Lee Sankey
Author - Lee Sankey

It’s a wonderful time for design. Its appreciation by and relevance to consumers, organisations and society has been transformed over the last few years.

But what are the implications for design’s new-found relevance and role? Are designers, particularly service designers, ready to fulfil design’s potential, or are we too in love with our Post-it notes and workshops?

For some context, it’s worth pausing briefly to consider why design has become so relevant. There are obviously many reasons. For me, three in particular stand out: disruption, expectations and complexity. Treating these in turn, we live in a period of incredible, accelerating disruption and change, driven by interconnected forces such as advancing technology. The effects are profound and transformational. From the physics of whole business sectors being rewritten, to the way we live radically shifting. And we are only just getting started.

Design is a way of seeing, thinking and of making choices and sense of things and, thus, a way of navigating through — and also causing — positive disruption. Secondly, people’s expectations have radically changed through using well-designed products and services in their everyday lives, whether it be iPhones, Kindles, Google Maps, Amazon and so on. We all now expect things to be easy to use, well-thought-through and engaging. People know good design even if they don’t always frame it in those terms. Thirdly, rising product and service complexity. Value is distributed and accessed in a variety of ways, and we engage with brands in a more temporal way.

For example, Nike is no longer simply about shoes. Design, particularly service design, provides a way of managing complexity, delivering value and creating coherent brand experiences for a digitally connected and evolving world. 

Now design is more than just a source of competitive edge. It’s fundamental. As a result, we see designers founding companies, agencies launching their own products and becoming part of the boardroom and we see design becoming part of the literacy of business. Yes, it’s a wonderful time. In fact, 
I believe we are in a new era for design. One in which there is an unprecedented opportunity for design to fulfil its potential and cement its position as a driving force in business and society. Design can now make or break a business, create new realities and play a key role in helping tackle profound global challenges such as climate change. 


Serious opportunity, serious responsibility. This is The New Seriousness of Design. So what are the implications of this new significance, one where we have a seat at the table? What does it mean for in-house teams, agencies and design education? At a community and individual level, are we (designers) ready? Is service design ready?

Try doing a Google search for service design images. I don't know about you, but the results somehow echo my experience and perception of service design. What do I mean? In reviewing portfolios, agency pitches and projects, you tend to see lots of personas, photos of ideation workshops and walls of Post-it notes accompanied by various blueprints and diagrams: all the good stuff associated with service design. We are brilliant at communicating the journey. In other words, the emphasis is on the ‘how’. I also often find this in service design conversations. Yet often things such as ‘what was the problem or opportunity?’, ‘what was the idea?’ and ‘what was the impact?’, are missing. As uncomfortable a question as this might be, are we, service designers, more in love with process than outcomes? Are we like a musician who’s more in love with their instrument than actually making music?

There also seems to be an ongoing sense of, even anxiety about, the need to define service design. It was a topic of conversation during the members’ day at the Service Design Global Conference 2013. I’m not sure why. Aren’t we already designing services? Does this ‘quest’ in fact distract the community and hinder the discipline? Personally the answer to the question, “what is service design?” is simple. It’s the design of services. Yes, there may be multiple touch points, there may be something owned or maybe not, there may a digital element or not, or physical product or not, or the presence of a call centre or not, and so on. There are so many variations and things are evolving all the time. Is it helpful or realistic to try and define something where change is the new normal and boundaries are melting?


While service designers can apply their expertise as a discipline, service design is also an approach or mindset that is increasingly adopted by other design disciplines be it Interaction, Experience, Product, UI, Visual and so on, as increasingly solutions involve distributed value that utilises multiple technologies across multiple contexts and touchpoints. In this context, all of design benefits and it’s the ‘doing’ that counts.

Given design’s unprecedented opportunity, are we really focused on what matters, better outcomes? In my view, that’s what design is ultimately about. Yes, we need to understand, evolve and love the craft and so forth but, ultimately, it’s the impact that design creates that counts. Do we want to be defined by our process or outcomes? Going further, perhaps design’s general tendency to frame, position and sell itself around process rather than outcomes is one of the reasons why, historically, it has not always been valued as much as business consultancy or advertising.

The new found relevance and adoption is changing design itself. It is being reshaped by opposing forces of expansion and contraction. On the one hand, design’s role is expanding across the 4 dimensions of strategy, experience, brand and operations. (See diagram 1). To the left, helping influence or drive business strategy. So rather than designers responding to briefs, design-driven organisations are using design to determine what to do. To the right, we are helping deliver and iterate ongoing customer experiences.

We are designing relationships. Along the vertical axis, design is playing an increasing role in branding. There is an increasing awareness that, for most organisations, your brand emerges from the reality of using your product or service. Putting it another way, service design converts brand intention into reality. Service-, interaction- and experience design are, in a very real sense, designing the brand. Along the other dimension, design is helping to shape how organisations operationalise a service or experience.


(See diagram 2) At the same time, the process of design is, in a sense, collapsing in on itself. The act of making and prototyping are happening earlier: indeed, early prototypes in lean approaches are the product. We see roles blurring. Visual designers coding, business analysts wire-framing, researchers making, and so on. There’s wider participation: customers and stakeholders are designing. All this in the context of a generally more iterative, agile ‘build, test and learn’ approach, whilst the boundary between products, services, physical and digital are all melting away (see diagram 3).

All these forces are, I believe, creating fundamentally new conditions for design. In these conditions, some old adages start to melt, while others are accentuated. I’m still working these through in my mind and there isn’t space to discuss them here, but four I’m kicking about are:

  • The devil is no longer in the details: it’s in disruption and the ‘differences’
  • Being design focused is not enough: you need to design the right thing, not just get the design right
  • It’s about what we add, rather than take away: in the drive for simplicity, are we stripping out friction and characteristics that create personality and character?
  • Transcend how the service works to what the service means: is it enough, especially in commoditised, competitive markets, to design things that are easy to use and functional? There’s a need to design for meaning and empathy.

To sum up, I believe we are in a new era for design, with new conditions that are changing the discipline itself. Service design needs a new mindset to match. One where we are more than the glue, a facilitator. We need to bridge the reality gap, get more into making, into delivery and to get our hands dirty. Or, as Joel Bailey puts it, “get into the grit”. Apologies, for posing more questions than answers here. Ultimately, I hope this is thought provoking and helps, in some way, to stimulate debate. But, most of all, I would like to suggest that we need to be more in love with outcomes than process. That’s where people feel the magic.


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