(Her)story: pioneers of service design

On the first day of my university undergraduate degree, my history lecturer asked us all to open our books and look up ‘women’ in the index. We did, and found there was a whole chapter dedicated to women, from page 119–131. She then asked us to look up ‘men’. I searched through the index and couldn’t find any reference. It was a salient point that the authors of history write it and pervade, and don’t need a distinct section to set out their contribution.

Unlike many other professions, including design professions, service design has always felt like a sector where women have made a very important and visible contribution to how the practice has developed. As part of the Service Design Fringe of the London Design Festival, we (a network of women from Point People, Uscreates and the RSA) wanted to bring some of the women pioneers of service design together and tell their story of how they shaped it, creating something where nothing existed, embedding it into different sectors and pushing it in new directions.

We asked as many women as could sensibly fill a 90 minute talk to come and share their stories. They were Birgit Mager, Gill Wildman, Deborah Szebeko, Sophia Parker, Jennie Winhall, Andrea Siodmok, Mary Cook, Sarah Drummond, Lauren Currie and Jasmine Thompson. Of course, there are many more influential figures, which were in the room or spoken about.

This is herstory of the different ways in which a practice came about.

The pioneers: from left Gill Wildman, Sophia Parker, Mary Cook, Jasmine Thompson, Lauren Currie, Sarah Drummond, Andrea Siodmok and Deborah Szebeko. Birgit Mager and Jennie Winhall had joined earlier via zoom.

As service design didn’t exist in any named or taught form until fairly recently, these early pioneers came to it from another field: mostly product or graphic design. Indeed Andrea, Sarah and Lauren all explicitly set out to be product designers, wanting to “be the next James Dyson” (Lauren). Sarah remembers “I was supposed to be making a coat stand, a lampshade, but I was developing the service about how it got delivered, how you unpack it, how you do the refunds, what is something goes wrong. And getting generally bad marks for poor product design”.

The common thread for all the speakers was that the practices in which they were taught were not enough, either because they were too focused on commercial rather than social gain, or that they in themselves could not achieve the social impact that these women were striving for.

Deborah, who trained as a graphic designer, told of her experience volunteering at Great Ormond Street which taught her how to talk and listen to people, and design their emotional (as well as wayfinding) patient experience. Sophia contrasted the human approach she and Joe Heapy, founder of Engine, were advocating in ‘Journey to the Interface’ with the dominant focus in the mid-noughties on delivery and efficiency (epitomised by Michael Barber’s PMDU and books such as ‘Deliverology 101’ and ‘Instruction to Deliver’). For her, service design was less a commodity [a consultancy service to sell to make commercial services better] “but a form of support”. It certainly wasn’t the cliché of service design that Gill Wildman railed against in the first exclusively service design event at the Design Council in 2000; that service design was epitomised by a basket of kittens waiting for Mariah Carey in her hotel room. Jennie worked with Hillary Cottam to set up Participle on a series of principles called Beveridge 4.0, in recognition of the founder of the Welfare State’s admittance that in doing so he may have created too much dependency. They wanted public service delivery to be instead about providing agency for people to create their own solutions. This theoretical (re)positioning gave service design some of the shape it has today.

But as well as theoretical, their work was inherently practical. By ‘doing the thing’, they created a space or ‘force field which both inspired other budding service designers and made commissioners sit up and listen. Sophia, Jennie and Andrea all talked about how their acts of applying design to stubborn and tricky social problems in real situations (Kent, Swindon and Cornwall) inspired a supply of designers and “woke up the market”. They made both designers and commissioners realise there was a better way of using design (“We demonstrated how design could make a difference if instead of design being locked away in a design studio, designers were on the ground with citizens” — Andrea). And a better way of creating services (“The real impact was to create a space for other councils to say ‘hmmmm that’s interesting’. It took some of the risk out and opened up possibilities for others” — Sophia in relation to setting up SILK, the first ever “Innovation Lab” in local government in 2008).

The visuals that Francesca Allen from Uscreates created for the evening’s event

However the market is not homogenous. Shaping the market involved a combination of methods. Some were able to spark the interest of innovative commissioners who were willing to take a chance with openly different ways of doing things. Deborah remembers Lynne Maher at the NHS Institution being pivotal in recognising emerging talent and pioneering practice. She was an early supporter of thinkpublic and the Institute partnered with thinkpublic in the very early days helping it to establish into a growing business. Sarah brought along her escorted visitors pass to Skills Development Scotland who took in a group of young designers to help redesign a youth careers service and impressed with the work, kept her on as an intern. Nicola Sturgeon’s Programme for Government is now peppered with service design language, thanks in part to Sarah and Lauren and Snook.

