What is Service Design?

From finance to healthcare to media, New York’s economy is primarily driven by services. Yet our understanding of what design offers is rooted in products and places rather than how those things operate or how people use them — design has traditionally concerned itself with goods, not services. Only in the past decade or so have designers been actively reconceptualizing what it means to interact with and help shape services. According to Professor Birgit Mager, who runs the Cologne-based Service Design Network, “Service design addresses the functionality and form of services from the perspective of clients. It aims to ensure that service interfaces are useful, usable, and desirable from the client’s point of view and effective, efficient, and distinctive from the supplier’s point of view.”

In particular, services require designers to empathize with users, to understand interactions as a series of “touchpoints” and to develop a holistic understanding of the ways in which our relationships to services govern everyday life. The multiple ways this emerging field of practice relates to the rest of the design field are still in formation. So I sat down with several leading designers and researchers from universities in the US and Europe to start a conversation about what service design is, where it came from and where it is going. This interview expands on an event, “Service Design Performances” (PDF), which was held at Parsons The New School for Design in late May. The event, organized by the DESIS Lab, is the first in a series of activities around the topic of service design that are taking place in New York in the coming months.

Some Tools and Methodologies used in Service Design process via <a href="servicedesigntools.org">servicedesigntools.org</a>
Some Tools and Methodologies used in Service Design process via servicedesigntools.org
Laura Forlano (LF):

First of all, who has a need for service design?

Eduardo Staszowski (ES):

(School of Design Strategies, Parsons The New School for Design): From the client side, many different types of organizations can employ service design, whether they are manufacturers or service providers. From services that are basically supporting a product (customer service) to public or consumer services, the application seems almost infinite. From personal services (hospitals and medical services, hair salons and spas, shoe repair) to collective services (public transportation, garbage collection), from household services (your Internet provider, plumbing repair and boiler installation) to financial services (banks and investment services) and from cultural and entertainment services (museums and cinemas) to hospitality services (restaurants and bars, travel agents, airlines and hotels), education (schools) and social services (welfare, homeless services). Some areas that can be highlighted as sectors that are already commissioning service design consultancies are: healthcare, education, public services and tourism.

Roman Aebersold (RA):

(Lucerne School of Art and Design, Switzerland): And looking at it from the end-user’s perspective, services are often provided by people interacting with one another, so customers become co-producers. Thus, the design for the user (user-centered design, customer experience, etc.) is of utmost interest. A service is — like physical objects — perceived by the senses and should be attractive in order to be successful. This is why services requires designers’ skills for visualization, materialization, the aesthetics of interaction, etc.

Tools Provenance Map by Roberta Tassi.
Tools Provenance Map by Roberta Tassi.

How did the field start to emerge as a specific body of expertise?


(School of Design Strategies, Parsons the New School for Design): As we know, the roots of industrial design are connected to the production and consumption of manufactured goods, communication and the constructed environment. Services have only recently been included as an area of design theory and practice. The first service design course was offered at Köln International School of Design in 1991. Live|work, the first service design consultancy, was founded in London in 2001. And in 2004, the Service Design Network was launched.

Lara Penin (LP):

(School of Design Strategies, Parsons The New School for Design): The history of service design can be connected to three distinct lineages: service management, Product-Services Systems (PSS) and interaction design. In the mid-’90s, we started to hear the term “service design” mentioned in some academic and professional circles. However it only started to be recognized as a true design activity in the early 2000s with the founding of several pioneer consultancies in the United Kingdom.

Given that service design deals in multiple back-and-forth logistics and comfort-with-strangers… cities become the ‘material’ of service design.

Another lineage is Product-Services Systems (PSS), an approach that emerged as a promising strategy to reduce material consumption and emissions. For example, rather than buying products, consumers acquire access to functionalities — instead of buying a washing machine, I wash clothes at the Laundromat, or instead of buying a car, I access motorized transportation through Zipcar.

The third lineage that has influenced the field of service design is that of interaction design. Interaction is a major component that determines the quality of services. The quick development of information technologies created a significant demand for designing interactions with digital systems. This has been particularly important in the US, while, on the other hand, the roots of PSS are in Europe.

One reason that service design emerged faster as a recognized design field in Europe than in the States is related to the fact that Europe was faster in realizing the importance the service sectors play in its economy. Specifically, welfare states in Europe sought to reform their public services, which created a considerable demand for service designers. This was the case in the UK with health care, for example. Organizations such as the Design Council (the UK’s national strategic agency for design) continue to play an important role in promoting the service design culture and investing in research projects like RED, an initiative begun in the mid-2000s to transform public services through design thinking.


