A much needed recent report Design for Service Innovation & Development (DeSID) takes a rigorous look at service design through six case studies and a survey of 49 design agencies internationally.

The DeSID research gives a rich picture of the kind of outcomes service designers generate for clients and shows how important good client relations are for the success of a design project. It has created a clear set of insights that will help service design agencies to compare their work with wider trends in the industry. It also helps potential clients to understand the likely impact for their organisation of working with designers – both at the project level and in terms of a wider culture change.

Service design is a newer design discipline that has developed over the past decade. It is a hybrid approach entailing the design of experiences, which borrows from product and industrial design but also sociology and business strategy. Service design is now widely used by businesses and in the public sector to design customer services. More recently, policy makers and business strategists have begun to experiment with tools from service design.

Research of this kind is an important step towards maturing the field, which is growing rapidly but currently lacks the theoretical roots needed to assess its value and potential beyond individual projects. The researchers aimed to back up their observations by creating a new theoretical framework, borrowed from more established fields such as Service Innovation and New Service Development studies, to help classify different types of service design projects.

The DeSID report is useful to both service design agencies and potential commissioners of design in the public and private sector. 

Wide trends in service design

Some of the most valuable, insightful findings gathered from the research survey are of wider trends in service design. These are particularly helpful for service design agencies to assess their internal structures, service offerings and client groups in relation to the field.

The research shows that service design is a rapidly growing but new industry mostly comprising small organisations; a third of the service design agencies reviewed were founded after 2000, with half employing no more than 10 people. More than half were located in Europe, with a particularly strong presence in the UK.

Map showing the recent growth in service design agencies across the world.

Service Designer is the most common job role in agencies and the majority also employ Strategists. Additionally, around half have Design Researchers, Visual Designers and Business Designers. Typically, agencies are employed to develop new services and improve customer experiences.

The education sector was a particularly important client group for service design agencies, with almost half of the agencies stating that they work in education, although this is likely to refer to professional training. Education was followed by government (local/central/national) and various other sectors including transport and finance.

Different types of service design project

By looking at six projects in detail, the DeSID researchers also found three key categories of service design interventions with clients from the public, digital and private sectors.

The categories are of course messier and more interlinked in practice but they are an extremely useful benchmark for service designers to understand and communicate the type of work they deliver. They are also valuable to commissioners of design because they show that the impacts of service design often go beyond individual projects, which is particularly useful as service design is still a young sector and many clients are new to design.

1. Service design as a skilled contribution to address a specific need
In this first category, designers are drafted in to work on projects which have specific and finite deliverables. In these cases designers and clients tend to have distinct roles and they make separate contributions to the design work. Many projects of this kind are for the development of new services and design work is often at the early stage, with a real emphasis on design activities that can inspire and inform change, such as user studies.

2. Service design as a people-centred, creative and systematic process
In the second category, designers are chosen and valued by clients for the processes they use and clients are keen to learn from service designers to improve their existing innovation practices. Here designers and clients work collaboratively and projects do not necessarily have clear deliverables – rather design processes have an impact on how the client works, and these techniques are then applied by clients and/or designers to implement projects, which could be new services or the improvement of existing ones.

3. Service design as a collaborative and people-centred mindset and approach
In the third category of projects, designers inform longer-term deep changes in client organisations and are called in to inform how the client thinks, works and delivers services. In these cases designers support learning processes within organisations and design becomes a way of experimenting with new approaches. Projects of this kind can run at all stages of service development, from design to implementation. When successful, they have a wide ripple effect on the way services are designed and delivered and how the client perceives their own work and identity.

Designers play varied roles in digital, public and private sectors

The case studies also point to subtly different roles that service designers play in digital, public and private sectors.

In the public sector, a good part of designers’ work is giving structure and legitimacy to existing innovation projects and designers are increasingly expected to teach public sector clients how to innovate using design. Digital service design agencies often use lean and agile methodologies where things are built quickly and tested through prototypes with potential customers then improved, rather than doing research and conceptual work beforehand. Here the aspirations for radical change from design agencies often translate into more incremental improvements in practice. In the private sector, particularly with manufacturing companies, designers often have to raise awareness about the value of design to overcome initial scepticism from clients. With these clients it was particularly important for agencies to provide evidence of impact from projects.

Take the project by the digital agency Made by Many for Universal Music to transform the classical music label Decca into a digital service. Made by Many were clear that they were pitching a process of working to Universal Music, not a specific solution. There is minimal documentation from the project but prototypes and tests were used extensively to gather client and user feedback. Made by Many also helped Universal Music to build a new in house digital team – making this a project in the second category.

The tempo does require a lot of trust because we don’t have these formal, old school…presentations…it’s very iterative and therefore the relationship between us and the client is very, very important.

Senior Business Strategist, Made by Many

Another of the research case studies called Connect & Do is a new service to support people facing mental health challenges, led by the service design agency Innovation Unit for the charity Certitude in 2013. In this project the clients and designers worked together to build a service connecting people to arts, sport and community activities outside of health and social care services. This project falls into the third category as Innovation Unit worked closely with Certitude to help them gradually change their way of working and thinking by engaging them actively in the process, which was an emergent one and not led by designers alone.

There are three main things that we were trying to do…to create the tool which was the online platform, to develop the team which is offline support, and to build the capacity of the organisation to do innovation projects.

Service Designer, Innovation Unit

Client relations are crucial to successful projects

In all cases, the relationships designers built with clients were crucial to the success and quality of the projects. This often entailed deep understanding of the language and culture of the clients and also allowed the designers to challenge them with new thinking; perceptions from clients of a good cultural fit was an important factor in commissioning design agencies. Working with designers created new types of relationships. This changed the way clients interacted with customers and how they worked internally, showing that service design’s contribution is not bounded to individual projects but frequently leaves an ‘innovation footprint’ in client organisations.


Although service design is growing rapidly, it lacks visibility beyond fairly narrow circles in business and government. The DeSID report has made a valuable step towards capturing trends in the sector and looking at the full extent of what service design can offer to clients. The researchers also picked up on areas for further inquiry, including the role of service designers as ‘sense makers’ and ‘mentors’ for clients, as well as the need to build evidence about the field and of project impacts.

Researchers on the DeSID project were:

  • Dr Daniela Sangiorgi, Lancaster University
  • Dr Alison Prendiville, University of the Arts London
  • Jeyon Jung, Lancaster University
  • Eun Yu, Lancaster University

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