Others took a stealthier approach. Mary showed the many incarnations of the Uscreates logo and streamline. Design was not mentioned until very recently, instead focusing on the outcome that design could achieve: strategy, social media, behaviour change, transformation, outcomes. “We never explicitly talked about service design, we figured out what the market was asking for and wrapped up what we were doing [in those terms] and put it out there.”

As these women started to demonstrate change through service design, whether explicitly mentioned or not, they continued to push out and expand the boundaries of what service design meant (further still away from graphic or product design), or how it was delivered. For Deborah, it was about achieving social impact with ‘whatever design tools’ she had available. For Andrea, it was about looking at different levels of design: D1 (detail), D2 (services), D3 (policy), which led her to found Policy Lab in the heart of Government (drawing its first logo on a napkin, which has stuck). For Jennie, designing a service has two functions: to create a thing that achieves immediate impact, but also to reveal wider changes to the system which are necessary for wider-scale and longer-term transformation, allowing other similar services to follow. “Building something as tangible as a service becomes a transitional object between existing and potential future systems.”

Many of the women were experimenting with service design, but doing it without realising it. Therefore it was really important to document this, which turned service design into something that people were ‘just doing’ into something ‘nameable’ and recognisable. This provided confidence for others (who were also doing it without realising it) to follow, credibility to show to potential clients as a method, and a way of explaining it to students of the future. Birgit showed an impressive array of ‘firsts’: her first Doctorate Thesis on Service Design from 1985 (‘Dienstleistungbraughtdesign’, which, she joked, being in German, few English-speaking people read), the first Service Design Network (SDN) conference in 2006, the first SDN touchpoint journal from 2009, the first Guardian supplement on service design from 2010. Gill and Andrea recounted two more anarchist acts of spreading the word: the aforementioned first ever Design Council event exclusively focused on service design (ominously named ‘Design is Dead’), and a Service Design Standard, originally intended for the British Standards Committee, which they didn’t want to publish for free, so Plot did anyway. The later pioneers all referred back to these artefacts as important guiding sources, providing confidence that they were doing the right thing. Even in 2017, Jasmine had not heard of service design, and learned through reference to the Policy Lab blog, slideshare and Lucy Kimbell’s account of shadowing Lab as her guiding material.

But it was much more than just putting things out into the world and expecting others to take note. As Jennie said “it’s hard to be a pioneer as you don’t know where to turn or where to go next”. Luckily service design is a much more intimately and humanly connected and collaborative industry. Each of the panel members had been influenced and supported by others on the panel, common names cropped up as pivotal figures. These women nurtured not only their practice but those practicing it. Brigit brought the industry together through the Service Design Network and conference (which Lauren remembers attending), Andrea has provided opportunities through commissioning Uscreates and thinkpublic to deliver Design of the Times (DoTT) and Policy Lab work (which Mary and Deborah delivered), Deborah’s thinkpublic offered many internships (which Sarah and Lauren took up), Gill taught students (and again Lauren listened), Mary has used service design to create a supportive internal culture for her team of twenty (including me). And of course, this went far wider than the ten women who spoke at this event. There are other people at the edges or boundaries of this growing disciplines and others (including the sectors service design was growing into) who glued things together or kept the connections alive. People like Cassie Robinson, one of the founders of the Point People and who was on the same Nesta Creative Enterprises programme as Deborah and Mary, and who mentored Sarah and Lauren, and myself, who jumped at the opportunity to work with Andrea in Government, at some point jumped ship to work with Mary, but introduced Jasmine to service design before I left.

The artefacts that the pioneers brought along which were pivotal in developing their practice

The variety of support, connections and networks reflects the emergent nature of the practice. As Lauren said, “there was no neat path on how to learn the craft. I did it by stalking and talking to the people on the panel. Now is a lovely 360 degree moment”. And now Sarah and Lauren in turn are thinking about how to “be generous to those people who are looking up at us and wanting to do the type of work that we are doing”, either through sharing thoughts through Lauren’s Redjotter blog or through Sarah “stepping back and removing myself from it [the organisation] and supporting the team doing the work”.

Pick up a service design book now, and it won’t have a chapter about women, but it might well be written by one and it will undoubtedly feature the work of one of these pioneers, and other people from genders that are often in the minority. But as well as writing about it, these women are doing it, reframing it, creating things and supporting others. And of course, pushing boundaries and stepping into a place where no-one has ever stepped before.

“There is something about firsts that I can see in all the stories tonight, something about being courageous and brave, that no-one has ever done this before but that is ok”. (Lauren).

This event was put together by myself, Cassie Robinson, Francesca Allen, Rowan Conway, Sevra Davies, Rebecca Ford, Lior Smith, Ella O’Toole & Dominique Sherwood and attended by many incredible people.