What makes (me) a service designer?

I’ve just spent the day running a sports day for loads of kids. I was asking some of them what they wanted to be when they grew up, and got some pretty standard answers: footballer, doctor, “on TV”. But it got me thinking. Does where I find myself now hold a bearing on where I wanted to go then? Well maybe not aged seven, but there’s definitely some threads through it.

When I was 16 I made my first film. It was an overly arty VHS affair, with lots of pretty dire strobing, but with an excellent Tangerine Dream soundtrack. (Small aside: while I was editing it, Ridley Scott came in for a chat. He was scouting for locations). What captured my imagination about film was the opportunity to control a narrative – to take disparate parts and completely manage an experience. Feels like that was maybe an early stepping stone. It’s about that time that I decided I wanted to work in TV/Film.

I went on to study film at UCLA (via a circuitous and, importantly, free route of American Studies). I spent the best part of 16 hours a week watching films. The  most memorable part was the Hitchcock course. Over one term I watched his entire collection. It’s only when you realise that he rebuilt entire stages for single scenes in The Birds, to capture a particular scene in a particular way, that you realise the power of design in experience. I don’t think I really understood the potential of that realisation, but it did strike me as pretty powerful. Hitchcock’s answer to the question “what makes a good film?” remains a mantra of mine to this day – “three things: scrip, script and script”. All good experiences are designed. Nothing is left to chance. (Further aside: Mike Leigh was later to prove for me that there’s balance even in this rule. Naked remains one of of my top 10 films.)

So I dawdled around in TV, with a bit in radio, eventually reaching the heady heights of Assistant Editor for the BBC. The same principle applied. I’d work to piece together moments into a narrative.

Alongside many people, I was lured into new dot.com world – colonised as it was in the early days by TV people. I was a Producer at Virginbiz.net (a Virgin subsidiary devoted to small businesses), which meant my job was to literally produce online experiences. It was a great cutting of teeth – I was information architect, web writer and graphic designer. It was like editing in three dimensions – but you couldn’t control the user this time – you had to coax them. You had to suggest a desired route, whilst also satisfying infinite varieties of routes. I was pretty transfixed. This is what I wanted to do, and – by and large – this is what I went on to do for the next 10 years, except then the bubble burst.

Being made redundant was all part of the fallout. And looking back it seems so temporary. And it feels ridiculous now when I remember how I actually thought this was the end of the internet. Jobs were few and I am not good at doing nothing. I took my healthy redundancy package (thanks mr branson) and signed on for an MA in… European Real Estate.

Bear with me now. I’m a rational kind of guy, and sometimes overly so. I looked at my options in the downturn and sought out something sustainable. Something safe as houses on paper. I opted for commercial real estate. The course itself isn’t so memorable, but when I had the choice of what to write 12,000 words on, I started gravitating back to those designed structures.

Another quick aside: I’m also partial to designing written experiences. I wrote my BA thesis on Detroit Techno. It was all about threading together a history from something that was going on right there and then – the way electronic music travelled from black America, to Europe and back to white America. It was 1998 – the days of the rock/punk/electronic sound of Chemical Brothers and Prodigy. I was in Los Angeles and it was happening around me – plain as day – the black electronic sound I love, exported and reimported, dressed up with white rock. I put everything into that dissertation. I loved finding the sources and I loved weaving it all together into something which delivered an experience as well as an argument (I even included a mix tape that began  with Yellow Magic Orchestra, and ended with up to date stuff by The Surgeon). Anyway – this is an aside. You can go too far on this service design stuff – but I still trace something in this.

Anyway – back on the path. That was my BA thesis. I wrote my MA thesis on UK planning. Fun eh? But planning for me is the essence of structural design. You’re restricting design on some pretty formidable assumptions. And for me, there’s some crude assumptions in our planning laws, which means that we are unable to effectively plan in this country – and it’s largely down to our cultural perception of what is urban and rural.  I’m proud to say it caused a bit of a stir and it even got published. Now for me this is definitely in the same vein. Planning is about three dimensional service planning. How unconscious principles dictate how physical ecologies evolve – just as they do within service ecologies. I found it utterly fascinating.

But alas, I was to have an out of body experience in an interview with a large corporate property firm (I kid you not – I was watching myself being interviewed) and I left that industry behind. There starts my “true” service design career. Businesslink.gov.uk was all about designing a better deal for businesses, based on the principle that the less time businesses spent on dealing with government, the more time they could spend generating profit, which led to more tax income. I worked on that principle for 8 years, arguing not for less red tape (this wasn’t a political venture) but for a better way of dealing with the red tape – simpler touchpoints – better communications, easier interfaces, reliable experiences, and single gateways. I had some silly job titles – Senior Category Manager, Head of Transformational Government and… Service Design Leader.

The rest is history really. It’s tracing the roots that interest me today. And I think the golden thread that I can trace right through to service design is a fascination for designed narrative and structure. Creating something that is fully artificial (an argument, a film, a website) which to the reader/viewer/user feels totally organic. A great essay, film, website or service should speak for itself – it doesn’t need description or instruction. I like the idea of doing all the hard work so someone gets something intuitive, polished and seamless. That’s what I try to do for services – take that artificial thing and make it feel natural.

And when I think about it, it’s been a pretty twisty and windy journey (I didn’t even cover the various library jobs – those structured systems again?) with all sorts of detours. But that’s also a pretty valuable thing in this industry. As service designers we’re called on to compose experiences across increasingly diverse terrain. The broader the experience the better. Still loads to learn, but happily, still got an appetite to learn it.

2 thoughts on “What makes (me) a service designer?

  1. Lovely story, especially the out of body experience bit made me laugh so hard – you see, I’ve been there… Actually the completion of my PhD just recently makes me think how come I become a PhD in Service Design. My childhood dream job was maga author, video game developer or food critic.

    It would be actually fascinating to interview people around and do a podcast on ‘how we become service designer’ – can be really inspiring to young design student in the uni today 😀



  2. I liked reading your post. Im a college student about to enter the real world…and I am..well…at a crossroads.


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