Nick Remis and Izac Ross are enrolled in the BFA service design program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. As part of a team of eleven undergraduate students they collaborated on a 10-week service design project for the Woodville community garden in Savannah, Georgia.

I interviewed Nick and Izac by telephone on June 8th, 2010.

Design for Community Service

  • Contextual Research
  • Prototyping
  • Co-design

JEFF: Hi Nick and Izac. Today I’d like to discuss the community garden you worked on but before we get into the details of the project I thought maybe we could take a step back and look at the class itself and understand a bit about how Savannah College of Art and Design frames service design. Is this the first class that you’ve taken in service design?

IZAC: This is the third service design class in the new undergraduate service design major; Nick and I were a part of both previous classes.

NICK: The first class was last fall, Blueprinting Services and then in the winter we had a class about Experience Prototyping.

IZAC: Just to give some background on the two prior classes, Blueprinting Services produced our AT&T project. The second project was one that we have an NDA on. We can’t really discuss that project but it was a sponsored class around starting a new car company from scratch and it was quite interesting.

JEFF: Are these classes each modeled around one particular project or are there a number of projects that compose the class?

NICK: This class was mostly about one large group project and we spent the entirety of the 10-week term which had three to four sub teams depending on the stage of the project. For Blueprinting Services we had a one-week charrette at the beginning but other than that it’s been one large project.

JEFF: It sounds like that gives you a chance to really focus. What was the official title of the class that we’re talking about for the community garden project?

IZAC: It was called Service Ecologies, Touchpoints and Architectures.

JEFF: Now this community garden. Was this something that was already built or was it something that they were just planning? Where was it at in the process?

IZAC: Well the community garden was part of a larger EPA grant project called the Care Level II grant. The grant had several priorities listed in it and one of those was a community garden for two neighborhoods. The neighborhood that we worked with was Woodville, Savannah and the other was Hudson Hill. In the initial stage of exploration we focused on just looking at the whole ecosystem of that grant and the players and who was involved. Eventually we settled on working with Woodville and their garden instead of the other opportunities that the grant covered.

NICK: At the very beginning of the project the community was just starting their first garden plot in Woodville and they hadn’t planted anything yet but there were a few gardens going on in Savannah through the Savannah Urban Garden Association (SUGA), and we looked at some of those as possible models for this garden.

JEFF: Interesting. Were there other organizations that were working along with your class as stakeholders?

IZAC: Yes, one of which was the Woodville Community Association. They were our primary client. Another is the EPA. And another is Harambee House which is local organization. Did I leave anyone out?

NICK: SUGA and the two previous SCAD classes which had worked previously with the communities, were stakeholders in the project because they had laid some of the groundwork and got the ball rolling on the garden effort in the communities.

JEFF: It sounds like there was already an existing relationship within the college.

IZAC: We were working within an existing ecology, essentially.

NICK: There were some existing relationships but most of them occurred at a higher community organization level and neighborhood association level but they hadn’t really formed any connections or built relationships with the community members, which we spent a decent amount of the beginning of our project focusing and building those relationships both for the research and the experience prototypes later on.

IZAC: A lot of the relationships that existed were apparent to the community leaders but they were never apparent to the community members. So a lot of our focus occurred around facilitating these relationships. We didn’t see it as something just for Woodville but as something that could grow to Hudson Hill and other Savannah communities.

JEFF: So essentially a full scale prototype.

NICK: Right, I guess we really focused on the idea that the Woodville garden could become a service platform for future emerging gardens. And we focused on helping them through providing some tools to support that emergence.

JEFF: That property of emergence is something that I noticed coming up a lot in your documentation and I’d like to talk about that as we get into the project. But maybe we can start from the beginning and talk about how you first began to explore this problem. In terms of your initial research; your initial framing of what the problem actually was.

IZAC: We spent a good amount of time just framing the problem. We had such a really large service ecology we were dealing with. Initially, we just listed the primary organizations but there were other organizations that had connections either to the garden or the EPA grant. We had to flesh out what the broader ecology was. In the beginning a lot of our interviews consisted of simply finding out who was talking to who and figuring out whether the ecology we were modeling of the organizations, who were involved in the project was actually happening in real life. This enabled us to identify which partnerships we could build upon. Hudson Hill was really looking for us to work on a farmers market. We went into Woodville and saw this really amazing attitude of pushing their projects forward, not wanting to wait for the EPA grant money to come in. They were rapidly working on getting their first garden in the ground. We saw that drive and really wanted to work with them to make sure the model they were building was sustainable in terms of involvement.

