Service Design on one page

I’m starting a new job. Going into a new workplace, I have to explain what service design is to lots of people. To get myself into gear, I challenged myself to explain service design on one page. Here it is.


I had a re-read of This Is Service Design Thinking. It made me remember why I got into service design in the first place. Service design is the best description for the approach I was using before I had heard of service design.

How I became a service designer
At university when I studied furniture design, I refused to design anything without doing thorough user research and testing. Two or three of my projects ended up as services, when I could stretch the product design led briefs enough. This lead to fundamental disagreements with the tutors, and eventually I switched to the Goldsmiths design course.

There, I was encouraged to do ‘critical design’ projects (which are almost-art projects that serve some sort of function or provide an experience with the purpose of challenging the status quo and making the user think). Again, I disagreed with the tutors’ approach, insisting on designing something that could be used in a practical way, not only as a critique of the status quo. I also designed a couple of services on that course – one of which I won a prize for.

Even when I was at school, I was a fan of reworking ideas again and again, with testing and extra research, until I got it ‘right’. This is an iterative approach. One time at university, I started out with a drawing of a lady sitting on a giant foetus, did 30 more drawings and turned it into a chair for pregnant women, and ended up winning first prize in my class for the project (and £100 which was worth more in 2009…).

User research, testing, iteration, and seriously practical solutions that work are all core to my practice as a designer. I have spent over 10 years designing stuff. The design process is how I create in the world. Luckily the ideas part of the process flow through me easily, once I understand the users and context for the design.

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Service design should not be elusive
I find that sometimes, service design can be presented in a way that makes it seem out of reach – as if you aren’t good enough to do it. It’s a message which I absorbed from some people that I worked with in the past. That message is there for those people to make it seem like an elite practice worth paying a lot of money for.

Well, it is worth paying a lot of money for, because it’s very useful in making services work effectively – but I believe that with a little guidance and experience, any designer can design services. If the design process is in your language, product design is not a million miles away from service design – the same way that it’s not a million miles away from graphic design. (There are some differences though – see this presentation for more on that.)

‘Service design’ is simply the current best description for my approach
I can’t remember the first time I heard about service design. I was asking the question, ‘Is it possible to design something which isn’t physical?’ I only really learnt about service design approaches as I was graduating. When I first heard about co-design as a method, it totally rang true with my values. Now I can’t imagine designing without it. Even if I was tasked to design a product now, I’d still use co-design in my practice.

Service designers will disagree with each other on what ‘service design’ means. It’s a new industry, still, and is finding its feet. To me, service design is about co-design, prototyping and testing, and grounding everything in research – this is my natural approach to developing services. And even if service design ends up as a 20-year fad, as some people cynically suspect, I reckon I’ll still be using these approaches and values in my work after the term ‘service design’ dies.

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