all images are stills from “The Hands of Bresson”

What Service Designing Entails

The Political Philosophy of Sculpting the Quality of People Interacting

On October 22nd, 2016, The Parsons School of Design hosted a Transdisciplinary Design Talks on the topic of Designing the Invisible, which is the subtitle of Lara Penin’s forthcoming book on Service Design. I was invited to make a small intervention along with Katarina Wetter Edman from Konstfack and Clive Dilnot following an introduction by Lara. I took the opportunity to articulate in one place some opinions about service design that I have expressed in various pieces, such as an old paper I wrote with Lara Penin on the politics of role play in service design, an address to the Global Service Design Network Conference that I gave with Terry Irwin on the relation between Service Design and Transition Design and an attempt to think through aspects of the Sharing Economy.

Lara Penin taught me (via a comment about the difference between her time living in Milan and her then new life in the US) that designers are fundamentally concerned with quality. Designers believe that human existence is not about survival, bare life, but about experiences in which things manifest in careful and beautiful ways. This is what I take Ortega y Gasset to mean when he insisted, “humans are animals for whom only the superfluous is necessary” and “technology is the production of the superfluous, today as in the Paleolithic age.” To put it more starkly, I remember seeing some designer’s presentation slide proudly declaring something like ‘Designers can’t save the world, but they can make it worth saving’ — though the point Ortega makes means that saving entails making worthy.

Designers are actually a bit obsessed with this. They tend to believe in the perfectibility of humanity to almost totalitarian levels. They strike me as exemplars of Kenneth Burke’s definition of humans: “… separated from [their] natural condition by instruments of [their] own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection.”

(By the way, I am, I hope, not just going for a pretentious opening here to this discussion of ‘service design.’ I am citing broad, philosophical accounts of what it means to be human — humans who depend on designed products, environments, and communications, and services; and some of who therefore undertake this designing — because I am wanting to claim that service design is the very essence of design which is in turn the essence of being human. Because service design more directly involves determinations about not just what some people should do but also how, any particular service design project always requires thinking about what it is appropriate to ask people to do, repeatedly, to maintain their livelihoods.)

There are two things to note about the extent to which designers are plagued by this yearning for enhanced quality of life.

Material Making

The first is that designers pay particular attention to materiality. They focus almost excessively on the physicality of things. Where the rest of us seem to just get on with our daily activities, designers inspect particular aspects of each one of the things we use, noting features and detailing, methods of construction and the feel of this or that interaction. This detail-oriented fastidiousness, this craft-person’s commitment to material forms, is what is always left out of design thinking, and by extension too many advocates of service designing.

While designers can at times appear obsessed with a particular singular product, extracted from its everyday contexts of use and held up for close examination, when they design, if they are designing well, designers are in fact considering collections of mundane equipment we use and the different built environments in which those things, and we, dwell. This is apparent in Saarinen’s famous dictum, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Designers see these product ecologies and nested systems because their interest is in fact not the things themselves. They attend to the material details of things only insofar as they contribute to the overall quality of an interaction. Designers foreground the look and feel of things insofar as they contribute to the nature of our everyday experiences. Their focus on products is in fact a focus on products as enablers of services, and services not just as instrumental accomplishment of goals, but as moments of fulfilling engagement with the world.

Making People

Secondly, this slightly obsessive concern means that designers do not just treat each thing as a possible opportunity for enhancing the quality of human existence, but they also consider all other kinds of occasions. Why shouldn’t encounters between people have the same quality as the experience of encountering a well-designed office chair, power tool or living room? Service design is the natural extension of a designerly concern for the perfectibility of all aspects of human society. And as with a focus on products, the objective is not just making things as instrumentally functional as possible, but rather with making experiences feel like worthwhile moments of being-in-the-world.

I am foregrounding this attentiveness to the interaction aesthetics of a service design, because I think that the streamlining of a service, efforts at making it more efficient, whilst something to which the creativity of designers can contribute, is not particular to service design: that is more the remit of service engineering, or at least service management.

