Service Design-in’ at Pluto

Alessandra Canella
Service Design-in’
8 min readJan 10, 2022


An asynchronous interview with Giulio Fagiolini, Head of Design at Pluto.

A picture of Giulio Fagiolini, Head of Design at Pluto.

Q: Ciao Giulio, can you please introduce yourself?

A: Hi there, my name is Giulio and I’m an Italian immigrant living in London.
I’m currently leading design at Pluto, where my official role title is Head of Design.

We’re a small early-stage start-up building a travel planning app to help users find inspiration for their trips, and collect everything they need in one place: places to go, reservations, links and all the things that currently live spread across Google Maps, WhatsApp groups and Email and Notes.

Born as a travel insurance provider we’ve always aimed at making better the annoying bits about travel, with an ambition of perhaps one day expanding our offering outside of travel insurance. This opportunity arrived in the last two years, where the lack of a market for our product pushed us to accelerate the change in this direction. It wasn’t easy, but I think that being used to frame problems in a broader playing field and looking at the whole experience helped us to make this choice. After all, this was a unique opportunity to test a new product and proposition on a global scale, without the risk of losing any revenue (which we wouldn’t have had in a pandemic anyway).

Pluto Cover (before the Pandemic) and Pluto Pinboard (after the Pandemic)

Q: How do you define Service Design? What are the skills / the mindsets / the frameworks?

This is a big question (and definitely something that I won’t be able to address in a couple of paragraphs), but I like to think of service design as the discipline which, facilitated by a set of tools and practices, allows us to approach, understand and effectively solve problems for complex systems and processes.

The idea of Design as we intend it today, really started to get traction in the 20th century, to help us define and understand how the same principles which belonged to the architectural practices could also be applied in a different scale to everyday objects. Well, I think that we can recognise a similar role to Service Design as the word that helps us understand and define how the practice of design for everyday things could also be applied to services and more complex systems.

For these reasons, I think I’d struggle to define Service Design just through a set of specific skills or frameworks, and perhaps one of the best definitions for it is when design is able to operate on complex systems, focusing on every level and actor of the equation — from the micro to macro and all the relationship in between.

Q: What’s the current Service Design set up at your company?

A: Well, as briefly anticipated Pluto is *really* small.

It probably helps to set the context to say that the whole company it’s just me, the two co-founders and a small team of developers. Given this size, you can probably already guess that Service Design in this context just cannot afford to be a discipline by itself. As a Head of Design (and we could definitely argue about the meaning of this title, but perhaps this is not the right time), I own Service, Interaction and Visual design but also every other design discipline we do within the company: starting from product design to end with motion graphics and marketing design. Life in a start-up can be quite hectic and it definitely helps if you are comfortable multitasking.

This said, I’m happy to say that even if we don’t have formally titled Service Designers, we are all well versed in the discipline from previous life experiences: before Pluto we all used to work together at Fjord, helping organisations of different sizes in their journeys through service design and business transformation.

Perhaps it’s exactly because we all understand the discipline so well and we are used to reframing our design problems in a bigger context that we don’t need to explicitly give it a name within the company. It’s a very different approach from our previous life in a service design consultancy where, in a lot of clients’ environments, giving it a name was already a political act needed for people to step away from their traditional ways of working.

Q: Service design and other disciplines. How do they work together?

In our case, rather than living within one specific vertical and expanding across, service design lives distributed across and within each discipline. There is no need to use Service Design as a tool to engage other parts of the company as an agent of change. Service design in our case is very much a mindset to help us ground our insights: “Do this design/technical/product solution make sense within the broader product and service experience?”

Q: Your Service design work. What are the typical initiatives you work on? What are the most unsexy bits you ever worked on? What are the bits you are most proud of?

A: We have a number of practices that span across the different stages of the design process: starting from exploratory research, ideation, prioritisation, prototyping, validatory research and product development. We try to keep a very tight pulse of our users and to have an ongoing open dialogue throughout the whole design process. This allows us to define early the territories that we need to explore, validate early the concepts with our users and bring them to life and test our hypothesis the sooner we can.

