Service Design: A Reading List

Mike Press
Open Book
Published in
8 min readOct 21, 2019


The idea for this reading list came from an exchange on twitter with Sarah Drummond and Dhruv Sharma about the need for more history and critical thinking around service design. In a challenging thread Dhruv explained how “I’m essentially done with just ‘raising awareness’ and I’m more interested in ‘enabling and empowering’ people to fully harness the potential of user centred design, including good user research. For me they can only do that if they are fully equipped with the (contextual) knowledge they need to affect change.”

As Sarah added “I’ve been quite shocked in recent years visiting some design and service design courses that don’t teach any history/critical etc studies.” This developed into the idea that “we start by each nominating 10 essential reads — not necessarily design books but those you’d suggest for thinking differently.”

So what if everyone with an interest in more critical thinking in service design nominated 10 reads? What an incredible learning resource that would be. Here’s my contribution. It’s themed and I’ve added a brief commentary on the readings.

Understanding practice

John Berger and Jean Mohr (1967) A Fortunate Man, Penguin Books

Babita Sharma (2019) The Corner Shop, Two Roads

Christie Watson (2018) The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story, Chatto & Windus

The British Journal of General Practice recently lauded A Fortunate Man as one of the best accounts of the nature and work of the general practitioner. This collaboration between an art critic and a photographer is essentially an ethnography of Dr John Sassall, a GP working in a rural community. Empathically written and beautifully photographed, the book describes how “the whole process, as it includes doctor and patient, is a dialectical one” — a negotiation and understanding between practitioner, the community they serve and the wider culture that they are part of. The book is both a masterclass in observation, and a powerful argument for “a more human society”. The issues of relationships — in their broadest sense — and humanity as a central principle of critical professional practice echo across many of the readings here.

The community described by Berger and Mohr — rural, insular, unchanged — is very different to that described by Babita Sharma in her entertaining and insightful account of growing up in an Asian corner shop in Reading. But the same principles of negotiation, accommodation and understanding that determined the characteristics of Dr Sassall’s practice, are in evidence here. Enriching this dynamic is everyday racism and an incident of violent robbery. While only one chapter really explores some of the dimensions of service and how it relates to community, one key strength of the book is that it weaves in a history of of the British Asian experience.

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve recommended Christie Watson’s book to. Like Berger and Mohr it’s an account of a healthcare practitioner providing a professionally prescribed service, and like Sharma it’s a personal account that quite brilliantly interleaves a history of her profession with her own account of how she practiced a nursing that is “kind, compassionate and caring”. There’s a beauty, a power, a passion in the writing and in places a sense of acute pain and awful emptiness. Because, as she explains, that is nursing: “There is no objectivity in good nursing care. Jo was a brilliant nurse. She understood that to nurse is to love. Even after death.”

These three books, in very different ways, show how ‘service’ is socially constructed and how the role of the practitioner, or provider, is determined both through that social dynamic and personal reflections on practice. They also provide useful models on how we write about practice.


Caroline Criado Perez (2019) Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Random House

Julia Unwin (2018) Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy, Carnegie UK Trust

Design meets the needs of men. Not women. Caroline Criado Perez pulls in all the data to make a robust and compelling case as to how “we have positioned women as a deviation from standard humanity and this is why they have been allowed to become invisible”. From snow clearing, urinals and heart disease diagnosis, through to key social and political issues, this book defines the most fundamental design challenges of our age, and in so doing takes on scientists, politicians and the tech community. Violence, inequity and a simple lack of data — the gender data gap — has designed a world that does not meet women’s needs. This book is an essential read. It not only demonstrates the art of using data to make an irrefutable case, but is a powerful call for action: “It’s a time for a change in perspective”. If there’s any design course that this is not on the reading list of, then the course is of questionable merit.

Scotland is unique in that it has placed kindness right at the heart of its National Performance Framework. A key challenge for all professionals — including designers — is how we embed kindness within our work. Both Watson and Berger/Mohr refer directly and indirectly to kindness, the former especially demonstrating how it is indivisible from professional nursing. Julia Unwin sets out why it should be central to public policy and indeed design: “Kindness is not sentimental, and nor does it result in sloppy behaviour. Kindness requires a real focus on relationships and that can be truly challenging and demanding… (Questions of kindness) are seen as challenges for the front line, or for the ‘new front line’ in the community, but never for the designers, evaluators, auditors and managers of public services.” She argues for a radical kindness that “challenges long established norms and has the potential to be highly disruptive” to deal with the inequities so forensically analysed by Caroline Criado Perez.