Turning their attention from things to services is however where designers start to face challenges. Regular designers get to create quality experiences for people by doing more or less violence to materials. Product designers discipline materials and technologies into forms that afford quality experiences. As Tony Fry has noted, design is ineluctably an ethical problem because any act of creation involves acts of destruction — designers must ensure that what they create is worthy of what they destroy to do so. The ‘price’ paid for these designed outcomes is, in the case of artifact design, extracted from presumably inert things.

This is of course not quite true. Ecological politics draws attention to the living systems harmed when designers extract and manipulate material resources, usually in non-recoverable ways. But more pertinent to my argument here is the fact that all design is also the design of a series of jobs done by non-designers before products get into the hands of users who might experience their value. Designing entails specifying what it is that various workers will do to make those designed things available to people: suppliers, manufacturers, coders, retailers; perhaps also, in comprehensive design jobs, after sales service workers and post-life take-back-ers. Damian White has recently started talking about ‘worker-centered design’ to draw attention to the responsibility that designers should feel by being at the head of the division of labor. This almost invisible side of design is at the unavoidable forefront of the practice of service design where the primary objective is the design of work.

But of course, service designers cannot, or at least should not, treat their materials — service workers — like pieces of plywood to be steam bent. So there is a dilemma at the very foundation of service design: designers want to improve the quality of the experiences of a service, for people; but to do so they must direct the activities of people.

Responsible Power

Service designers often seem to be fearful of this situation, insisting that you can never design a service — meaning, design people — but only ever design for a service experience. Whilst it is in practice true that it is difficult if not impossible to design a service so that the outcome can be mass produced, this is perhaps also true of any kind of designing; all materials are more or less resistant to being designed, even apparently inert materials — entropy will always undesign any form your prescribe to them. Advocates of only ever ‘Designing for a Service’ are however making a more in principle argument about not treating people like things.

I believe though that in principle — in other words, with the respect to the unavoidable politics of the process of designing a service — service designers must acknowledge that they do always have some capacity to script what service workers do. Services, as opposed to interactions between people that are otherwise motivated (like friendship), are economic exchanges. This is clear in the case of commercial services between employees and customers, but it is no less the case for government services and even services provided by non-government organizations. To a large extent, you do not need a service designer if people are motivated to offer a service without recompense, at least not in relation to improving the quality as opposed to the efficiency of the interaction — services offered by heart-felt friends are often, if not by necessity, not slickly seamless systems. Certainly, service interactions that are not based on either party paying or being paid do not have the resources to pay a designer to redesign them.

Where there is money there is power. People who have money have power over people who do not since they can use that money to make people do things. So money is a way of compelling people to perform in ways that they would not ordinarily. It is certainly not the only way to compel people. Service design at its best is an expertise in forming how people interact without directly instructing them as to what to do to get paid. But precisely because what service design brings to service management is an attention to these other ways of inducing certain kinds and qualities of interactions, service design should begin with an acknowledgement of its baseline power, that which it should always seek to avoid enlisting to effect a design. This then is why I insist on calling this practice Service Design and not Design for Service.

What I am arguing is that a fundamental capacity of service designers is influence, the power to get people to perform in particular kinds of ways. One take-away from this would be that all service designers must have extensive training in behavior-steering in general — from clinical psychology to rhetorical persuasion, through environmental conditioning and behavioral economics — and human resources management in particular — from compensation and incentives to training and supervision, through performance evaluations and organizational culture. This is the equivalent of learning how to influence materials in the other fields of design: injection molding in product design, kerning in graphic design, or pleating in fashion design for instance.

Buying Love

I once saw a very forgettable Dutch comedy film called ‘rent-a-friend’ which made me think that the essence of all service design is negotiating the challenge of paying someone to befriend a stranger. If you do not have a friend or a family or community member willing and able to help you out with some task, then you must hire a replacement. When we do that, most of us hope that the help we will get will not just be perfunctory help with the task, but instead have at least some aspects of the qualities of having a colleague assisting us. A service experience is considered valuable when the service provider goes ‘above and beyond’ their designated role and acts like a person who acknowledges that we are more than simply the request we are making. Carla Cipolla referred to this as, following the existential philosophy of Martin Buber, the experience of ‘relational service.’ It is then the task of the service designer to find ways of making interactions more reliably attain that kind of ‘whole person encounter’ level.

