DESC Service Design 

Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) provides shelter, outreach, case management, and health services for those experiencing homelessness in Seattle. As part of a graduate service design project, my cohort and I worked with DESC to create a series of design interventions aimed at improving its use of space, interactions with clients, and internal processes. The project allowed me to conduct primary design research through careful observation, documentation, shadowing, and client interviews. After a series of observations of several DESC locations, our team decided to narrow the focus of our proposal to DESC's mental health clinic (also referred to as the "Drop-In").

Collaborators include Mae Boettcher, Richelle Dumond, Julie Sutherland, Scott Tsukamaki, and Tate Strickland.

Area of Focus

The Drop-In provided several unique design challenges: First, the interior hallway created a bottleneck, leading to large crowds congregating near the front desk. Second, visitors to the Drop-In were coming for a wide variety of services (the clinic, hot meals, showers, laundry, and Internet access). Was there a way to streamline the way clients accessed these services? Finally, the Drop-In, along with many of the DESC offices, was not clearly labeled, and clients, volunteers, and new employees sometimes entered the wrong DESC facility uncertain of the services each location provided. 

This focus was divided into three categories: 1) Discovery--how clients and visitors learned about the Drop-In; 2) Intake--how staff were facilitating client use of services; and 3) Inside--how clients were able to move about the facility and interact with staff and each other. 

Sketch by Scott Tsukamaki

A Preliminary Proposal

Out of respect for the privacy of clients, DESC intentionally avoided exterior signage "advertising" their services. A wayfinding system was needed, but it would have to be subtle (easy to spot for clients, but not immediately noticeable to the general public). 

The initial wayfinding proposal included the use of an icon system indicating what services were available at each location. The icons would take form as decals or alley artwork and also would be paired with large maps painted in reception areas showing services in relation to one another.


Balancing Subtlety with Clarity

The main challenge at hand was to design a wayfinding system that could stand out in a subtle way. After several iterations and discussions with DESC staff, the final wayfinding proposal encompassed several constraints, addressing the problem with a simple, but refined solution.

   Designed in collaboration with  Tate Strickland


Designed in collaboration with Tate Strickland

   Rendering by Scott Tsukamaki


Rendering by Scott Tsukamaki

Design Challenges


DESC offices are located in a historic neighborhood where exterior signage is subject to stringent visual guidelines. The color palette selected complements the exterior of the historic buildings while remaining bright and easily visible.


Because windows of the DESC facilities are broken with some regularity, window decals would not be economically viable. The final proposal suggests signs constructed of an acrylic material, durable enough to withstand breakage. 


Historic preservation guidelines required that all signs be internal. The proposed design fixes signs to the wall surrounding the window frame. This also helps stabilize the sign should the window be broken.


The simple design of the signs stays true to DESC's policy of privacy. When referring clients, visitors, volunteers, or new employees to various DESC facilities, staff can use color and numbers to easily reference a location ("head to the door with the blue 517"). While the designs can carry significant internal meaning, the signs are fairly nondescript to the general public.