NICK: The research for the actor map and ecology was carried out by one-on-one interviews with key stakeholders, drawing on a wealth of information that the previous SCAD design management class provided for us about the organizations and stakeholders they had discovered. This was followed by taking some of our early action maps and ecologies to the communities and saying, “all right, is this how you guys see these connections and how you are working with these other organizations”, just to test and validate that we were on the right track.

IZAC: Of course, the interesting thing when you present something like that. They could say “we have never actually talked to this person, or we don’t even know who this person is.” So those connections and partnerships really revealed themselves quickly just by showing up with that artifact.

JEFF: I’d also seen some mention of co-design as part of that initial research process. Did you frame that a research or as design?

IZAC: Well, it depends on where you are in the project. But in this project it was firmly in the “design” section. We used co-design to frame the differences in desires, processes and expectations for this new community garden service between stake holders and community members. We split into several groups that worked on exposing different parts of the service system. We built different activities, including a journey mapping toolkit, looking at how community members wanted to interact with the garden from the moment of getting involved to when you harvest the produce. We also had future headline activity where we printed blank Woodville gardens magazines to work with people to envision future of the Woodville garden. We actually learned a lot about co-design and facilitation through those activities.

JEFF: How big were the groups that you were working with on these co-design exercises?

IZAC: Two to three participants at a time, with two or three students working with them in different roles and capabilities.

NICK: We set up the activities at a Woodville Earth Day event which was held at the community center and I would say, all said and told, maybe 40 community members attended the event and maybe 20 participated in some way in those activities.

JEFF: Okay, that sounds great. I suppose that brings up a good question. That’s from their side — but from your side, you were working as part of a larger team within the class and I guess we haven’t talked much about that in terms of the overall composition of your team and what skill sets were brought into the class.

NICK: There were eleven students in the class, two of which were industrial design majors and then the remaining nine were service design majors. Most of the time we split up into two or three groups and worked on the various parts in parallel during the research phase filling in bits and pieces from each other. So one group would go out and talk to one key stakeholder or community member while others groups were interviewing other participants. That way we could build a rich wealth of research knowledge without too much overlap and wasted effort. But then as we moved further into the experience prototypes and final design phases the teams re-divided again into groups of two and one group of three where we then worked on individual touchpoints and prototyping and testing.

JEFF: I’m curious about how the different groups coordinated with each other in terms of sharing findings.

IZAC: That is definitely an interesting point. We’ve gotten pretty good at working with large groups and had been doing that for a couple quarters now. We would pretty much go off for about a week and obviously re-convene in class and tell the results and we’d have at least one meeting a week where we’d go over findings and research, thoughts and larger whiteboarding sessions. But we also had a process blog that we would write to each other back and forth what our results were, what our findings were, what this means for the next phase.

NICK: One tool we used to facilitate the groups coming back together with findings was, as often as possible, we would try to visually model our findings that way we could share with other groups. The holy grail that we were searching for was visual models of our research that we conducted in the short term, so that other team members, not knowing anything about the research, could come up, see it on the wall and in thirty seconds understand the key points, the context about the data we gathered without having to go into long two or three hour long debriefs. We never really perfected this method of working but we made good progress and continue to refine our skills in this area.

IZAC: Also we had an active wall that encompassed everything that was going on and any key reference material we had or paper-based artifacts we brought back from the research.

JEFF: So it was really a combination of different techniques that you were using to communicate.

IZAC: We were using a very diverse toolset and experimenting with techniques that were new to us.

JEFF: Is there a common studio space that your team shared outside of class?

IZAC: We mainly use our classroom as our studio space.

NICK: Our classroom was our studio space for this term. After the classes were done for the day we’d reconvene at 8 o’clock and start to utilize the space as a studio.

JEFF: I see. Okay, we’ve talked a little about your initial research and about your co-design activities. You mentioned on the website “paper prototyping.” What kinds of things were you prototyping with those methods?

IZAC: We were really trying to evidence the future with the paper prototyping —

JEFF: This is the magazines you were talking about earlier?

IZAC: The magazines… Nick and I worked mainly on the logistics and once we got to the experience prototyping phase we were looking at paper-based recruiting forms, logging of activity, and there were paper-based prototypes of those forms and of the other interactions that were happening in the garden. From signage to communication systems.

NICK: What we were trying to achieve with these paper prototypes, even if it was something larger like a row sign that we eventually made out of wood was just to get a level of fidelity where the participants and the community members could engage with the design. Help us design it. Give us feedback. But they weren’t so hi-fi that we were wasting hours testing the wrong elements.

JEFF: It sounds like they were giving you pretty continuous feedback throughout the entire process.

