#47 The Honest Designer

I first met Nina Timmers in October when she attended our #upfront confidence workshop. She is part of the FutureGov team and designs public services across the UK and internationally. 

She is both as passionate about the outcomes of this work as she is about how her team approaches it. That's why she is prototyping a personal development project with her colleagues, looking at how a better understanding of our individual strengths and behaviours might lead to better teamwork and project outcomes. Here's what she has to say...


What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the last year?

To not compromise too much, but to be clear about what I think is needed to do a project well - and to commit to that.   Over the last year I've worked on really exciting, but also complex and hard to implement projects. At the moment for example we're designing and testing a new fostering service for teenagers. The team we're working with is under a lot of pressure and working on many different things at the same time. It has been really hard to create the time and space to properly test the service and capture quality data and insights about what's working and what isn't. 

I've had a couple of situations like this happen in the past year and have learned how important it is to hold on to your principles and not let things slide. Even if it seems impossible sometimes, don't give up and try to find a way to do it right!

What’s your burning question of the moment?

How do we stop polarisation and increase tolerance? 


The UK referendum and the US election have triggered opposite reactions amongst some of my friends and colleagues - ranging from: "lets dispense with the facts. Our campaign against Trump and his kind must be mercilessly devoid of truth" to "we should try to understand what motivated people, why they are angry and talk to them" to "entitled white trash, who are spoiled and have lost all sense of reality”. My natural tendency is to try to connect and understand. Simply dismissing people just feels like running in the wrong direction. But actually, I'm just not sure anymore if being empathic is the most effective way of creating a society that works for all and values diversity. Maybe what we want and need is just too different. The only conclusion I've reached so far is that I can be empathic, while being firm about my boundaries. I can try to understand and empathise with people without agreeing with what they say or do. But I'm not sure if doing this will really make things better. 

This question is particularly burning for me now, because in 2017 we will have a general election in the Netherlands. The Party of Freedom, whose main concern is getting rid of muslims and closing all mosques, is ahead in the polls. I feel like I need to do something, but I’m not sure where to start. 

What’s the most inspiring thing you’ve seen/ heard/ read in the last year?

I've recently joined The Girls Network - they are incredibly inspiring. Set up by two former teachers, the organisation's vision is to empower young girls from the least advantaged communities by connecting them with a mentor and a network of professional female role models. 


Another brilliant thing I came across at Meaning Conference this year is the Empathy Museum - a mobile museum where you can listen to someone's story, while walking a mile in their shoes. Literally. People from all sorts of backgrounds have donated one pair of shoes and their story. 

My friend Max recently ran a one-day "freedom-centred micro-school" for 5-9 year olds and wrote about how he did it and what he learned.

Another really inspiring thing happened on the project I currently work on. This summer we did research with teenagers who live in foster care. After hearing a lot of stories about how "difficult" they were, it was amazing to speak to the children themselves and hear them talk about their ambitions. A 16 year old girl we spoke to told us that she wanted to own a bakery or become an engineer or a social worker. She was smart and independent, which isn't surprising if you realise she has to navigate a system that's difficult even for the professionals working in it.


If you're interested in the future of digital public services, I can recommend a trip to Estonia: anyone in the world can become an e-resident of Estonia through 4 simple steps - just apply online. You can vote online during 10 days and you can do your pre-filled tax online in 3 minutes. Medical records are owned by citizens and they can decide who gets to see which one through a simple click. What's great is that none of these services are mandatory - online is always an optional channel. The high uptake shows how well designed these services are. The best part is that they have anchored their vision in some brilliant policies, such as the "once only" policy that says organisations are only ever allowed to ask for your data once. How brilliant is that? 

For some feminist inspiration I started listening to the podcast The Guilty Feminist, which is funny, but also often spot on. 

A completely different category, but probably the most inspiring thing I've seen this year were 5 humpback whales right next to us in Iceland. If you ever get the chance to see whales go do it. 

What would be your one piece of advice to students out there?

Spend time and energy on building a strong foundation / getting to know yourself: try to find out what your strengths are and what you love to do. Think about what the minimum is that you need, in work and outside of it to feel ok. What are your boundaries and what are you willing to compromise. 

Challenge yourself and don't shy away from honest conversations. What can you learn from difficult situations; what do they tell you about yourself? How can they make you better or stronger? Ask for feedback often, but don't assume you have to agree with everything. The same goes for praise - listen to it, but decide for yourself if you want to take it on board or not, even if it’s always tempting to do so. 

Think about the work you want to be doing, but also about how you want to do it: do you prefer working in collaboration or alone, do you like thinking or doing, coming up with new ideas or implementing them, or all of the above. Try different jobs, roles and activities to learn what they actually mean in real life and whether you really like doing them. 

If things are not clear straight away, don't worry. Give it time, but do it consciously: try things out, stand still and reflect often. Read this brilliant article about where to start.

And last but not least, take care of yourself. As my great friend Hannah Massarella would say: self-development is a responsibility, not a luxury. 

You can read the rest of the profiles here:

#46 The Ethical Fashion Designer

#45 The Designer of Power

#44 The Designer of Communities

#43 The Transition Designer

#42 The Drawing Designer

#41 The Ethical Futurist

#40 The Actor-Coder

#39 The Motherhood Designer

#38 The Zoo School Designer

#37 The Thinking Clearly Designer

#36 The Accidental Designer

#35 The Workwear Designer

#34 The Designer of Vulnerability

#33 The Graphic Designer

#32 The Design Graduate

#31 The Service Design TV Host

#30 The Change Maker

#29 The Learning Designers 

#28 The Human Interaction Designer

#27 The Full Stack Strategist

#26 The Design Writer and Doer

#25 The Behavioural Designer

#24 The UX Leader

#23 The Behavioural Researcher

#22 The Service Designer

#21 The Local Government Designer

#20 The Start Up Designer

#19 The Human Centered Designer

#18 The Strategy Designer

#17 The Interaction Designer

#16 The UX Designer

#15 The Data Designer 

#14 The Experience Designer

#13 The Design Teacher

#12 The Creative Technologist

#11 The Creative Generalist

#10 The Hyper Island Designer

#9 The Conscious Designer

#8 The Business Designer

#7 The Networked Designer

#6 The Speculative Designer

#5 The Digital Maker

#4 The Craftsman

#3 The Storyteller

#2 The Dreaming Maker

#1 The Go Getter