On The Value of Tinkering

Service design faces an important obstacle when it comes to education. Every design problem is a negotiation between a designer, their client and the intended audience but for service designers that interaction is the medium. It’s the object of design. Service design embodies the literal interaction between all three parties much moreso than for first- and second-order design disciplines. That makes it almost impossible to tinker around the edges of a service without buy-in from an actual client, which defeats the point of tinkering in the first place.

My background is in graphic design and it’s hard to overstate the benefit of simply playing around with color and typography and other elements of the medium for the fun of it. Logos, posters, books, t-shirts and packaging offer a hypothetical vehicle for designer to experiment without the need for an actual client. To initiate what Donald Schön called “design games” with a situation in order to learn. There’s obviously a gulf between speculative design and the constraints of an actual project but tinkering on your own is what gets you across that gulf.

Web design is the same way. I’ve been exploring the boundaries between design and code for almost as long as I’ve been a designer. The barriers to entry are so incredibly low that anyone with a computer and a text editor can dive in and start making things. You don’t even need an internet connection, strictly speaking. Anyone with the proper hardware can tinker around with the medium. An entire generation of web designers have bootstrapped themselves into the profession without the need for an actual client or project, or anyone else’s involvement or permission. That experimentation is how we learn.

But for a service designer, not only is such an arrangement less than ideal; it’s completely unworkable. Clients and the interactions they embody are the medium of a service. Designing without a client is like cooking without food. I’ve made this mistake myself and the results help to illuminate the nature of service design. You simply can’t credibly explore beyond the line of visibility without access; or prototype without the cooperation of the people and systems involved. Speculative service design requires buy-in from the client (or at least acquiescence) on a scale that dwarfs the first-order disciplines.

Cobbling together that access is one of the core responsibilities of design schools. Many of the best service design programs are working to provide students with first-hand exposure to hotels and banks and other touchstones of the service industry as sponsors for actual project work. It’s essentially a subsidized platform for tinkering that provides access for students and minimizes risk for the client.

But outside of returning to school, how do you find ways to tinker? Chris Downs of live|work spoke about this challenge at the second Emergence conference five years ago. Short of launching your own service, as they did, one of the best ways to gain experience with the medium is to work in the service industry yourself. Think of it as participatory research.

I worked at a bank for several summers during college and the experience was integral to my understanding of both the front stage and back stage of a service operation. And although my 18-year-old self had no aspirations to service design at the time, and certainly no authority to implement change, I had access to plenty of what I now recognize as service design problems.

But that’s a pretty daunting way to tinker because it requires a commitment out of proportion to the simple curiosity that draws designers to other disciplines. Most people aren’t willing to quit their job to go work at Starbucks as an undercover anthropologist. Graphic designers can pick up a copy of Illustrator and a subscription to Print but until service designers find a better way to tinker we’ll have problems growing the discipline.


  1. Welcome back Jeff – missed you!

    You’re absolutely right about the challenge for service design education. I can’t imagine learning what I learned by doing it on the job at a complex organisation; balancing the ‘literal interaction of the parties’. I imagine it’s easier to learn about customer need than it is to learn about balancing the reality of business hierarchy and decision-making (or in my case public sector hierarchy et al) that you simply have to negotiate and facilitate towards that balanced service outcome.

  2. And as well you say, there have been, and there are; many challenges facing service design education. Still, to the benefit of any aspiring individual, reputable academic establishments have ever since been developing workable curriculum’s’ and programs for service design education, both at the undergraduate and the graduate levels. To use an example among them, is Milan’s Domus Academy, which employs an industry-collaboration approach in training their graduate service designers.




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