Now an impoverished Marxist cultural critique suggests that such encounters between people, qua humans with richly diverse lives, are the very opposite of — or further, directly opposed by — the alienated encounters underwritten, if not compelled, by money. You see this kind of argument when people say “the ‘sharing economy’ is an oxymoron that has nothing to do with sharing because people are lending their underutilized resources for financial recompense.” However, what has always seemed to me most interesting about many ‘sharing economy’ platforms is not that they are spaces outside of commercialism, but rather ways of affording a re-embedding of economic exchanges in social relations within commercialism. When I ride-share or home-share, there might be money changing hands, but the actual experience of the ‘service’ is of two people (when there are face-to-face encounters) who cannot entirely withdraw into prescribed roles of employee and customer. This is why these ‘sharing economy’ experiences tend to be awkward, in ways that I have tried to argue are in fact deconstructive of the monolithically abstract idea of capitalism.

These moments underline that there can be ‘sharing’ within economies, that relations between strangers do occur at levels or in ways beyond what is covered by their monetization. Service designing, it seems to me, is precisely the pursuit of these forms of sociality that exceed commercialism even within commercial interactions. This is the quality that a well-designed service encounter will manifest, a quality that will differentiate such a service from other less-designed ways of managing or engineering services.

Service designers should therefore be expertly sensitive to these emergent and sometimes even resistant socialities. Designers should understand that at the very core of their practice is all that is concealed by excessively capitalistic perspectives: the hidden labor of informal economies; the emotional and aesthetic labor provision that service interactions compel from providers without adequate recompense; the satisfiers that make care work rewarding beyond their inequitable pay scales; the moments of delight involved in the comfort of strangers. All of these, it should be clear, are political, sensitivities that acknowledge oppression and exploitation via gender, race and class.

All this is why service design is never just the design of this or that service, but part of the wider project of redesigning work and generating sustainable livelihoods. For instance, service design is not tangential to current debates about the roboticization of jobs. Service design is unavoidably involved in Transition Design, toward or away from meaningful work, or rather perhaps toward or away from quality ways of organizing the resourcing of new kinds of society.


Note that when service designers argue that there can or should only be Design for Service experiences, they are mostly referring to the Customer Experience, often in ways that dangerously take for granted the service providers’ experience. However, Service design’s most fundamental and distinctive assumption, the one that is rightly the basis of a whole sub-discipline now, namely Service Dominant Logic, is the ‘co-creation of value.’

A service is every time a performance, a loosely coupled dance between service provider and recipient. This means that no matter how much the design aims at ‘full service,’ there is always still a part to be played by the service recipient. At either extreme of the service continuum — from being a master of a slave to being the seemingly passive recipient of an expert service, such as dentistry or a massage — the service provider can only do their job if the other party plays their role appropriately: making clear requests of the slave or being disciplined about staying still (without falling asleep) while the expert services your body.

For that coordinated performance to be a quality experience, the designer must therefore not only script what the service provider does, but, as much as possible, what the recipient does also. Precisely because the service recipient is unpaid, if not paying, the service designer must find ways of sculpting their interactions without monetary power. How to influence without the financial capacity to compel?

Before proceeding, it should be noted that this same aspect of service design — how designers find ways to coordinate service recipients’ actions so that they can have the most pleasant service experience — is also the economic advantage that has convinced businesses to invest in service design in the first place. Compared to mass production, which fixes the offer from the supply-side, the essence of a service is customization. This is what allows services to secure higher price points. But the very unpredictability of customization threatens to undermine the profit margins of services because of increased costs of service provision. If customers can be convinced to behave in particular sets of ways, then the costs of service provision can be controlled. (I take this to be key point of Francis Frei’s HBR article on ‘Breaking the Tradeoff.’) This is why the service economy is always also the self-service economy. It is too much to say that service economy is a participatory economy. But — to repeat the argument of my previous section — this is why service designing is also the design of ways in which we resource our societies within and beyond the buying of goods from active producers by mostly passive consumers.

