Who are service designers?

Reflections from Gordon Ross on the #SDinGov 2018 conference in Edinburgh on who service designers might be and what that means for an evolving design genre.
Gordon Ross presenting on Uncomfortable Knowledge
Me and my polar bear shirt speaking about uncomfortable knowledge at #SDinGov 2018 / photo @w_harmer

Last month, I attended and spoke at the Service Design in Government conference in Edinburgh. I made the 7000km sojourn from Vancouver to Scotland to give a presentation on some of the design for policy work we’ve been doing and to be with a group of people whom I feel a great deal of professional affinity. It was my second time attending, having presented in London in 2017 on our service design work for the Ministry of Justice here in BC.

I may not work as a public servant or as a service designer embedded in a government department, but I spend a good number of my hours working along side them, attempting to make government services less obtuse, easier to use, and hopefully resulting in positive civic and societal outcomes. My professional identity and sense of professional community is very much influenced and shaped by practicing service design in, for, and with government.

In 2018 SDinGov celebrated its 5th year. Organizers Mark and Jacquie managed to bring together close to 300 attendees across 3 days and 40 different keynote and workshop sessions. If you follow the public sector service design, in particular some of the work being done across the UK, you will recognize the names and twitter handles of the speakers and attendees.

So while I feel compelled to convene and self-identify as part of this community and movement taking hold in governments around the world, I can’t stop myself from constantly wondering what characterizes everyone else who attends and how they claim and construct their own identities as service designers. The service design profession is relatively new — 20 to 25 years old or thereabouts, depending on who’s account of history you read — and that means that the identities and resulting culture still feel nascent at times, compared to more established design specializations like fashion design, industrial design, and/or graphic design.

There’s some much needed critical reflection on service design at present. I’m glad that smart and critical people like Guy Julier are situating service designin its place in that broader design history and accumulation of design specializations, documenting its function in contemporary capitalism and its role in political economies. And I’m thankful for Lucy Kimbell and Jeanette Blomberg asking what is the object of service design, anyhow. And I’m always challenged by Cameron Tonkinwise theorizing what service design entails.

But as I attend service design conferences, I keep wondering less about the when, what, and how of service design but more about the who.

Who are service designers?

What makes a service designer, a service designer? And according to whom?

How does the profession of service design become a profession at all?

Given my disposition, it’s at this point I’d launch into an ethnography of attendees — something thick and qualitative in nature. Alas, I didn’t manage to pull that off whilst in Edinburgh amidst workshops, great conversations, and blustery walks through the city.

Instead, I took my wondering and tweeted it out loud with a link to a survey I banged together in the closing hour of the conference.

Gordon Ross tweet asking SDinGov conference attendees to fill out survey regarding service designers

But first, some theory…

Service design is a socio-cultural practice and its practice and practitioners are subject to analysis. One such framework for the study of knowledge and knowers, practice and practitioners is Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), a relational and realist sociological framework created from and for empirical research, integrating the work from the likes of Bourdieu, Bernstein, and Foucault. And over 10 years ago, Lucila Carvahlo and Andy Dong at the University of Sydney used LCT to ask similar identity questions of designers in a paper entitled “Knowledge and Identity in the Design Field.

As they succinctly describe in their paper,

“the rationale behind LCT is that every practice or knowledge claim is made by ‘someone’ and it is about ‘something.’ This means that knowledge claims and practices comprises of two relations: the epistemic relation [ER] to the object; and the social relation [SR] to the subject, author or actor. The framework develops 4 possible codes, in which epistemic and social relations are expressed.”

This resulting set of “legitimation codes of specialization” position the claims service designers make against the backdrop about what they know and who they are. Stronger or weaker values that stress the relative importance of knowledge or the knower allow us to orient claims against this quadrant:

knowledge codes (strong epistemic, weak social)
emphasizes procedures appropriate to an object [ER+/SR-]

knower codes (weak epistemic, strong social)
emphasis lies on personal characteristics of the designer [ER-/SR+]

elite codes (strong epistemic, strong social)
emphasizes both the possession of specialist knowledge and “right kinds” of dispositions [ER+/SR+]

relativist codes (weak epistemic, weak social)
neither knowledge nor dispositions are required; anything goes [ER-/SR-]

LCT specialization codes courtesy of The Structuring of Design Knowledge (2014)
LCT specialization codes courtesy of The Structuring of Design Knowledge (2014)

Carvahalo & Dong explored how designers align with these different LCT quadrants through their research. One method was a survey where participants were asked to choose words to describe their design discipline. Adjectives and descriptors like “procedural” or “objective” or “glamorous” or “modern” align with each of the 4 types of codes mentioned above.

And so, what is a service design conference other than 300 people making knowledge claims about their respective specialization, attempting to legitimate themselves, situated in a broader discourse that seeks to shape the boundaries and borders of who is included (and therefore excluded).

Armed with 31 adjectives from their 2007 paper, I threw together a quick survey at the end of SDinGov and managed to get 32 responses by the time my flight landed back in Vancouver. I asked for the top 5 adjectives from each respondent and an open ended answer to the question “what makes a service designer a service designer?

And here’s what I learned from a small sample of service designers at SDinGov in 2018 about who they think their fellow service designers might be…

Service Designers: A hybrid actor for the design of hybrids that characterize our post-normal times.

