Afterlife Talk – Stephen McCarthy

As well as having our workshop with Stephen today, he also gave an afterlife talk in the studio during lunch today.


It was really interesting hearing about what he does on the outside world within his Graphic Design job. Stephen McCarthy works for the Government Digital Service (GDS), as Head of the design platform there. He talked mainly about the Service, including what they do, how they work, their principles, the different roles there, etc.

What do the GDS do?

  • First and foremost, they design for their users – which just so happen to be pretty much everybody in the country, and more.
  • They work with the rest of the Government to improve government services.
  • They improve the relationship between citizens and the government, and how that they interact with each other.
  • The Government website used to be completely disorganised, Stephen claims, and it was made up of lots of different websites. The GDS built GOV.UK, where everything is in one easy-to-find place.
  • They are always adding, improving and changing GOV.UK; it is a continuous project – Stephen says, “It’s not finished, and it never will be.”
  • They help people with life event (e.g. starting a business, registering a child birth, becoming a member of the UK, booking a driving test, registering to vote, etc.)

How do the GDS work?

  • They build things! – they don’t aim to just “make it look pretty.”
  • They work collaboratively, in the open – they get into conversations, they gain a pool of knowledge from around them and the world, to learn, add and contribute to their own work.
  • All of their designers can code – their media most of the time is websites and the internet, so knowing how to code – even just a little – is important to them.
  • They believe that user research is a separate expertise.
  • All of their people are expected to spot problems and then try to fix them – it’s not just about being a nice person and doing everything that you’re told, you should use and act upon your own initiative.

Today, there are about 300 designers working in the Government, all over the country. They’re not all just graphic designers though; there’s a number of different job roles:

  • Service designers – they design services for the users.
  • Integration designers
  • Graphic designers
  • Content designers – these people are often ex-writers or editors – they put complex information into clear, readable and understandable information.
  • User experience designers – they don’t have these as they believe that this is everybody’s role – it’s too vast of a thing to be a designer for.

What does it mean to be a graphic designer for the Government?

According to Stephen McCarthy, graphic design in the context of government services mainly involves:

  • Design should never get in the way of the content – except for when the user needs it to.
  • Design should be almost invisible.
  • Every element should have a clear purpose – graphic flourishes are often not needed; keep it simple and let the content shine. (GDS don’t mind when people call it ‘simple’ or ‘boring’).
  • When you’re creating, don’t as how it should look, ask “what should it do?”
  • The context in which the users interact with their services should always be considered – remember who you’re designing for!
  • Graphic design is not something to be thrown in at the end of the process – it should be considered right from the start and should work hand in hand with the context.
  • Challenge what is being communicated.

What do GDS care about?

  • Word and typography
  • Layout
  • Visuals
  • Physical space
  • Time
  • Behaviour

Words and typography:

Words: they always make their words count – don’t over explain it; always use plain English and get to the point.

Typography: they use just one typeface – sans serif, non-decorative, clear and legible. They use the same font as on all of the highway signs.

  • Avoid long lines of copy.
  • Use the fewest number of typographic styles needed.
  • Be consistent with type styles.

Layout – Grids:

  • Grids give structure to content, when used effectively.

Page, furniture, colour, etc:

  • They carefully consider their use of colour and page furniture, such as key lines and boxes, etc.


  • Space between elements gives structure.
  • Space helps group content together and to form hierarchies.
  • White space is important.
  • Space relieves the cognitive load on user.


  • They think about what they want the user to read first.


  • They aid easy reading.


  • They only use visuals when they’re needed.
  • Visuals help draw the eye in when used right.


  • They respect people’s time – don’t ask unnecessary questions or waste their time.
  • Pacing can be more important than overall time spent – small bite-sized chunks can feel quicker than one long page.


  • Remember: you are not your user – don’t assume that they will behave as you would – not everyone is a technical whizz!

Final tips from Stephen McCarthy:

  • Ask what the thing needs to do.
  • Start with less and build up.
  • Build mobile first.
  • Keep asking why.
  • Remember the big picture.
  • Find what works, not what’s popular.

Published by

Amber Lloyd

Graphic Communicator

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