Downtown Emergency Service Center

The Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) offers shelter, health services, case management, and outreach programs for the unhoused community of Seattle. During our graduate Service Design Studio we worked together with the DESC to suggest interventions that would improve the experience of the clients visiting their locations.

Illustration by Sarah Reitz


DESC is one of Seattle’s largest organizations aimed at helping the unhoused community of Seattle. Besides an overnight shelter DESC also provides assisted living, health services, and help during job applications. DESC is known to implement the so called “housing first” policy, a policy that considers providing stable housing for this vulnerable group of people as the main priority before addressing any secondary issues. During our time as graduate students we participated in a design studio concentrating on design research and service design, and collaborated with DESC.


By observing the staff of DESC we developed proposals for design interventions focussed on DESC’s mental health drop-in center. Each intervention was mapped to a framework based on specific moments in the client journey.

In collaboration with

Mae Boettcher

Sarah Reitz

Tate Strickland

Julie Sutherland

Scott Tsukamaki

Observational Research

In order to get a get a full comprehension of the services provided by DESC and to discover where the organization could profit from an intervention, we observed and accompanied the service providers in their daily routine. We shadowed outreach workers on their routes throughout Seattle, and observed the DESC’s multiple locations including their shelter, the center for assisted living and job applications, the daytime service and referral center, and the mental health clinic.



Improving service access for women

The female homeless population is more vulnerable to predatory behavior. Female clients tend not to use the shelter at DESC because it makes them feel unsafe.


Reevaluating outreach kits +
securing client possessions

Donated outreach kits are a good way of making contact with potential clients but don’t always align with the clients’ needs. Besides theft, sweeps are often cause of lost belongings. The destruction of possessions can have mentally crippling effects.


Improving staff processes +
alleviating staff burnout

We observed moments of miscommunication between services, and staff members. The work at DESC is emotionally demanding. DESC tries to provide relief for its staff by rotating the shifts, but “compassion fatigue” got mentioned more than once.


Making donations + volunteer resources more efficient

Donations do not always correspond to what DESC, or its clients, needs. Rain gear, socks, and shoes are most needed, and at the same time the least donated. An overabundance of donated goods took up precious storage space.


Improving external communication + contact with potential clients

The unhoused population finds itself unintentionally trespassing. It is important that residents learn what to do before resorting to calling the police. Because DESC has multiple locations, clients often wandered into the wrong location.


Remodel interiors for better utilization of limited space

Clients bring their belongings inside to prevent theft. Although lockers are available these do not cover the needs of the clients. The utilization of some spaces caused a safety concern, employees behind the front desk were closed off from any escape routes.

The insights obtained during the observations could be categorized in four main themes:


After our initial observations, we decided to focus our interventions on a specific location of DESC, the Mental Health Drop-In Center. This location provides a variety of services, such as a communal space for daytime shelter, mental healthcare, hygiene facilities, breakfast and lunch, and phone and internet services.

The Drop-In Center was chosen because:

  • The Mental Health Drop-In Center is inclusive of all three aspects of our framework
  • It is a hub for many DESC services
  • The scale of the Drop-In Center is manageable for our small group of students

The Drop-In Center faced several distinct challenges. For instance, we observed that finding the correct DESC service could be confusing for clients and others, and that staff struggled to give clear directions to clients when referring them to another DESC location. The architectural layout of the interior created a bottleneck effect, resulting large groups of clients and staff clustering around the front desk. And additional seating and storage space was desperately needed.

By now focusing on one particular location we mapped out the client journey:

The interactions DESC service providers have with clients can be structured into three focus areas:

Discovery: The process of learning about the services of the drop-in center and finding the right location.
Intake: The staff’s procedures and the facilitation of services for clients
Inside: The interaction between staff and client, and the client's’ ability to utilize the space.

Design Interventions

This is the moment our graduate studio split up in order to cover as many ground as possible. Together with my team-partner we focussed on the experience of clients once they are passed the discovery and intake phase, and are inside.

An overview of our design proposals for the experience of the Drop-In Center:


Creating privacy for clients.


Communicating social needs in physical space and reconsidering seating to accommodate client possessions.


A way for clients to entertain themselves and each other.

Client participation

Making use of client skills to better the DESC community.


Volunteer resources aren’t free — they can actually create more work for DESC staff, adding to the chaos instead of addressing it. Volunteers need to be managed, and the experience of the volunteer also needs to be considered.

We also observed that donations do not always correspond to what DESC needs at any given time. During our observations, we saw unground coffee that had to be given away because it could not be ground; an overabundance of donated vegetable oil; and a frequent dearth of ponchos for outreach staff to give to clients on the street.


Help from Home defines microvolunteering as “easy, quick, low commitment actions that benefit a worthy cause.”

  • Should not require an application or screening process
  • Must create impact or make a difference
  • Should be completed in under 30 minutes or multiple sessions thereof
  • No or very low commitment

How it could work for DESC

Staff adds to a running list of micro tasks and donation request. For example, fix a cabinet door; grind coffee beans; donate ponchos. This list is compiled into a weekly email blast which is sent first to the existing On-Call Volunteer List, but can later expand to its own email list. The tasks could be executed throughout the week, or consolidated into a single event in a specific location. An RSVP can be given via the Google Forms link in email.


The idea of fostering a sense of community through collaborative art projects stemmed from two observations: Firstly, the Drop-In staff seemed to put significant effort into making the space as welcoming as possible. Decorations, birthday signs, colorful posters, and notices for community-oriented activities are visible throughout the facility. Secondly, we observed that DESC engages clients with incredibly creative and artistic skill sets. We believe a program that encourages (and provides the means) for artistic expression in the Drop-In would help clients co-create and co-design the space, resulting in feelings of ownership and respect for community.

How it could work for DESC

This could be achieved through collaborative mural projects or through cyclical “exhibits” of client work—where the pieces are properly displayed in protected frames throughout the Drop-In.

  • Collaborative art projects at the Drop-In
  • More prominent displays of client artwork
  • Partnerships with existing community art organizations and educational institutions