Frederic Laloux (2014) Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness, Nelson Parker

Hilary Cottam (2018) Radical Help, Virago

Joyce Yee, Emma Jefferies and Kamil Michlewski (2017) Transformations: 7 Roles to Drive Change by Design, BIS Publishers

We cannot design in any meaningful way if we do not understand how organisations work, what affordances they provide us with, how to work across their bureaucratic grain, and what opportunities there are to design them differently. Laloux’s book asks “can we create organizations free of the pathologies that show up all too often in the workplace? Free of politics, bureaucracy, and infighting; free of stress and burnout…” It continues by identifying four organisational paradigms arising from very different worldviews, making the case for Teal organisations — characterised by self-management, wholeness and a sense of purpose. Teal organisations innovate by listening — a characteristic that resonates in many of these readings. Extremely well referenced and grounded in organisational and management theory.

Hilary Cottam refers to Laloux’s volume in her remarkable book on social design. Grounded in five vividly described experiments, the book draws on the history of welfare and social design, and includes some of the best writing I’ve come across on the often opaque nature of design processes. She writes of open listening, of the concept of kindness in social design, of the vital importance of relationships, the fundamental difference between relational services and transactional services, and in so doing often questions whether we should be designing services in the first place. The book explores new models of leadership, and approaches that fuse design, academic research, experimentation and reflection on practice. Most importantly it deals openly and clearly with why initiatives fail and how we learn from failure. It is an argument for a relational way of working, thinking and designing: “Relational working requires capacities for empathy, for human warmth and practice: the tactics and tool to make change, often in difficult circumstances.”

Joyce Yee, Emma Jefferies and Kamil Michlewski share Hilary Cottam’s interest in design as a process for driving organisational change, but frame their arguments around seven change roles that designers and design thinkers play in the process. This is an extremely well designed and written book, providing welcome clarity to arguments rooted in thirteen well documented case studies and seven ‘expert interviews’. While it is written primarily for organisations that wish to make more effective use of design, it has particular value for aspiring and emergent designers who are in the process of defining their practice. The seven roles (cultural catalyst, framework maker, humaniser, etc) “are not discrete. They can overlap and complement one another.”

And finally… PARC

Stewart Brand (1972) Spacewar — Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums, Rolling Stone, 7 December 1972

Deborah Ancona, Elaine Backman and Kate Isaacs (2019) Nimble Leadership, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2019

Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre) is where much of the design thinking and technology that we use today came from (or was brought together or was refined). Here are two short and accessible pieces written 47 years apart based on research at PARC that draw very different, but profound critical insights that have implications for all of us working in this field.

Stewart Brand’s piece in Rolling Stone is a wonderful account of how our technologies are created — not by corporations or market forces — but by cultures, counter cultures and “kids staying up all night.” His eight point analysis of the pioneering Spacewar game stands, in my view, as one of the best definitions of brilliant UX design, and overall the piece makes a case for what technology could be: “When computers become available to everybody, the hackers take over. We are all Computer Bums, all more empowered as individuals and as co-operators.” So it clearly did not turn out that way, but there remains a potential. Written in the style of its time, but challenging many assumptions we have of how our technology has come into being.

Research published this year from MIT researchers Deborah Ancona, Elaine Backman and Kate Isaacs is in part based on their study of leadership at PARC. They identify three distinct types of leaders: “Entrepreneurial leaders, typically concentrated at lower levels of an organisation, create value for customers with new products and services; collectively, they move the organisation into unexplored territory. Enabling leaders, in the middle of the organisation, make sure the entrepreneurs have the resources and information they need. And architecting leaders, near the top, keep an eye on the whole game board, monitoring culture, high-level strategy, and structure.” This is a piece that can be usefully viewed from the perspective of Design Leadership.


So these are my ten key readings for those working in or studying service design (or social design, human-centred design, etc). I’m not claiming that they represent the full range of issues that we need to critically understand and discuss. But I do claim that they make you think.

What are your ten?