February 5, 2009
Leading service design company Live/Work have published a thoughtful article on their website today: Service Thinking. At first I felt chastened at having attempted to explain recently to a US visitor what service design was. I said that because of their appetite for solving problems of order and function, designers can apply their visual and spatial fluency to systemic problems and to services as well as to the material world, as if systems and services were things.
Woops. Live/Work would probably say this is exactly the wrong way to explain it, for as they perceive it: “The reason so many services under perform and disappoint customers is because we treat a service as if it is an industrially manufactured product”. A thing, in my terminology. Thus chastened, I read on. They talk really well on the rise of mass production and mass consumption in the last century, and, citing Alvin Toffler, on the dislocation of those phenomena that has alienated everyone from first products and then from services treated by all sectors as if they were products (in our times “a train journey is somehow a product”).
It emerges that it’s not the production and consumption that are wrong, but the mass factor, and what they’re getting at is the service imperative of personalisation, in which “producer and consumer must come together”. Now I feel a bit vindicated, as co-curator of My World: the New Subjectivity in Design, an international exhibition looking at the influence of craft in contemporary design. We the curators agreed that because of industrial production at first, then later of globalisation and the rapid advance of digital technologies, design very easily risks the banishment of personal meaning. We were talking about products, but the New Subjectivity has serious traction in services.
But one thing still bugs me. Product or service, what we see is a lemming-like flight to brands. Not warmly individuated, customised, personalised things shaped uniquely to your needs, but fierce evidence that people want what everyone else is having. This is most obvious in the consumption of commercial products – the powerful desire to belong to Nike’s global club – but might it equally be true of services? Is the perceived need for personalisation actually a perceived need to compete with the individuation and choice that is the received wisdom of commercial marketing? Ben Barber‘s book Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantilize adults and swallow citizens whole is as fantastically bracing a read on this subject as its title suggests.
Finally here’s a breakthrough in the recognition of intangible design. The RSA Academy in the West Midlands made it to Design Week’s Hot 50 last week. Surrounded in this league by personalities, commissioners, consultancies and cultural institutions who all damn well should know how to use design, there it is: a school. Not even a school in a fancy building, but a school operating an alternative to the National Curriculum. Neither product nor service; a curriculum. Now what kind of a thing is that?