Designing Services with Design Wales

The term ‘service design’ is so unsexy – unless you know what it is. The image that immediately springs to mind is the design of manufacturing assembly lines to ensure that more toothpaste caps are fixed onto bottles.

But that’s not at all a fair assessment and Paul Thurston, Service Design Programme Manager at Design Wales, the government funded organisation are making the unsexy very sexy.

We meet at PDR, a research building on the Llandaff campus of Cardiff Met (formerly UWIC). The centre is full of light and great space – there are rooms of manufacturing equipment. Paul shows me the 3D printing machines that they’ve got and skulls of various colours of silicon that are printed their as a way to show the medical sector how they can innovate on their procedures.

In Holland, I tell him, there’s a hospital that projects a whale swimming on the sea onto a wall. Children who are there to get CAT scans are told that when the whale goes under the water, they have to try and hold their breath. Then they’re put into the scanner and told to try and hold their breath for as long as the whale can – that way they lie still enough for the doctors to get an accurate scan. The hospital used to be able to do 10 scans a day because the kids were so fidgety. With this new whale game, they can do 40. This is service design – innovating on a process to make it better.

“Service design is fairly new in the design sector. As an independent offering. You can trace it back to Live Work – who celebrated their 10th anniversary this week. Even the most established companies aren’t that old,” Thurston tells me, “The whole practice has developed massively over that time. There’s obviously a lot of interest from designers because it gives them an opportunity to work on bigger projects. Clients don’t always see traditional design agencies in that way. They might see them as a service provider who delivers their marketing, their literature, their communications… most companies don’t have an research and development team unless you’re making products.”

He’s right. Many businesses don’t really bother to think about how they can work better unless it’s to do with cost cutting – which isn’t a bad thing by any means.

“So, the way that you see it, service design is a paradigm shift from creative design to something new?” I ask him as we sit in a room which is wired with CCTV to allow focus groups to feel more at ease when they’re critiquing a project.

“I’m not so sure.” he says, “Service design isn’t radically new – it’s just been defined differently. Good, user centred design is what you need to create good products or good communications or good marketing material. You need to understand what you’re going to do with it or how you use that product. It’s the same principle with services although it’s a bit different because it looks holistically at all the different elements someone might interact with when they’re using a service. If you’re going to the supermarket, a designer might typically look at the interface on a self serve machine whereas a service designer would look at the experience of queuing up, how you use your back, the feedback mechanism on it.”

Design Wales itself is an organisation which is helping Welsh creative businesses and manufacturing companies to be sleeker and more slender in two ways. Firstly, the team help manufacturing companies who might not normally have a big budget to employ a consultant to find holes in their services. They offer businesses a ‘service assessment’ which suggests easy things that they could do to make everything gel a bit better. Secondly, they’re giving their knowledge away to design agencies in Wales to allow them to do the same thing. This is a very forward thinking approach to be government funded:

“The Welsh Government has been quite brave. They need to be applauded. Typically innovation is supported by government if there is a product or technological advantage being developed,” says Thurston who has worked for an impressive list of companies and also lectured at The Royal College of Art, “For instance, a new bit of kit that does something that no-one else can do or something to do with chemistry or medicine. That gets funding. But innovation isn’t just about products but also services as well – there’s not really funding for services. The R&D sections of companies tend to focus on product. There are a few examples that don’t conform to the rule: Xerox have a service innovation centre and the NHS.”

He says that around 73% of the UK GDP is service. That’s a big big number. That’s why what Paul is talking about is so important for all of us – even if we’re not involved in design, we’re all involved in services in one way or another: from the way that I pay my gas bill to the way that you suggest ideas to your boss to the way we both check out at Sainsbury’s or Lidl.

“The case study that really stands out for me is a small design agency based in Blackwood, Rose Innes Designs. They are a great little company and they first came onto the service programme and attended a workshop that we ran in Newport, the director went off and read a load of books, called me up saying ‘I want to get onto this programme’. They went through that,” he says of the SD4D programme – service design for designers, “Then they went off and started talking to clients, running workshops. They’ve recently won three new projects on the back of that because they’re talking to their clients differently, offering something new and talking to their clients in ways that demonstrate they know about their business, the challenges, rather than ‘we can sell you some design services’. What could you help your clients do differently within their business that’s going to have real value to it.”

Paul is taking a one hour seminar at Capital Cardiff about his work and how it applies to business in Wales.

“It’s basically an hour about getting practical stuff that you can use as part of your business strategy and planning that will help you understand what your customers need and then help you develop new services and new innovations about that. Companies go through a period of writing a business plan, it goes a bit wrong so they start to adjust to fit with the market and then three years later they write another business plan,” he explains, “This will help you understand which tools are available in the design sector which many companies might not have looked at when doing this activity. If you work in one of the sectors that we work within, we can follow up and perhaps continue the conversation. There will also be case studies around that as well.”