Design Thinking versus Service Design. Is there difference?!

Service design versus design thinking—a lot of people are talking about this right now. It’s quite confusing.

Are they just different names for the same thing, or is there actually a meaningful difference? I think there is!


Personally, I’ve been using the term “service design” since 2006 to describe what I do. But, in recent years, I’ve met an increasing number of people who are really excited about design thinking. These people have been part of design thinking workshops or even followed training on this, but they had never heard of service design.

I think that’s kind of strange. And, it indicates that we’ve created two different worlds.

To understand how the two terms came to be, we need to go back in time. Design thinking really started to get traction around 2007 and 2008. Around that time, there were a few inspiring TED talks, the book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation was published, and design thinking has been gaining more and more momentum since then, especially in recent years.

When we look at the history of service design, we can see that it was already described in scientific literature back in 1980. And since 2000, it has been gaining momentum. The momentum of service design really picked up since around 2007, with the relaunch of the Service Design Network and yearly conferences that followed as well as the book This is Service Design Thinking, which helped to popularize the field.

Now, let’s look at what these terms actually describe.

Design thinking has been popularized by IDEO.

When I have to describe what design thinking is, I usually say that it’s a way to describe how designers think and work. It seems that design thinking has been invented to close the gap between business and design. Design thinking has definitely introduced a language that made design much more accessible to non-designers.

I use a really simple way to describe service design.

For me, it’s the application of design onto service-oriented challenges. Service design deals with specific challenges and has a tailored toolbox for that. So, we have both the practice of economics and the specialized field of behavioral economics.

That’s also the way I like to think about design and service design. If you look at what service design and design thinking have in common, you’ll see that there’s a lot, actually! Service design and design thinking often talk about the same attitude, approach, mindset and tools.

When you search Google for both terms and look at the images, you most likely find similar things, for instance, the Double Diamond to describe the process and tools like personas or empathy maps. So, of course, this leads to the question, “If there are so many similarities, why aren’t we just using one of the two terms?”

My answer is that the only meaningful difference is that service design describes a quite specific problem space and design thinking doesn’t. From my perspective, design thinking can be applied in any situation, not just service-related challenges. You can see this already in design thinking being applied to social challenges and challenges that focus on sustainability or designing for policy.

Design thinking just describes the approach that designers take to solve problems.

Now, a growing number of people, including my smart colleague Marcel Zwiers, says that design thinking is just design, and I tend to agree with them! Let me explain.

Think about this for a second: Design Thinking without Design DOING doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And, when you consider that doing and thinking always go hand in hand, it makes much more sense to just talk about design instead of design thinking and design doing.

I’ve got one more thing for you to think about. You might’ve heard about service-dominant logic. If you haven’t, be sure to check out the episode by my friend Mauricio Manhaes, who explains this in depth.

One of the things that service-dominant logic tells us is that every business is a service business. As soon as we start applying design onto business challenges, we’re doing service design by default.

I suspect this is what is causing the great deal of confusion between service design and design thinking, because often design thinking is used in a business context.

So, people who are in design thinking workshops, a project for whatever that might be, are very likely to be designing or redesigning a surface without actually realizing it.

Let’s try to recap. Design thinking for me is just language that describes how designers think and work. As soon as you start applying design thinking, it becomes design doing, and from that moment, it makes much more sense to just talk about design instead of making the distinction between doing and thinking.

When you use design to solve service-oriented challenges, it becomes service design.

I think both terms are useful, it’s just important that we use them in the right context.

I’d really like to know which term you prefer to use—service design or design thinking—and why. Leave a comment down below and let’s try to have an informed discussion together!

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