An early prototype used to test the initial proposition for Pluto Pinboard

Q: What are some examples?

A: Planning intensive exploratory “research weeks” with users and with potential users as part of our offer development. As we start ideating around a topic or a specific set of features we run these with the aim of defining the territories of exploration, the scope and the value to the user. Sketch, prototype and “play” with the product — prototyping tools have become incredibly accessible and easy to use, there is no more excuse to avoid testing with your user and go too much low fidelity about it. Is there a very quick way that you can test a new service idea in your live product with little effort?

Some early concept and ideas that we’ve been testing with users and might soon make their way to the roadmap.

Regarding the unsexy bits, I’m not a fan of the classic mapping exercises (e.g. persona development, user journeys etc etc) which often end up being done for the sake of it and with few actionable insights. Luckily, with our set-up, we only had to map our core journeys and user types once — after getting what we needed out of the exercise we didn’t have to repeat it. This for me has been one of the biggest differences between working in an early stage start-up and a bigger corporation/consultancy: you are your own client and the moment that something stops serving your purpose there is no point to continue or repeat the exercise — there are no deliverables and the imperative is the actionability of the insights you collect.

On the other hand, the thing I’m most proud of is probably the way our research practice is set up — ranging from the previously mentioned intensive exploratory sessions, to the more organic side of validatory research with the weekly appointments with our users. It really helps you connect the long term thinking with the everyday crunch of the product creation. It’s pretty powerful when it starts to fall in place and the roadmap you designed is aligned with the expectations and wishes of your users.

Pluto’s public roadmap

It’s also quite satisfying to be able to look back at the last two years: we’ve launched a travel planning app right at the beginning of a global pandemic, and in the span of a year we’ve convinced more than 18,000 users to trust us and use it to plan over 20,000 trips with 130,000 items added across 3000 destinations around the world.

Q: Service design impact. How do you prove the impact of the Service Design approach?

A: In our context “Service design impact” assumes a slightly different meaning.
Being Service Design more of a mindset and not a defined discipline within the company, it’s difficult (and perhaps not even needed) for us to prove the value of it per se. Where does Service Design start and where does it finish?

Being Design so central to the way we work, I believe for us is much more productive to measure the impact of our work based on the impact that we aim to achieve (and that we hold ourselves accountable for through quarterly OKRS) rather than trying to prove the impact of the method we use to get there.

From my experience “Service design impact” is a concept born out of non-design-led organisations, where Service Design has to fight to be considered as one of the primary product development drivers. Actually (as previously briefly mentioned) we could even say that the term “Service Design” itself was born from the same need: nobilitating Design as a discipline within traditionally-minded organisations.

Q: Service design advocacy. What’s the future for SD in your org?

A: Having such a small team and having all previously worked within the service design world, we are all well versed in the topic and we are not in a position where we need to advocate much within the company. In the future, if the company will grow, we’ll definitely be expecting new joiners to have some level of exposure in Service Design.

However, I’d like to think of it in broader terms than just what we consider today Service Design: as methods will change, and new skills and tools will be needed I think experience in design for complex systems would a better term.

Q: A service you wish you had designed.

One of the services that I use every time, and even after years of using it still feels like magic is Shazam. Perhaps because I’m not that great with musical memory? ..or perhaps because sometimes it feels like a superpower? Or maybe it’s just because it’s one of the few services that does just one thing, but it does it really really well (or at least it used to).

Q: How can people follow you?

You’ll mainly find me on Twitter — but I don’t guarantee I’ll be only talking about design. Actually, you’ll probably find me talking about politics and pasta.

Service Design-in’ is a collection of thoughts and interviews with Service Designers working within organisations. If you want to share your views, please reach out.



Alessandra Canella
Service Design-in’

Mum x2, Head of UX @Cazoo, Italian immigrant, Mega Mentor co-founder and FutureGov alumnus