What is Service Design?

From finance to healthcare to media, New York’s economy is primarily driven by services. Yet our understanding of what design offers is rooted in products and places rather than how those things operate or how people use them — design has traditionally concerned itself with goods, not services. Only in the past decade or so have designers been actively reconceptualizing what it means to interact with and help shape service. According to Professor Birgit Mager, who runs the Cologne-based Service Design Network, “Service design addresses the functionality and form of services from the perspective of clients. It aims to ensure that service interfaces are useful, usable, and desirable from the client’s point of view and effective, efficient, and distinctive from the supplier’s point of view.”

In particular, services require designers to empathize with users, to understand interactions as a series of “touchpoints” and to develop a holistic understanding of the ways in which our relationships to services govern everyday life. The multiple ways this emerging field of practice relates to the rest of the design field are still in formation. So I sat down with several leading designers and researchers from universities in the US and Europe to start a conversation about what service design is, where it came from and where it is going. This interview expands on an event, “Service Design Performances” (PDF), which was held at Parsons The New School for Design in late May. The event, organized by the DESIS Lab, is the first in a series of activities around the topic of service design that are taking place in New York in the coming months.