The top 6 adjectives provided across respondents (with a 2-way tie for 5th most frequent) are as follows:

  1. curious — 29 responses
  2. creative — 22 responses
  3. influential — 17 responses
  4. social — 16 responses
  5. (tie) driven by knowledge AND methodical — 15 responses

These codes manage to place service designers with a foot in each quadrant of the LCT matrix:

  • curious — relativist
  • creative — knower
  • influential — elite
  • social — knower
  • driven by knowledge — knowledge
  • methodical — knowledge
Specialization codes diagram of service designers
service designers: all the things

This divide makes a pretty interesting picture.

The “creative” and “social” descriptors that focus on the knower are akin to those present in the disposition of a fashion designer.

The “driven by knowledge” and “methodical” dimensions highlighting the importance of specialist knowledge, like an engineer.

The “influential” status of the service designer (likely only possible by issuing a survey to service designers at a service design conference… confirmation bias anyone?) akin to not only the right knowledge, but the right kind of knower seen in architects.

Finally, descriptors incorporating the egalitarian notion that just about anyone can be a service designer with the relativist code “curious.”

So perhaps not surprisingly, for a profession establishing an identity, we can hear voices stressing multiple dimensions of where designers may get their legitimacy. Learning “the knowledge” of service design, either through a masters program or the recent foray into professional accreditation offered by SDN, has yet to take a firm hold in the professional minds of the survey respondents, likely in part thanks to the ways of knowing involved in designing (concrete forms of knowing, context-specific, emergent, not-yet best-practice, mileage-may-vary, contingent upon messy social relations of human actors with agency and intention vs. causal, abstract, and context-independent knowledge found in engineering, underpinned by physics and material properties of objects). There’s still lots of room for the disposition and personality of the service designer and their interpretation of practice.

In your own words…

The answers to the second open-ended survey question “What makes a service designer a service designer?” ranged from the succinct:

“Focus and perspective”

to the verbose;

“Someone who is curious, open and transparent, understands system thinking but can also focus on the details (big picture/little picture) and then bring them all together, and has transferable skills such as building trusted partnerships, collaboration, client management, project management, good time management, strong organizational skills, strong facilitation and presentation skills, understands people in an empathetic way.”

from the hopeful;

“Hopelessly optimistic.”

to the somewhat pessimistic:

“It is just a new label. Nothing new in the business. It makes people feel better and opens business opportunities for training and conferences.”

Most of the rest of the 30 answers highlighted two major themes — the empathetic/user-centric tendencies of service designers and their ability (or need) to view services across various altitudes and elevations (micro to macro and back again).

Empathetic / user-centric:

“Empathetic, cares about impact on people/people outcomes”

“They are empathic. They listen. They use evidence to back up their claims. They understand the importance of engaging with users and peers. They look to technology as an enabler, not a silver bullet.”

“A service designer sees the world always from the perception of a user and their experience of a service or equivalent. They always want the user experience to be the best it can be.”

“Holistic. Empathetic. Creative.”

“Curiosity. Empathy and Background knowledge”

Zooming in and out / seeing the system and its parts:

“Actively discovering and bridging the unknown service gaps between service suppliers, users, technology, infrastructure, communication and all material or immaterial components of a service, by making the services more usable, desirable and efficient.”

“Someone with the ability to see the big picture, whatever their ‘agreed scope’; coupled with the ability to zoom in to granular detail as required: and the lack of ego to consume the research and the business analysis and design a way to get the team to solve the problem.”

“Seeing the whole system at different scales and levels of detail simultaneously”

“The ability to zoom out and think in systems while alternatively zooming in and understanding human behaviour”

“a service designer is a curious, open-minded, attentive person who considers things from a holistic perspective as well as at a granular level, understanding how a service can be designed with and for a range of actors, from systems and organisational level to person and human level. “

“Considering a whole service as a user experiences it, and thinking of ways to improve that. Not focused on one aspect like a website or paper form.”

While not originally part of the descriptors to choose from in the first part of the survey the use of “empathetic” and “user-centric” suggest dispositional (social relations) and learned skills (knowledge relations). Possibly an elite code in the LCT way of thinking of things?

And what about the ability to “zoom in and zoom out” — is that a knower code? A knowledge code? Anyone can do it? Only the chosen few? I’m not sure where I land on this one yet. Clearly this one feels to me like John Thackara’s macroscope, or the “meta to matter and back” described in the prose of Dan Hill’s 2012 treatise on strategic design, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses which was alluded to (service design itself as an organizational trojan horse) by more than a few SDinGOV speakers.


So like any good question, these questions about the identity of service designers, their professional understanding of themselves, and the knowledge required to practice have lead me to ponder yet more questions…

What is the role of accreditation in design and will the relativist “design when everyone designs” voices weigh out the knowledge and elitist codes that place importance on knowing the right things and as the only way to uphold and protect the integrity and reputation of the profession?

What are the skills, experience, literacies, and competencies that I’m looking for when I hire service designers and practice service design alongside government? How might this LCT-way of looking at things challenge my beliefs about what makes for a “good service designer” at my own firm?

What will this conversation look like in 5 or even 10 years time? How will the adjectives and descriptors change, the identities evolve and the culture of service design unfold in that broader history, the accumulation and economies of design?

To quote Dong, Maton, and Carvahlo, “No doubt, debates over the ‘right’ form of design knowledge will continue…”

Maybe see you at #SDinGov 2019 to continue the conversation. And in the meantime, if you’re curious about what service design looks like at OpenRoad and how we can help you, feel free to reach out to learn more.

Note: Special thanks again to the organizers of SDinGOV, Mark & Jacquie and to everyone who made the trip to Scotland well worth it — your passion and knowledge is always good for the professional soul.