What service design can learn from Gehry Partners

I recently attended a public lecture organised by the School of Architecture at UTS. It was presented by Craig Webb from Gehry Partners, a colleague of the star architect Frank Gehry for over 20 years.

Some background information on how Gehry Partners functions as a firm. Gehry is very much involved in all their projects, even through the whole life of their projects. The initiation of a project often starts with Gehry sketching out a rough ‘vision’ that depicts some of the qualities that the buildings will encompass. The sketch is lyrical and abstract. The architects that work alongside Gehry then translate this ‘vision’ into rudimentary models that will start the conversation and the processes of exploration, iteration and critique. The firm relies heavily on the articulation of physical models. For each project, the team creates at least 50 iterations of models. It is not an uncommon sight to see mountains of surreal playful models sitting in the factory-like environment of Gehry Partners’ offices, waiting to be looked at, examined, and discovered as the next architectural headline. An excellent detailed record of the firm’s dynamic and processes can be seen in the documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry directed by Sydney Pollack.

What Webb presented was mainly the numerous reiteration of Gehry Partners’ progression, exploration and analysis that took place in the past few months that helped to bring the new Faculty of Business (UTS) building into realisation. When viewed through the lens of Service Design, it was truly a thought provoking lecture. I walked out of the lecture hall wondering what and how Service Design can learn from these architectural processes and methods. I think the considerations used at Gehry Partners in designing can provide food for thought for how service design approaches design with clients and customers. Below is a list of the methods presented by Webb, followed by my provocations, questions and challenges from which I think Service Design practitioners can ponder upon and perhaps take on board.

– Gehry Partners constructs model without cladding or external skin to allow their architects to observe the function of the building behind its image. Are we always looking at the beautiful skin of a product at a surface deep level (image, brand), and ignoring the key components and key players of the product and how they function with each other?

Ghery Partners constructs model

–  Webb expressed the importance of understanding where the building sits in context with the surroundings, its materials and purpose. It is important to view the building through the frame of the structures that surround it. Similarly, where does the service or product that we’re designing sit among other services or products in the environment? Does it reflect or blend in with others, and what and how does it reflect? Consider if it provides a strong contrast to stand out amongst others. What does your product or service look like when it is being framed or obstructed by others in the environment?

–  Pay attention to how different elements on the structure are joined as one.  How is it connected and what does it look like as a whole. Correspondingly, in the customer’s journey, how do services – touchpoints or brand transfer between platforms – flow together? What does it look like holistically as the customer journeys through the experience that has been created?

–  Regarding the notion of transparency for the new Faculty of Business complex, Webb stated that Gehry Partners deliberately wanted to ‘Bring cracks into the masses, bringing light into the spaces’. Transparency welcomes people in, especially at the ground level. With Service Design, does our service or organisation seek to mask its internal processes, or does it provide windows of transparency that would allow the customers to understand the process behind the scenes. Do we provide a sense of transparency up front at the customer’s first encounter to welcome them into the service or business?

–  Architects model through expansive processes then reductive processes. Designers are free to explore possibilities during the expansive processes, before applying restrictions, limitations and sense into the model. Possibility gives way to reality. As Service Designers, are we employing similar strategies and going through expansive processes to explore opportunities and possible future states? Using analysis and synthesis in the reductive process, are we making sense and bring reason into the proposal?

–  Regarding the lyrical and dynamic of the building form, Webb stated that Gehry Partners wishes ‘to create an architecture that people can relate to emotionally rather than architecturally’.  The use of wood for instance – a friendly and warm material – brings warmth and coziness into the atmosphere. What aspects can we introduce into a product or service that would create emotion in the customers, a sense of comfort or familiarity that would encourage them to return in the future?

–  Gehry Partners explores the interactions, dynamics and line of sight between the inter-disciplinary occupants of the space. In an educational environment, the eye contact is between two parties, student to student, student to teacher, teacher to teacher etc. But in an performance space, the eye contact is very much a one way interaction where the interaction is often from the audience to the performer. In Service Design, where is the vision of the occupants or customers focused on? Is the visual path a single direction, or is it part of an interaction between customer and service provider.

Lastly, Gehry Partners used a high to low level approach to explore the functions and forms of the architecture. But can it be the other way round? After spending all these time creating the macro environment (the image, the overall experience), it would be terribly sad and disappointing to find unique spaces suffer from being subservient to the overall design concept. An important thought to consider in designing for any service or function is whether the value of the micro experience or environment is less than that of the whole.

A building of bricks and mortar can in many ways have the same limitations and challenges as designing a product or service. Service design is often an interdisciplinary science with the power to give and learn from other practices. What will your building be like?