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What I’ve Learned as a Service Designer working Around the World

A bit of context before we get started

For those who land for the first time in this publication, Lusofonia, mention that it is one of the initiatives that the Portugal Chapter at the Service Design Network is putting together to make 2020 the year of the community.

Lusofonia is an open door for all the Portuguese-Speaking Service Designers in the diaspora willing to connect with the Service Design community in Portugal to share their ideas, projects, lessons learned on how it is to work with a different culture. Plus, and more importantly, an opportunity to learn from and with peers.

Today we are excited to introduce you to Katharina Leistenschneider, she will share with you with her own words her journey into Service Design.

About Me

Hi, I’m Katharina Leistenscheider, a German-Brazilian living and working in Germany. I work as a freelancer, and I am also co-founder of Skillery. I am thoroughly enjoying this new phase of my professional life.

Hi there, I am Katharina

What exactly do I do?

As a Service Designer, I need to be very flexible — we all know that :)

During my first year as a freelancer, I worked on a corporate culture transformation project, worked on another project in the field of user research, and co-facilitated a Design Thinking workshop for professionals at the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, I am a guest speaker for the online Design Thinking course of Berkeley Innovation Group and, together with Jannike Stöhr, have set up the company Skillery, where I work as an innovation coach.

Service Design was always staring me right in the face!

I live in Cologne. I was also born here and lived on a street called Mainzer Straße up until finishing school. I then decided to leave my city and explore the world. After returning to Europe in 2006, I decided to study design and so visited several universities in Germany and The Netherlands. One day, I discovered that there is actually a good design university in Cologne — the Köln International School of Design (KISD).

To my surprise, not only is the KISD in my city, but it is on Mainzer Strasse in a building just 100 meters from the house where I had spent most of my childhood! On a street that I know like the back of my hand.

The first time I opened the door, a whole new universe opened up in front of me. I decided that this was going to be the place where I wanted to study, which I felt even more strongly when I learned about Service Design. Consequently, my plans to live elsewhere on the planet were postponed for another 5 years.

Service Design Project at KISD in 2010

Hands-on in the most professional way possible

In 2012, I went to live in Rio de Janeiro and started my professional life as a Service Designer at MJV. It was a great experience from the start. From the very first day, I participated in projects where I, for example, restructured the way the team was working. This included an ongoing service of the Government of Rio de Janeiro, where I enabled the team to work more collaboratively and encouraged them to try out new solutions. We analyzed and improved the user experience on various physical and digital touchpoints by collaborating with stakeholders such as a supermarket chain. We also improved their service presence on social networks with innovative solutions. This was a very broad and holistic project where I was able to work hands-on testing new concepts and ideas and to see the immediate results of our work.

I also got to know the field of corporate culture transformation through a project I was responsible for. The client was an insurance company and I was also able to create and test new approaches to enable cultural change freely in practice. In conclusion, I can say that working at MJV was a professional experience that gave me the opportunity to work on a range of dynamic projects and to see the results of my work almost in real time –a truly unique experience. It was a very professional, high-speed environment with many possibilities to test concepts immediately. And at the same time, I got to know the business side of the profession, preparing project proposals and presenting them directly to clients. I didn’t expect to have such an experience so early on in my career.

Professional, Innovative, Open and Optimistic

Another important stage of my professional journey was in 2016 when I worked for 10 months at the Service Science Factory (SSF) at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. It was a dream to work in The Netherlands, a country that had always given me the impression of being very innovative and professional but at the same time very open and optimistic.

There, I worked as a Service Design specialist on innovation projects for a university institute that offers projects for companies and health organizations, amongst others. The projects lasted two months and we worked with the double diamond process. The goal was to accelerate innovation processes for our clients. Working in a university context gives access to very diverse, deep, and specific knowledge. Depending on the project topic, the teams were made up of students from specific fields, external experts, and members of the client companies. For example, we worked on a project to improve the end-to-end experience of hospital patients. Medical, healthcare management, psychology, and other students all took part. This allowed us to work co-creatively in a highly professional manner and to deeply explore a new subject — the part of my profession that I love most. I completed projects for the finance, education, and health sectors. Another fact that made it possible to work co-creatively was that even though this was set in a university context, I did not feel the presence of hierarchies. Lecturers, undergraduates, Ph.D. students, department heads of our clients, doctors and nurses all worked on an equal footing. The appreciation of each individual made it possible for each team member to work to their own potential which I consider very important when generating innovative solutions.

I experienced a work ethic that had a great impact on me, humble and positive, and based on trust in others, without the feeling of competition. This environment makes it possible to establish the diversity necessary to innovate.