What fields have influenced the field of service design?

Anna Meroni (AM):

(Polytechnic University of Milan): Service design is influenced by a large spectrum of different disciplines. Psychology and sociology, because of the relational and human-intensive nature of services; interaction and communication design, because of their interactive character; management, marketing and organization theory, because of their capacity of changing the current paradigms; and architecture, planning, environment and product design, because of their influence on the built environment. That’s why we prefer to speak about Design for Services, as it implies the overlap — the synergy — of different disciplines to outline the concept and the structure of a service.


Why should architects and urban designers pay attention to an emerging field like service design?

Cameron Tonkinwise (CT):

(School of Design Strategies, Parsons the New School for Design): The shift to post-industrial economies, predicted in the late 1950s, is now in full effect. It is not happening in some smooth progression as the tertiary service sector grows to subsume the manufacturing sector. It is instead happening unevenly and disruptively, with the government forestalling the sudden bankruptcy of the auto industry, large scale oil spills resulting from harder-to-get-at oil repositories, and the on-again/off-again of the digitization of music, books, and media in general.

Developing more sustainable societies will require getting the increasing urbanization of global populations right. Cities, because of their density, afford substantial eco-efficiencies. However, as a result of their ill-considered 20th century development, cities are yet to deliver on that promise. So cities need to be significantly, and rapidly, retrofitted. This is like calling for the repair of a car while it is speeding down a highway — it’s not like everybody can be shipped out of a city while the renovation is completed. This turns building professions into full-blown service industries, working out the logistics of rebuilding in and around people’s ongoing, everyday lives.

The age of cheap is coming to an end: whether that be cheap oil or all its construction material derivatives. Architecture is going to have to become the profession of retrofitting, and de-/re-construction. This is the kind of challenge for which a service design strategy is well suited.

Sample Service Design Diagram: Project, Implementation, Delivery by Roberta Tassi.
Sample Service Design Diagram: Project, Implementation, Delivery by Roberta Tassi.

What kinds of contracts are service designers getting?

Daniela Sangiorgi (DS):

(ImaginationLancaster, Lancaster University, UK): For a forthcoming publication on Design for Services (Gower Publishing), Anna Meroni and I collected and mapped out 18 case studies of service design projects in a variety of sectors such as education, transport, communication, healthcare, food provision, entertainment, security, and community services. These kinds of services differ immensely from each other depending on their complexity, heterogeneity, service provision or area of application.

Moreover, each project has been approached from a variety of perspectives, focusing on the re-design of service experiences or “touchpoints,” or on experimentation with new service models or system configurations. Designers also consider a different mix of variables such as service usability, feasibility, sustainability, modularity, or experiential quality.


How do service designers see the city in a unique way, and how does this enable them to develop new approaches to make them smarter, greener or fairer?


Given that service design deals in multiple back-and-forth logistics, the density of cities is a bonus to service design businesses. The social development of cities has also resulted, in most cases, in a cosmopolitanism that increases the comfort-with-strangers involved in most services. So cities become the ‘material’ of service design, and specifically ‘urban’ qualities become the field’s lingua franca. Conversely, successful service design makes living better with less (owned stuff) more convenient and productive. A future in which we consume fewer resources doesn’t have to mean a future of constant sacrifice — especially if we focus on the services we need rather than the products we want.

Laura Forlano is a Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell University and an Adjunct Faculty member in the Design and Management program at Parsons The New School for Design.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Birgit Mager October 27, 2010

If you want to meet with a great community and learn more about Service Design: come to the conference in Cambridge!
Last minute registration will be posssible at the registration desk!

Moses Ting October 28, 2010

In particular, services require designers to empathize with users, to understand interactions as a series of “touchpoints” and to develop a holistic understanding of the ways in which our relationships to services govern everyday life.

I think that in every area of design, the guiding light is to empathize with users. Good to see that this is directly pointed out in this article.

David Smiley October 29, 2010

“Service Design” seems to walk the razor’s edge between an expanded conception of design and a reprise of Tayloristic efficiency flows. Design has more or less always been embedded in power-holding institutions (etc etc) and its hard to tell how this new field offers strategies in which alternatives might become visible. Perhaps, one might say, it is not their job but then, one might also ask, why not? After all, the piece is included in the “vanguard” section of the Omnibus – vanguard of what? Conversely, the Underdome project posted previously on the Omnibus seems to specifically ask us to examine the assumptions about how the world is organized and how it might be different, not merely smoothed out. Give us some edge please.