Design is a life long apprenticeship

Alexandra Almond breaks down the Service Design Now 2017 conference, asks some important questions and in the process introduces us to some of Melbourne’s leading service design practitioners.

The Service Design Now 2017 conference was fabulous, the speakers talented, and I left with more questions than answers.

Facilitator Tristan Cooke started the day reflecting that when he first moved to this state the SD Melbourne network would have fitted around a dinner table; 7 years later the inaugural conference sold out in 48 hours. We’re maturing; as an industry we’re no longer toddlers but adolescents, and we need to start thinking about what we’re going to do when we grow up.

It’s a good analogy and it set the tone for the day.  Speakers took it as read that we were all practitioners who knew the key tools and techniques and they focussed on their insights, learnings and reflections.

Below is an exploration of two of the questions that I’ve been thinking about since the conference. These are not by any means the only things worthy of discussion and several people who gave insightful and inspiring talks don’t get a mention because they don’t fit into my themes. If you’re interested in what some of those other discussion points are, have a look at the conversation in the #sdnow channel on

1. Why do we care what the role of design is?

As a group of self-identified designers in a room together talking about service design, it’s not surprising there was a focus on our role as designers, and on how we differentiate ourselves as an industry.

Gerda Gemser’s research defined Service Design for us (designing one or more activities needed to deliver a service; by means of a specific set of work practices, tools or methods; to deliver a more effective and efficient customer experience).  And she talked about her interviews where practitioners were trying to differentiate themselves from marketing and management and other disciplines. 

But I couldn’t help wondering why we’re so focussed on this.  Why do we need to differentiate ourselves as an industry?

Part of the answer is probably that we are still adolescent as an industry, and deciding what we want to do when we grow up involves having a clear understanding of what we are now and what we want to be.  But the talks that resonated most with me were the ones that focussed on the impact that the work had, rather than why this was classified as “service design” or why it was better than how someone else would do it, or even why this is the way of the future.  (Harriet Wakelam provided lots of memorable quotes, including the title for this article and this gem: “Why would you want to design a future state?  The future keeps proving us wrong”.)   

This industry navel gazing wasn’t by any means the only perspective on the day – there was some good discussion about the need for us to do jobs that are not titled “designer”.  In particular Matiu Bush was a standout for me. He is going to share any future jobs in his network that have traditionally been done by health care workers that he thinks could be done by one of us. And Jeremy Yuille broke down the barriers between academia and practice – because really, we’re all doing the same thing. 

Many of the speakers talked about specific elements of our role as designers – a healthy discussion aimed at expanding our focus or improving the quality of our delivery.  For example exploring the idea of our role as translators, Chris Marmo focussed on the transition periods between stages of a project; while for Sandhya Sharma it was about translating empathy into material form.  Kelsey Schwynn turned this concept into one of the quotes of the day with “when you put a face on a data point it’s really hard to treat them like shit”. 

Another focus about roles was the question of should everyone be a designer? The general consensus was no – Lisa Leong reflecting on her work with lawyers said that not everyone has to think like us, and Owen Hodda says at ANZ that sending everyone on a design boot camp is not scalable or valuable; and that they’re about encouraging design not embedding it. He also talked specifically about not being an evangelist for design at the bank – but just working to help the bank achieve their goals.

I like this thinking.  It’s less about defining ourselves by what we do, and more about focussing on how we can have the most impact.  Which leads nicely into my next discussion point…

2. Do we care enough about the outcomes of our work?

There was a lot of talk throughout the day about rigour, but with more emphasis on rigour in our process than in the outcomes of our work. Half way through the day in some frustration I wrote “ACCOUNTABILITY!” across a whole page of my notebook.

It got better later in the day (or I just started feeling better about things after a food break). I think it’s linked to the discussion above about the role of design; when we get too focussed on our process and the way we have to do things, we can lose sight of the outcome we’re trying to achieve. For example, Gerda pointed out that customer journey maps are the poster child of service design and they have become an end rather than a means.  Nobody thinks this is a good thing, but it’s true – we all know of a “journey mapping project” that resulted in a picture for the wall and no actual change to how things were done.

I said before that Matiu was a standout talk for me. One of the reasons is his focus on people as humans. My sense is that he felt a personal responsibility for what happened to those people as a result of his work. His focus was on the impact he had, on his outcomes, not on the process he went through or the type of solutions he came up with. Note as an example his scathing review of the $10,000 stuffed toy doing the job of a $300 rescue dog. 

This focus on the fancy technology solution – Sumyee Cheung called it “machine centred design” – is not new but it is pervasive.  At one point I caught myself thinking that we needed to get back to thinking about people. Of course we don’t really forget people but we can get hung up on process, on the idea that there is a “right way” to do something. 

Jessie Hochberg-Summons provided an inspiring example of how Nightingale, by insisting that future residents be part of the design process, basically eliminated developers and came up with a new model for housing development, not just a housing project.  I genuinely don’t know if Nightingale followed a service design process to get to that point, but you know what, it doesn’t matter.  The approach was outcome driven, intrinsically human centred and the results were good for people.  Actually the results were good for everyone except developers – 100% fossil fuel free, 20% cheaper, 100% owner occupiers, 70% cheaper to run. 

In conclusion…

I started this blog by saying that I had more questions than answers after the conference. I think this is healthy at this stage of our existence as an industry, and as practitioners doing a life long apprenticeship in design. We should be questioning ourselves and our practice and using opportunities like this terrific conference as a way to learn and challenge ourselves. 

Congratulations to all those who organised and ran the Service Design Now conference, to the volunteers on the day and to the speakers who shared their stories. Thanks to you I’m feeling good about the state of service design in Melbourne.

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