01 May Xénia Viladàs: Applying Service Design to the Design Service Industry
The days in which design was a topic to be avoided are long gone. Today, design schools are crowded, design departments flourish in all sorts of companies and design promotional bodies are being set up or retained, both in affluent countries and in the less developed ones, as a means to foster economic growth and social welfare. The design discipline is expanding fast and barging into new and unknown territories of practice: user experience, disabilities, ecology, interaction, and, of course, services. At the same time, designers are reaching much higher positions within all types of organisations and finally sitting in the boardrooms, where they actually influence decision-making processes.
Just as it climbs to those new positions, the design profession is undergoing many changes: on the one hand, designers are now made liable for what they do or what they do not do. In the early days, their artistic penchant would exempt them of any responsibility, whereas today they have to endure the consequences of their higher commitment. Another range of changes affecting design lies in its very structures, due, among other things, to the economic downturn: firms are downsizing and networked freelancers take over where large and well-oiled teams used to be.
Squeezed between an ever more demanding market and a shaky organisational pattern, designers need to reflect on the nature of design services and how to manage them.
A service is a service is a service…
… and design is a service. Let’s check whether the main characteristics of services apply in the case of design:
-Intangibility: that means that the rendering of a service does not lead to the transference of ownership of any good or asset. The actual representation of the design is nothing but the evidence of the service. What is turned into an asset and becomes part of the client’s equity are the rights of commercial exploitation of the product that has been designed: intangible indeed!
-Inseparability: because services can only be rendered when contracted, they cannot be enacted separately from the client. The principles of the discipline say that the designer provides a bespoke reply to each and every problem he is faced with, and that no two problems are exactly the same: inseparable it is, therefore.
-Perishability: services cannot be stored, precisely because they are inseparable. Although some designers are suspected of piling up logotypes in their hard drives and distributing them randomly among their clients, this is not (yet?) common practice.
-Variability: being so that they are rendered and decided upon by persons, each time the service is rendered it ends up in something different, even when facing similar briefs. (This is why we have so many chairs…) Such variability can be further increased when the team is not a stable one because more—and diverse—people are involved in the rendering of the service.
The consequence of variability is uncertainty. Now, uncertainty does affect the attitude of clients towards design because they see their resources at stake and doubt whether to go ahead with the investment or not. Variability, in general, can be managed through the standardisation of processes, tools and methods. Now, can this be applied also to design without diminishing its values?
The management of uncertainty in design.
If we are coherent, the improvement of design services should be achieved with the use of service design. To make it short, this would consist in observing, documenting, prototyping and processing the way a design is conceived and developed, wrapping it up in some sort of visual that would convey “the way we do things around here” so as to be able to communicate and share it. This is what allows design practices to grow and to aim for larger clients and their complex commissions, and ultimately what leads to a polarised industry, in which artisan designers compete against design services companies, to put it boldly. The clients choose depending on the nature of the project, the local design market, the specialisation, etc, but also, to a certain extent, in terms of risk aversion: some companies can allow a higher degree of uncertainty, while some others, or some particular commissions, need to be more tightly managed.
If we take it for granted that design methodology applies and make it a regular exercise, does stabilising processes mean that all design practices will end up looking alike and doing the same? Not really: standardisation of processes does not kill creativity, provided service design is properly and efficiently used. On the contrary, it leads to a lean process, almost invisible in its use but efficient in its delivery.
Conclusion. That design is a service may seem obvious, but it is key to understanding how it works and why it fails to meet some market requests. Using service design to redefine and to improve design services may prove a great move towards risk management and, therefore, towards a better future for the sector. After all, if designers don’t trust design, who should? More at Hiatus.
 This has been extensively discussed in texts like, among others, “Diseño rentable”, X. Viladàs, Index Book, 2008, translated as: “Managing Design for Profits”, Index Book 2010, and more recently, Tennyson Pinheiro en DMI News and Views, Nov. 4, 2010 or at the 2010 DMI European Conference held in London last fall.
 In my book on service design (“El diseño a su servicio”, Index Book 2010, “Design at your service”, Index Book, 2011), I comment on this being a problem for any company having to outsource part of its services.