Applying Theatre Within Service Design

Tim Woolliscroft
ideasmiths
Published in
5 min readSep 28, 2020

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In this blog I outline some connections between service design and theatre. In relation to these connections I also reflect on my own arts background and how I can apply my theatre skills and understanding within service design.

The research and the systems thinking expertise that I gained during my PhD and subsequent research projects are both relevant to service design. The breadth of my academic background seems relevant to its multidimensional nature. Including my PhD; I have five postgraduate qualifications, in subjects cutting across: business, computing, education, healthcare, sociology, social policy and research methods. My undergraduate BA in urban design also gives me relevant academic skills and understanding.

A Creative T Shaped Person

In 2010 Ideo’s CEO Tim Brown argued that T shaped people make the best designers (outlined here). T shaped people, he argued have a disposition towards collaboration across disciplines as well as having a depth of knowledge. I argue that my breadth of knowledge demonstrates that I am a T shaped person. He argues that this combination helps make T shaped people creative, and argues that creativity is essential for good design.

https://medium.com/@jchyip/why-t-shaped-people-e8706198e437

A Theatre Design and Improv Background

I frequently reflect on how to bring the skills and understanding gained from my creative background into my work. I am aware that many designers have a creative background. Most commonly, service designers are from a visual art or design background and mine was in the performing arts. I have however discovered that there are in fact a lot of connections between service design and the performing arts. Most directly theatrical techniques, in particular improvisation, are advocated as possible service design approaches. Some theatre based service design approaches are outlined in the book “This is Service Design Doing”. During my physical theatre / street theatre past, I frequently facilitated improvisation exercises very similar to those outlined in the book. The connection with theatre, however goes much deeper.

Touchpoint, the Service Design journal argues that services and the performing arts have many things in common. They are both made up of processes, and depend on people to fulfil tasks to make up a bigger picture and both are planned with tools such as storyboards, scenario’s and customer journeys. These are all very much in my comfort zone. I have training and experience in facilitating improvisation, and in directing and devising theatre. I have become aware that this experience of designing theatre is design expertise that is relevant to service design.

Theatre is Fundamental to Service Design

Theatre metaphors are fundamental to the principles of service design. The front stage is what customers see. Just like in theatre, backstage is what happens behind the scenes to enable the frontstage to happen. Backstage includes the policies, procedures and systems required to provide a good customer experience. The relationship between back stage and front stage is why service designers need to being able to understand the bigger picture and to think about systems, as discussed earlier. My understanding of theatre and systems thinking, both seem to be relevant here.

https://miro.medium.com/max/2160/1*6Oz6BwOAWFQrg6dSbYpaSA.jpeg

Street Theatre Provides Facilitation and Engagement Skills

Another valuable skill I gained during my performance career was the art of facilitation. These skills were honed as a street performer. I learned the art of capturing and holding the attention of passers by, and capturing them sufficiently so that at the end of my show they would pay me for the privilege. In this digital age of distraction the value of this skill has only increased in value. I know from both my consulting practice and education delivery, that participants will only give you valuable work if you can keep them engaged. I outline below a selection of images from my shows below and a video link here

My Street Theatre Past

Applying Theatre Improvisation Beyond The Boundaries of Time and Space

From my experience of teaching digital business online during the Covid19 pandemic I have some ideas about how to apply theatrical techniques to service design remotely. Being able to apply digital technologies has become an essential skill. Some of my thinking is however informed by some earlier research. In 2016 I collaborated on a research project about how to apply theatrical techniques to HE teaching. After exploring how improvisational techniques could be applied in lecture and seminar contexts, I moved my attention to exploring how digital technology can help apply the improvisational theatre metaphor beyond the boundaries of time and space, as I outline towards the end of this conference presentation video.

Conclusion

In this blog I have outlined some of the connections between theatre and service design. I have also discussed some of the ways that both my street theatre and academic background have provided skills and understanding relevant to conducting service design. I also explained how my theatre improvisation skills are not constrained by requirements to work remotely. I can apply theatre improvisation to service design beyond constraints of time and space.

I would love to hear from you if you think that a creative theatre based form of service design might help you create or redesign services. Where projects are beyond my own individual skill-set I have a good working relationship with other consultants who I am able to bring in as required.

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Tim Woolliscroft
ideasmiths

Digital Innovation and Service Design Consultant at Ideasmiths http://ideasmiths.co.uk/