What Is Service Design?
Part 1: The Basics

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Richard is a Service Design Consultant at Slalom. He has founded the Service Design Meetup in Chicago along with the Service Experience Chicago conference, and his past clients include UnitedHealthcare, ATT, Verizon, ComEd, Royal Bank of Canada, Airgas, FLOR, and more. He was the first person in the United States to earn an MFA in Service Design.


Hey everybody, allow me to please introduce myself. My name is Rich Ekelman, and I’ll be leading the Service Design part-time program at Designation.

The question of what is Service Design (and perhaps just as important, what it is not,) is something that I get asked about all the time. So with that in mind, I’ll be crafting a series of blog posts over the coming weeks to talk about this exciting new field of design thinking.

Let me start me start by saying, I love Service Design. I have witnessed the powerful ways that Service Design enhanced the outcome of my project work. Service Design is a new approach to applying innovative techniques that go far beyond the traditional limitations of “design”. The easiest way to think about Service Design is to take everything you might do today as a visual, product, UX, IxD, and UI designer and combine them into one unified field.

I believe that Service Design is liberating for designers because we are able to design entire systems of interaction. This means designing more than just screens, but going so far as to create an entirely new organizational culture from the ground up.


Typically, these projects have a broader impact and scope on foundational issues like an organization’s culture and overall branding than traditional UX/IxD design and advertising. That’s because things like banner ads, Buzzfeed traps, and short-lived trends or campaigns come and go, but the ripple effects of a Service Design are forever.

The History and Origins of Service Design

Historically, the single biggest moment for the growth of Service Design in the United States began when the airlines were deregulated in 1978. Much in the same way healthcare is exploding today with a need for transformative services, the airline industry was thrust into competing not only on price, but also in the services they delivered.

The notion of a seamless, convenient travel experience was suddenly critical to differentiating themselves from the competition. This ushered in a new way of thinking about products in such a way that it was as much about the experience as the thing itself, and so the modern notion of Service Design was born.


The Future of Service Design

Before the dawn of the internet, companies could have vast inconsistencies between customer touchpoints because there was essentially no accountability. This was compounded by the fact that their internal departments never had to work together, or were even flat-out pitted against one another by metrics that do not foster a culture of innovation that helps the overall company.

Service design allows companies to see the entirety of their systematic misalignments through both the external view of their consumers and the internal view of the people that are critical to thir success. Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review have repeatedly chronicled the problems that organizations face as they struggle to evolve in a world where “blue sky” really means that companies have less than 18 months to get an innovation to market or face losing a competitive advantage.

Service Design is uniquely suited to help companies permanently address these kinds of institutional problems. And that mean, it will have an important seat at the table from here on out. Over the past 10 years companies have been confronted with the fact that design factors into their ability to compete. However, designers aren’t typically too respectful of business, and business-minded people have always been skeptical that design has value beyond look and feel. Enter service design, a design discipline that is as much about business goals as the user’s end experience.

There are so many aspects of Service Design to talk about. That’s why I’ll be writing a series of blog posts going forward that build upon the nuance and capability of Service Design.

But if you are here in Chicago you are in luck because Designation will begin offering the only Service Design certification class in the United States in early August. The initial course will be an 10 week course for designers with at least 2 years of experience. Portfolios will be required for admission, and it will without a doubt be an amazing opportunity for experienced designers from the visual and digital worlds to become a part of the exciting new field of Service Design.

Click here to learn more about the Designation Service Design program.

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  1. This was a really helpful summary of service design and its origins. I’m after some ‘traditional’ sources to evidence some of this – most of service design seems to be discussed by designers, making it hard to bring it to the attention of non-designers! Any suggestions as to academic / press / book sources that refer to some of the points you make (e.g. About the airline industry)? Thanks!

  2. Just wanted to mention I love the post. Service Design is POWERFUL!

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