applied, including the Tipping Point’s T Lab in Oakland, Collaborative Group’s Challenge Detroit, the Appalachian Transition Fellowship, and Epicenter’s Frontier Fellowship in Utah. To the credit of nonprofit, university, and government programs invested in innovative and experimental ideas, we’re bound to see new roles and types of design practices continue to sprout up. Here’s to a bright path ahead for design professionals.

This article first appeared on pages 30-31 in the AIA Young Architects Forum’s Connection: We the People issue titled “Fellowships: Redesigning Public Service” and was released March 2014.

Image sources: (with modifications by the author), Van Alen Institute, Public Policy Lab, InnovateSF Living Innovation Zone

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