IZAC: Yes. We were going into the community at minimum once a week.

NICK: Contextual inquiry with community members and organizations progressed across two weeks or so. After that we launched into co-design with the community and finally into our experience prototyping. People worked in the garden on Saturday morning so our goal as a design team was to take our findings, iterate new solutions and then get a new prototype back in the garden on the following weekend so we could gather more feedback from the gardeners and community members. So we tried to get the community involved in our iterative process to get continuous feedback about how our designs worked in context. We wanted to have as much input on the process as possible, so that our designs were viewed as things that were developed by the community.

JEFF: Let’s talk a little about the kinds of solutions that you came up with through this process. You’ve mentioned a few of those in terms of recruitment and activity logging. Give me a sense of the system.

IZAC: So we had two or three groups that reflected the stages of involvement from discovery to initiation to day-to-day gardening to harvest to the growth of the system.

Nick and I focused on that day-to-day stage in some of our touchpoints. But in terms of initiation and discovery it was just kind of looking for simple solutions I think. As we experience prototyped the system and all these touchpoints we were pushed toward simplification.

Nothing too complex or too big; the people at Woodville kind of guided us to really simple, basic solutions that were very effective. Or that we hope will prove to be effective.

In terms of discovery of the garden, one team focused on a system of icons and iconography that showed the benefit of the system so that once people got involved they got an idea about what they were getting into. And they also put together a social campaign around these wristbands they had made.

The other team focused on door-to-door campaigning within the community both for the recruitment of lots and volunteers. Which consisted of seed packets that invited people to come into the garden along with a separate informational packet for seniors to get involved, these seniors were the agricultural experts of the community. The community has such a rich agricultural history and most of that knowledge exists within the elderly community rather than the GenX / youth segment.

Moving into the day-to-day of the garden, we really wanted to focus on making the garden a place to not only garden but to relax and share stories and the big issue within the garden was that nothing was really identifying this as a “community space” where people could come to relax and work and do things as a community, so some of that was just putting basic fixtures in like benches and creating a place for tool storage and signage.

We wanted to personalize each garden and create a sense of team in the space. When people approached the garden we needed ways of getting them involved from that point forward. We created that script around involvement. Getting community members to sign up. Become a member. And then to track their membership.

Nick and I created a system to track their involvement through paper-based forms which ended up having a back end database. We also created Garden Central, which you may have seen on the website, which essentially shows the activities with in each garden plot. Including who’s working on it. This space marker creates a sense of team by showing the pictures of the people who are working in the garden and then also showing the name of the garden, which has been developed by the donor or the team working within it.

It reveals and builds sub-communities and there for larger communities within Woodville that are built on relationships started in the garden. Eventually, because they’re tracking all this on these paper forms, that can be inputted into the database that we created for them, the can grow the community gardens by being able to see when volunteer capacity reaches the point the can add additional plots and look for grants to help in this expansion.

JEFF: Can you give me an idea of the size of this garden? Are we talking about acres?

IZAC: Each plot is 100ft by 200ft and Woodville has 117 empty lots. Many community members own more than one lot; so they own the lot that their house is on and a lot that is empty or was at one point used for gardening, or it was just to save space. And they have to — according to Savannah regulations — keep the grass under 10 inches and for the community that can be a large burden of several hundred dollars per year to keep that trimmed, so the idea is that by planting gardens in these spaces the community is relieved of that cost for seniors and by changing it into something usable creates a community benefit.

JEFF: I’m curious about what the outcome of this has been. In terms of actually executing on these ideas.

NICK: One of the main goals that we had set for ourselves with this particular project was to make sure that the designs we created and the tools we provided the community were something that they could go out and build themselves, replicate and then tailor to the individual needs of whatever community plot they were working in. So what we ended up with a wide range of deliverables for the community, each one of these touchpoints or tools that we provided them came with an implementation guide. In the case of Garden Central it was directions on how to physically build the touchpoint, what parts of it was key to its function, and what kind of interactions it was designed to encourage. Some of the paper touchpoints we designed for engagement with the door-to-door campaign we provided templates that they could then either print themselves or take to a printer. Stuff like that. We set out to allow the community to take the initiative to implement these any way they saw fit or in any combination. That way as their needs evolved over time these tools wouldn’t become obsolete; they could update and grow with the garden. We provided them these tools as a launch pad for them to take it forward in the growth of these gardens. We are definitely interested in seeing how these designs have been used and adapted over the summer.