Animated Sculptures

To accomplish these goals, service designers make use of the same power that all designers deploy and that are particular to design compared to other expert professions but that the history of non-service design has tended to ignore or fail to comprehend. Design is always the design of things, of useful things for people. To be useful, a thing must communicate or influence or force its users to interact in particular ways. You cannot design a tool that will accept any kind of input. So though modern designing has mostly focused on the design of physical products, the nature of the decisions that a designer makes about the forms (and contexts and systems) of things are completely driven by attempts to sculpt the social practices involved in using those things. I use this metaphor of sculpting to indicate that design is a process of removing materials to create the negative space to be filled by certain kinds of interactions.

Service design’s focus on people-to-people coordinated interactions therefore emphasizes the obverse of artifact design. All service design is still in every case still design of things, or in the terminology of service design, touchpoints — products and environments, but also communications and interactive screens. Service design is just more oriented toward the sequences of interactions between people that can be afforded by a network of designed things.

To put it another way, to design an overall service experience, service designers pay attention to how different things, touchpoints, can be of service to sculpting that service. Product designers tend to aim to create tools that should be appreciated in their own right for what they help accomplish — what the philosopher of technology, Albert Borgmann calls a focal thing. These well-designed products are valued for what they enable someone skilled to do with them. The service designer is less concerned with developing a refined product, valued for its versatility or finesse, and more concerned with a material means to an end, an enabler of a service interaction. This means that those products need to be more ‘alive’ to the needs of the participants in the service. They need to be less present in their own materiality, and more automated or responsive, directing the interactions between the service co-creators.

This means that service designers must have a particularly acute sense of the agency of things. All designers understand the weak forces — affordances — that the forms of things exert on users in the appropriate contexts. For service designers, these forces must be more dynamically deployed because the point is less the products themselves and more the experiences they enable but even at times direct. Compared to a product that will be used regularly, and perhaps diversely, by an owner, the touchpoints that service designers design need to be more subservient to the overall experience. They should be more sensitive to a diversity of users and use cases on the one hand, but more focused on accomplishing just this or that transition in the service journey. This means that they tend to be more animated by intention than the artifacts conventionally produced by product designers. But paradoxically, this makes them less materially present as things. A product within a service pro-duces, leads forth, by being more of a sub-ject, something underlying the process, rather than an ob-ject, something jutting out with physical presence.

In the jargon of the day, this means that service designers are much more the composers of actor-networks, assemblages of things and people dynamically alive to, but so withdrawn behind, the performance of a service. All designing involves aspects of this kind of composition, but service design perhaps involves only this type of networked sculpting.

To put it another way, animating things to be situationally aware of the co-creation of a service over time, and designing things to be persuasive participants in the network of that service, and yet maintain a backgrounded functionality, is something that all designing can involve, but it is something that has become a lot easier for designers to achieve with connected and memory-accessing information and communication technologies. This perhaps explains why, though designers have always worked on the touchpoints of services — retail design, office design, exhibition design, interfaces with utilities and transport systems, etc — the field of service design has only become a professional expert practice in its own right with the arrival of ‘smart devices.’ We can focus on the design of service experiences precisely because networked devices can be readily configured to act as intelligent yet servile participants for that experience. These days all service design involves the digital interaction design of variously assigned platform dynamics, and manifests most conspicuously in the design of robots, artifacts animated into untiring servitude.

Learning Time

Where service design does differ significantly from conventional artifact design is in relation to time. I do not mean that service experiences themselves unfold in time, as is already registered with the idea of service journeys. Rather I mean that any service designing unfolds over an extended period. The designing overlaps with the implementation of the service. There is no turnkey handover moment in a service design where blueprints can be presented to a client that will then ensure the mass production of a highly specified product. Service designers invariably must embed themselves with the client to enable the realization of the service design. The process is unavoidably one of codesign, not just before but long after a design for the service has been articulated and agreed upon.

All service design is triple: 
 — the design of the service 
 — the design of the service for implementing the service 
 — and the design of the design service doing that design and implementing.

On this last point, I am personally doubtful about consultancies that claim to be able to offer both product and service design, unless the two are performed by quite distinct units with different cultures, resourcing and accountabilities — because the temporality of product and service design are so distinct.

