How to Sketch a Service

Last October I visited the School of Design at CMU to give a talk on service design, exploring ways to “sketch” a service. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since Nick brought it up last year. Over the past few months I’ve been refining the ideas in that lecture and thinking about how to present them here.

The basic outline revolves around the idea that services are performances rather than artifacts and service design sketching can’t be approached like sketching in the graphic and industrial arts. If sketches are performances, then maybe we should instead look to the performing arts. What can we learn from choreography, theater, film and music?

The foundation of this exercise is Bill Buxton’s excellent book Sketching User Experiences. His investigation focuses on interactive digital experiences but the book outlines fundamental principles about sketching that apply to any discipline. For our purposes, the most important idea is that the value of sketching lies in the activity, not the artifact. The activity itself facilitates exploration, above and beyond the recording of ideas. In short, sketches are tools for thought.

Buxton identifies several qualities of good sketches. Attempts that are too well defined can be counterproductive during the early stages of a design process because they make it appear that the relevant details are already worked out. Rather than seeking to show, tell, explain or convince, sketches should:

  • Invite
  • Suggest
  • Question
  • Explore

According to Buxton, good sketches are also quick, timely, inexpensive, disposable, plentiful and ambiguous. These qualities are the guiding principles for my investigation.

Over the next few weeks I’ll work on translating ideas from the performing arts along with some relevant sketching techniques from screenwriting and a catalog of existing methods from the history of interaction design.

. . .

This article is part of a series on how to sketch a service based on techniques from the performing arts.

Choreography | Music | Film | Screenwriting | Theater


  1. Looking forward to the series, Jeff.

  2. Jeff

    Hi Steve, thanks again to you and Renna for giving me an opportunity to come out and give the talk that inspired this series. Since then I’ve added some insights from music; that’s coming up next.




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