Service Design for Healthcare project at Service Science Factory, Maastricht University in 2016

Cultural Shock in My Native Country

When back in Germany in 2017, I decided to work with the team ‘Innovation Radicals’. A small, young company with 4 founders that went from being a Start-Up onto the next step. Their field of expertise was Design Thinking trainings, events, and innovation programs. Even though we were a small company, we worked with large, well-known clients and corporations from various sectors including security, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals. I joined as a Service Designer and decided to establish this area. As we already had good relationships with customers through the Design Thinking Workshops, the doors were open for us to take a step forward. We started offering long-term projects for which I was responsible. First alone and then as part of a small team that I established. The greatest learning experience I had was seeing the company grow from 5 to 12 employees in almost a year and participating in key decisions regarding the development of its internal structure, HR and customer offers.

Despite being also German, I had never worked as a Service Designer in an almost exclusively German context. The KISD, where I studied, was international, and afterward, I had only ever worked in international contexts. In addition, initially, there were no other designers on the team. So it was a great challenge to establish a more collaborative, agile, creative way of working and to translate this into co-creative design projects based on different perspectives. At the same time, I gained a lot of experience in setting up a company, which has helped me in the current stage of my career as a freelancer and co-founder.

Although I stayed on my street during my studies, this decision opened up these worlds to me — new countries, companies from different cultures, and many worlds of users.

Some impressions of my work at Innovation Radicals (2017–2018)

Country Comparison: All About Culture

For me, discussing cultural differences is very interesting. I like to understand why countries are different and I want to share my ideas here, which are open to discussion.

Brazil, Rio de Janeiro

Brazil has an extremely fast-moving culture. A country that is always changing and where people are always reinventing themselves. One of the reasons for this is the unstable economy. In my family, adults over 40 start new studies, open new businesses, etc. People have the mentality of always wanting to grow, never stopping. It seems that there is no “failure”, the direction is the future and not the past. At the same time, Brazil has a history of service, for a very sad reason — slavery. Also, the social inequalities that continue today make services accessible, not only for the upper class. Using services is part of the Brazilian culture. This culture and the need to establish new business has always allowed new entrepreneurs to emerge, who have to use all their creativity possible to launch new services such as caro brega, pharmacy delivery services, motels, beauty services, and much more.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands is a very innovative and collaborative country from my point of view as a Service Designer. This can be explained by its geographical location. The country is below sea level and has always needed to be innovative to protect itself from the surrounding water. Communities had to have confidence in each other so as not to be flooded. Others were responsible for taking care of basic things like food. “I trust you with the maintenance of the dykes so I can farm or bake bread.” A strong we-culture that can still be felt today. At the same time, the country has never had many raw materials available and so it has had to specialize in processing, always innovating.

Another aspect that may be important in understanding services in The Netherlands is hospitality. This is a form of service that has emerged alongside the trade and transportation sector that was already thriving in the 17th century. The Netherlands was a gateway for goods to the rest of Europe. It is possible to study hospitality management at several universities there. There were students with this background when working on the Service Science Factory projects. They naturally understood what Service Design is.


Germany is more of an individualistic country. Collaboration has not been necessary in recent decades because the country has a social system where individuals are protected by the state, without the need for the family structure. The history of the Second World War has meant that the post-war generation no longer wanted to have a German culture and identity. So the focus was on someone’s work and profession thus creating identity. Being a good worker with an individual reward represents success. Security and professional achievements are very important. This has led to people devoting themselves to their work. For example, good and ambitious engineers and technicians have emerged from Germany. The automotive industry, mechanical engineering and the electrical industry are good examples of this and they are all still strong. Safety, long development loops and in-depth knowledge are needed to create these long-term industrial solutions. These industries have kept the economy stable for several decades and a person could work in the same position for 30 years without needing to reinvent themself. Using services in Germany was considered more of a luxury that did not coincide with the disciplined, Calvinist culture. If we can do something ourselves, let’s not ask others for help. The service experience in Germany is pragmatic, efficient and direct. For example, my grandmother, who was about 80 years old, lived alone in her house. Despite having the financial means to pay for help, when she needed something, she did it herself. She put up a handrail to help her go down to her basement more safely. Instead of calling someone, she bought the materials and put it all up on her own, drill, bolts, and everything. Always elegant and with no complaints.

What sparks my curiosity these days?

I’ve always been very interested in the area of innovation in healthcare. The user becomes a patient and the most important touchpoint is human beings, nurses, and doctors. It is an area where human factors are very important. With the current Corona crisis, we are more aware of the importance of this area. Systems can be very individual, and I believe that the international exchange of practices can create value to redesign and improve the healthcare area.

Speaking of knowledge exchange, an international network of Service Designers can also open up the possibility of establishing an international research team to explore a topic in different cultural and social contexts. This can be very inspiring to create innovative solutions.

Thank you so much, Katharina for sharing your journey with us. We are pretty sure that the Portuguese-speaking community will avidly read this fantastic article!

If you want to connect with Katharina you can find her on Linkedin.

The Portugal Chapter, Service Design Network.



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Katharina Leistenschneider

Katharina Leistenschneider

Independent Service Designer ( and founder of Skillery.