A Design For Life I Municipal Journal

Despite increasing recognition of the importance of mental health, we are all aware that support for people experiencing mental health problems faces serious challenges.


Against a background of financial cuts to services, demand is set to rise for acute and serious mental illness and common mental health needs continue to follow a trajectory of rapid increase. This year, medical magazine Pulse published figures showing that 82% of GPs believe their local community mental health team is unable to cope with current levels of demand, let alone projected rises.

Service design – an approach to designing services around users – is increasingly recognised by wider policy makers and public service leaders as a valuable approach to improving mental health services, as evidenced by the Design Commission’s Restarting Britain 2 report.

The last few years have been incredibly challenging for the Local Minds Network and we wanted to promote service design and design thinking to lead the development of our mental health services in a truly person-centred way, and in partnership with commissioners, providers, staff, family and friends.

A recent Ipsos MORI survey identified that leaders across the public sector believe redesigning services around the people who use them cannot be achieved by applying a traditional approach based on commissioning, procurement and policy-making. Instead, it requires a very different set of skills, mind-sets and behaviours.

Mind worked with the Innovation Unit to embed user-centred service design across their network and promote these new ways of working.

The project involved intensive work with local Mind organisations in Tyneside, Scarborough, Bedford, Luton and Milton Keynes, Suffolk and Hillingdon. Each team defined a key challenge they were facing locally, ranging from supporting survivors of domestic violence in new ways, to new ways of promoting wellbeing in the workplace.

Next, each team conducted research to generate new perspectives on their challenge. This included ‘ethnographic’ research to explore the challenge through the day to day lives of potential users and an international survey of inspiring services to learn from.

Insights that emerged were then used for rapid generation and testing of new ideas for responding to the challenge. Finally, teams explored and refined their ideas for new services by prototyping, a fast and low-cost way of developing the most promising ideas with potential users and front-line staff.

Stuart Dexter, chief executive officer of Tyneside Mind, used service design to create a new kind of wellbeing service and is now a passionate advocate of the process.

‘When I was first approached to work with a service designer, I didn’t see how it would fit in,’ Mr Dexter relates.

‘I thought design was drawing pictures of things you were going to make. And then it became clear that it wasn’t just about making a product or a tangible thing; service design is a process to help you design new services to meet the needs of your clients.’

Service design is a way of creating and redesigning services to make them more effective, more desirable and more sustainable. Beyond this, service design is increasingly recognised as a valuable approach to solving not just service challenges, but those of institutions and whole systems.

Design approaches give new, creative ways of looking at problems, just as a product designer can create a toy to delight a child, we can use design to craft service experiences that create positive change for their intended users.

Services can seem more difficult to design than physical products because they are intangible. The result is that they are often designed ‘by default’, modelled on existing services. By focusing on ‘touchpoints’, those moments when users have some experience of a service, for example, through face-to-face contact, or in receiving a letter, service design provides a structure to create new ways of supporting people that go beyond what we already know.

Steve McNay from Bedford, Luton & Milton Keynes Mind, was interested with how this approach helped to engage and unlock creativity in staff and people experiencing mental health problems.

‘We had a prototype session and the level of the engagement and development that we have already seen in some of the people who have been involved has been phenomenal, so I am very positive about what is going to happen, moving forward.’

The new ideas being developed by teams involved in this project are still at early stage, but for Mind, it is clear that service design has an important part to play in developing the future of local mental health services if those services are to really meet the complex set of challenges ahead.

Published 29th September - Jake Garber is a senior service designer at the Innovation Unit and Paola Pierri is local services strategy and development manager at Mind