IZAC: We really want to focus on this idea of a platform of emergence because this community is so driven. We didn’t necessarily want to dictate too much and that’s what we really discovered through this process as designers is that sometimes the right prescription is less, not more. We pretty much created for them — I would almost call it a style guide — what would traditionally be handing off a logo, but in this case it’s for a system. I wouldn’t necessarily call it “style guide” but we labeled, for things like Garden Central, what is important. What concepts is this meant to help with. What can be removed and what can’t be removed, for each of these touchpoints. So if they wanted to make the sign bigger, that’s not a problem, as long as they’re keeping these core concepts behind the touchpoint.

JEFF: It sounds like you were essentially distilling each touchpoint to its basics. To its core essence.

IZAC: Exactly.

NICK: That point is something that came up again and again, both in our initial research and experience prototyping and concept testing. To go in with these more elaborate concepts, and have that moment where if you fail then realize that “okay, that’s too complicated.” We kept refining and reducing it down to the bare essentials. They really became these simple, streamlined tools.

IZAC: We had this “moment of truth” itself. Somewhere along the line, I think this was around the sixth week or seventh week when we felt like we were just creating signage systems. And then we realized that “oh no, we’re not, we’re creating these things that are just so simple that they evidence the system so purely but say it so clearly” and also we realized that — Nick and I worked on this Garden Central concept and we went from this super whiteboard team metaphor where we thought they would write down what task that needed to be done, what’s been done we’ll check it off. But that just didn’t happen. Because we discovered when we put it in situ that really that’s not where the tasking happens. It happens in the garden, pointing to the weeds, pointing toward what needs to get watered wasn’t going to happen 7 feet away from the garden. It was going to happen where the task needed to be completed. Several iterations reduced and reduced and reduced that touchpoint.

JEFF: It sounds like a great process, all along the way. This entire project is documented online on the website. Was that part of the class as well that students were designing?

IZAC: It was. That was a part of our deliverable for the class.

NICK: On top of the presentation to the community, along with the implementation guide and things like that.

JEFF: Well it’s great because it’s so rare to see that level of documentation for an academic project. There are a few different universities that are exploring service design right now but very few actually document what they’re doing so publicly.

IZAC: This is a real priority for us and for Dianna Miller who’s our professor for this class. We did it on our own for the AT&T project, just naturally wanting to tell everybody about what we did and how we did it. Dianna loved what we did for that and it’s been a real priority for our program when we’re not working on a project that has NDAs to show what we’ve done and show how we’ve been learning and even show some of the mistakes we’ve made along the way. Because we’ve been trying to find the same information on the net from other places like Engine or other schools, and we just can’t find it.

NICK: We’re trying to build and share our experiences so there are some well-documented case studies out there so that people can both learn from us and learn from our mistakes.

JEFF: I think it’s a great example of how to present this type of work.

IZAC: Because we’re learning as much information about this field — I think we all approached it as undergrads thinking that it was a little bit more solidified and it totally isn’t. So we’re exploring these methods just as much as everybody else is. And hopefully what we’ve learned can help other people as well.

JEFF: Circling back around to the program at Savannah College of Art and Design, I’m curious about what other classes are in the works for service design. Or what other classes you feel have contributed to your growth as service designers.

NICK: For our design degrees we have two more design classes to go. We have a Service Enterprise class in the Fall and then our Senior Studio when we get to spread our wings and see if we can fly on solo-projects. As far as background, we’re really a diverse group. We’re the first class of service designers at SCAD. Most of us, actually all of us, came from the Industrial Design department, but even within our group we had people with Graphic Design backgrounds, Izac and some of the other students were very interested in interaction design, so we kind of lucked out in a sense with a diverse mix of backgrounds and talents. And as we discovered overlapping methodologies with these other fields and discovered the tools we needed for the touchpoints we’re designing we had those students and of course faculty at the school we could turn to for advice and guidance on some of these issues.

IZAC: Our department, just so you know — Service Design came straight out of Industrial Design in our school and so has the Interaction Design program. Our department has an extremely broad view of design for user experience, from products to electronic interaction to these really soft designs that we’re working on as service designers. And it’s a really great place to be for that. We all came out of industrial design because frankly we share a common almost two years as industrial and interaction designers and a lot of us within the undergraduate program, as Nick said, have an interest in that broader user experience of interaction design, even when Nick was an industrial designer we all fell in love with contextual inquiry and the human factors side of things and that’s what really pushed us to be service designers. It’s definitely a challenge to study this at an undergraduate level when we have to be well-versed in all the methods of design in order to create service evidence.

JEFF: Well, again, it sounds like a great outcome from the class and a really exciting program. I appreciate you both taking the time to talk with me about your work.