To put this another way, all service design involves social learning. Any new product that involves new kinds of interactions involves learning. But that learning tends to be individualized, rather than require coordination with a range of other people. The animated support products that are the networked touchpoints of a service design aim to minimize that learning and coordination, but they cannot eradicate those variables insofar as various people are essential to any quality relational service.

This means that that social learning of how to perform a service must always be re-done. All service designs need continuous maintenance and repair, or rather situated re-design. Services involve people and people change: different people are experience the service from one day to another; and different people perform the service because of employee churn for example. But even if a service is co-created each time by the same sets of people, it will still change over time, because people, as opposed to things, change — or at least they should, and should be allowed to.

Service designs must therefore be systems that can be sustained over time. This unfinishedness is real challenge compared to the ability of other artifact designers to be done with their designs. It is a burden of responsibility for service designers. The secret is that services will be sustained over time if they are systems that all participants want to sustain over time. Services that afford quality experiences are ones that people will want to continue to work at co-creating.

Crucially, this must not just be the case for the customer. It must more importantly be case for the service provider. A service design must be of a quality that a service worker will want to work at reproducing it, something that they will take care of across variable conditions, but also extend, by improvising in certain contexts. A sustainable service design is one of which service providers become ongoing service designers. The essence of service design is therefore the creation of quality forms of work.

Protecting Roles

This is a very idealistic account of service design. There will be many obstacles to practicing service design in this way, not least the sponsoring client’s desire for regularization of the service for control of costs and workers. The idealism of an objective does not however excuse the need to fight for aspects of it. The least that should happen is that professional associations of service designers should advocate to clients for service designs that empower service providers first and foremost.

There another aspect to this idealism however. As indicated at the outset, the designer commitment to quality can be obsessive. There is something burdensome about demanding that every thing manifest a rich engagement. This is even more the case with respect to the experience of services. Expecting whole-person relational encounters from every moment of a service is unfeasibly exhausting for both sides.

Acknowledging this allows us to see the side of the argument I made earlier in relation to the ‘sharing economy.’ In peer-to-peer interactions, people (awkwardly) feel the need to be present as people beyond the role constituted by the commercial side of the interaction. Conversely, in interactions between customers and employees, both parties are given some relief from having continuously to befriend strangers; either party can instead use the excuse of merely playing the required role — ‘I am not here to make friends; I am just doing my job.’ There is a paradoxical autonomy granted to the person when they conceal themselves within a non-autonomous role. There is a kind of freedom that comes with being able to say, ‘Have a nice day’ to a customer in a way that sufficiently meets the needs of the social ritual without involving genuine effort. This can be irresponsible — think of the banality of evil — but it is also how people protect themselves from being subsumed into what is for them ‘only a job.’ Having clearly defined roles of customer and service provider makes service delivery easier to perform, and so provides an infrastructure that can at times be exceeded with friendliness and at times relieved of the burden of friendliness. Human-centered service designers must be mindful of these tactical renegotiations involved in service work. Or rather, service designers must be wary of demanding that service workers and customers seek authenticity only within the confines of utilitarian commercial transactions.

The idealistic politics I have argued for here is one centered very much around work, that is, conventional forms of employment. However, the neoliberalism that has been progressively eroding workers’ rights and the social safety net is now mobilizing the internet to ‘disrupt’ the very idea of a job in order to access more liquid labor markets. The ‘sharing economy’ has morphed into the ‘gig economy,’ and service designers are at the forefront of creating the interfaces for these platforms. Precarity has to date tended to be the outcome, though there are in principle possibilities for more flexible ways of resourcing everyday lives committed to practices less compatible with full-time employment — such as creative or care work. A key issue for service design then becomes how to design peer-to-peer work in ways that are not demanding micro-entrepreneurship or situations in which people must commoditize their personal lives in the process of co-creating service interactions to earn money.

I began this account of service design philosophically and ended it politically, because I want to insist that service design, more than other forms of designing, is unavoidably on the front-line of very important transitions in what it means to be a person these days, a person giving and receiving services within a range of economies and ecologies.