Hey Robert, so what the fuck is Service Design?

It’s fucking thinking and doing, just like the books are titled, that’s what the fuck it is. 

It’s making an impact on more than the bottom line by developing working solutions to what Ron Heifetz calls level two and level three challenges. It’s considering the people who are providing the service as well as the recipients. I think it’s kind of like growing plants – understanding what it takes to nurture and sustain them, acknowledging the constraints of the ecosystem they are in and discovering what to add and where to trim. 

Some designs are grown from seeds and others are already matured and rooted in their respective environments.

I’m coming at it from my own background  

I have a lifetime of experience working in media, in everything from video and animation production to graphic and web design, to building museum exhibits and award-winning stoopid bikes. I even learned crackhead mechanics out the back of a Burger King in downtown Washington, DC. That means you make that jaunt work with what you got, right shorty? I’ve been playing with guerrilla marketing since I was stuffing punk rawk flyers in people’s purchases while working in a convenient store back in the day. 

I cut my teeth for over ten years, helping run not-for-profit community bicycle workshops. Eight years of that was in Cincinnati, Ohio, at a place called MoBo, with a handful of passionate people in a shed under a massive black walnut tree surrounded by gardens and ghetto. I was part of a team that used design thinking to develop a mission and a board of governance and grow a membership base from 20 people to 300.

That led to moving into a storefront, providing youth programming and becoming a strong player in the city’s transportation plan. I learned in the trenches that building a service for the community with the community itself leads to better long-term results. What I didn’t know at the time was that this is called service design.

When I moved to Chicago, with its gangster design community, I learned how to take everything I did in the past and put it to use in developing different types of strategies and methodologies and, when needed, making it scale for other industries. I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to the advice of ballers such as Robert Bau, who encourage different thought practices and various research and business skills., Lauren Serota, who explained that sometimes a project shouldn’t be built, and Rich Ekelman, who emphasised the importance of not making designs so special that you can’t let them go. And since I had already made those mistakes in my career, I felt enlightened. Service design is all about utilizing and leveraging your previous skills and experience.

Service design is developing direction, learning goals and creating strategy

It is moving towards a solution by knowing when to use different types of thinking – be it design, lateral, systems or strategic. 

It’s helping determine the best tactics to execute such that there is less shooting from the hip. Having a sense of play helps a lot. Helping recognize who, what, when, where, why, and how to pivot is crucial. It is considering all the people involved, the interactions, key performance indicators, money in, money out, policies and processes. It’s constantly brainstorming so that the team has the strongest case to back up whatever the fuck it decides to do. It’s understanding the competition but determining how to work a different market. It comprehends that not all organizations are run the same. It’s not telling someone to shut the fuck up unless they are completely out of line and you can explain why. 

There’s bit of diplomacy in there. It’s letting go of ego and understanding not what you want to create but rather what is needed. 

Then there is service design as Rich Ekelman describes, like some Harry Potter Professor Snape shit: “. . . varied, ever-changing and eternal . . . unfixed, mutating, indestructible.” That means being continuously flexible, like some old kung-fu master in a Shaw Brothers film.

Service design is roughing things out and giving it a try

Remember, it’s about results that people want. Shit, what’s the point otherwise? Reliable, desirable and viable, right? 

It’s having a strong working toolkit to help with that. Tools like the service blueprint give teams reference points for when to pivot or business model canvases, which can be done quickly over a beer, offer clients an opportunity to begin to see what it will take to execute a project. 

Part of service design is determining the timing – what happens when and for how long. It’s also researching what people think, say, do, feel and dream by asking open questions, shutting up, listening to the answers and watching what they do. It’s learning what the hell the value of your creation is for the people you’re creating it for and getting folks to work together towards that. Trust me, that’s a fucking skill in itself. Part of service design can be slogging it out, facilitating an insight-gathering workshop and getting it completely derailed by the participants. It happens, and it’s important to learn how to create better workshops for the next time. 

It’s all about making the screw-ups smaller and more often so they cost less. Lord knows I learned some of that the hard way. 

It’s jugaad – working with just enough information and what’s lying around to create a prototype to get going. It’s also being able to build a business case to gain onboarding by demonstrating how the business, operations, production, marketing and branding weave together in a visual and oral language that even your greasy granny can understand. 

Service design is more than numbers

I have been fortunate enough to come from a space that valued inclusive qualitative experiences with its people. Part of service design is creating those and reinforcing them with supportive data. It’s being open to everyone’s input and making decisions that provide for the needs of all involved. 

That means considering the customers, workers, managers, legal, accounting and even the shmucks that look at humans as a means to an end. Service design is also a community. It’s all the folks out there who are sharing their thoughts, tools and experiences with each other. 

This is a bit of what the fuck I think service design is. It’s caring about people you are creating for and being proactive. It’s being able to use different types of thinking and doing work for the benefit of the whole.

An answer by Robert Grossman

Chicago, United Stats of America
Service Designer and Design Researcher at Atmos Labs

Upcoming Book: What the fuck is Service Design?

Dozens of Service Designers, around the world, explain what Service Design really is and why it matters to you.

Already enrolled?
Sign in to continue learning.