Want to develop your service design skills but don’t know which book will help you do that?
In this overview you’ll find over 30 of the most relevant service design books that are guaranteed to be a good investment of your time.
After going through this article, you’ll know exactly which books really should be on your reading list if you want to become a better service designer.
Which book should I read first?
Let’s start this overview with the 5 books I feel are absolute must-reads for anyone interested in service design.
Which of these 5 books you pick up first depends on your personal interest. In the end, you should read them all. At least twice! 🙂
Start with these 5 books
- Change by Design
- The Design of Business
- The Back of the Napkin
- Principles of Facilitation
- This is Service Design Doing
The 9 Key Topics
The books you’ll find in this overview are divided into 9 key topics.
These key topics are:
- Business fluency
- Effective communication
- The art of facilitation
- User and design research
- Human behavior
- Visual thinking and doing
- Creative problem-solving
- Tools and methods
- Connecting the dots
As you’ll discover throughout the overview, the most valuable service design books aren’t even about service design.
Service design is like a big puzzle. The books in this overview cover the different pieces of the puzzle. When you read at least one book from each topic, you slowly start to see the entire picture in your mind.
Of course, it’s also important to develop a deep understanding of the tools and methods we use in the field. But the real strength of a good service designer is that you’re able to create bridges between multiple, divergent disciplines.
You don’t have to become an expert in every topic outlined here, but you should at least understand the language.
One final note: The topics have quite a bit of overlap. That’s the whole point! The most interesting things happen at the intersection between different fields and disciplines.
It’s all about connecting the dots.
If you decided to get any of the books using the links below you’ll be supporting this platform as a small commission will head our way without any additional costs for you. Just that you know.
1. Business Fluency
There’s still a huge gap between the business and design world. And that’s a very big problem.
Why? If you want to make any impact as a service designer, your solutions need to see the light of day.
Sure, we’re very good at understanding the needs and desires of the customers of a service.
It might be clear to you that by solving a customer problem, you’re also solving a business problem. But you still need to clearly communicate that. And that’s the part where most service designers can still learn a thing or two.
These books teach you how to show the value of your work to businesses.
Essential business books for service designers
- The Design of Business
- Business Model Generation
- Good Strategy Bad Strategy
- The Knowing-Doing Gap
- Service Design for Business
If you’re interested in this topic, make sure you also watch the episode with Leon Hovanesian on the Show.
2. Effective Communication
I used to say that 40% of my time spent on a service design project was about communication. And looking back, I think it was even more.
Just think about it. As a service designer, you’re constantly communicating.
There’s internal communication with your client (and your team) and of course external communication with the end users.
There’s everything from crafting a story that gives clients the confidence to move forward with the project to developing an engaging diary study where participants know exactly what they need to do.
The good thing is that communication has been around for a while, which means that we’ve got the fundamental principles figured out pretty well.
These books help you understand how to get your message across effectively.
Essential communication books for service designers
Make sure to also check out the interviews with Annette Simons, Mary Alice Arthur and Joel Klettke.
3. The Art of Facilitation
A key characteristic of service design is that it’s a group activity. Co-creation is baked into the heart and soul of our practice.
So you’ll often find yourself in workshops, design sprints and meetings. This can be face to face or in an online environment as is happening more often today.
Facilitation is the art of understanding and shaping group dynamics to achieve a desired result.
Master this art, and you’ll turn sessions that suck the life out of participants into exciting and productive engagements.
Essential facilitation books for service designers
4. User and Design Research
I probably don’t have to convince you that research is fundamental to service design.
Think about raw research data as Lego bricks. The more you have and the more diverse they are, the more options you have to design interesting solutions. You won’t get very far when you have just a handful of square blue bricks.
Doing research is also crucial to test assumptions, and going through the research process itself has a lot of intrinsic value.
There are many ways you can do research, and it greatly depends on the kind of knowledge you’re seeking. Can people tell you? Do you need to observe what people do? Or do you need to create something together to make that intrinsic knowledge tangible?
As a service designer, you need to be very pragmatic when it comes to research. You don’t get weeks or months to dig into a topic.
These books are great as they help you understand when to use a specific research method and how to get the most value out of it.
Essential user and design research books for service designers
Make sure to also check out the conversation on the Show with Steve Portigal who’s the author of the first two books.
5. Human Behavior
This is one of my favorite topics in this overview.
People are at the center of service design. You’re working with and for people.
It is not only very useful to learn a bit about how we operate, what drives us and how we make decisions. It’s also very eye-opening! 🙂
Understanding the basic principles of human behavior can be the difference between getting something done and failing to do so in a service design project.
This is a fascinating topic but also a rabbit hole you can get lost down pretty quickly.
The books below are a good starting point and introduction to psychology, sociology and behavioral economics.
Essential books on human behavior for service designers
Check out the interview with Luke Battye for some great examples on how behavioral economics can be applied to service design.
6. Visual Thinking and Doing
We have to deal with complex and abstract concepts all the time in service design. Just take the word “service” as an example. A car sharing service or meal delivery services can mean completely different things to different people.
These concepts are often hard to grasp with just words. A much more effective approach is to use visuals.
Let’s be clear that this isn’t about creating impressive graphics in Photoshop. Far from it. It’s really about getting your message across using simple visuals instead of text as the primary carrier.
This topic strongly relates to the books on effective communication. When you combine both, things really start to click.
Regaining the confidence to pick up the pencil and start drawing to get your message across is like unlocking a superpower that was always within you.
After studying these books, you’ll see an immediate benefit in your daily work.
Essential visual thinking and doing books for service designers
- The Back of the Napkin
- Unfolding the Napkin
- The Sketchnote Handbook
- Everything from the bikablo series
If you’re into this topic, definitely tune in to the interview with Dave Gray who is one of the pioneers of this movement.
7. Creative Problem-Solving
How do you turn those insights you gained through design research into promising solutions? This is where creative problem-solving comes in.
You don’t need inspiration to come up with new ideas. Inspiration is overrated and unreliable at best.
Imagine your typical brainstorming session. What happens? After the first 10 obvious ideas, everyone goes blank. These are never the best ideas.
A much better approach is to rely on tested and tried processes that help you generate a lot of diverse ideas in a short amount of time.
These books show you how to open up new opportunities no one thought of—in the blink of an eye. Not because you’re the smartest person in the room, but because you have a reliable process.
I must admit that once you master this skill, it almost feels like cheating. 🙂
Essential creative problem-solving books for service designers
8. Tools and Methods
The books in this list are sort of the cookbooks of service design. In these books you’ll find the recipes for the most common service design tools and methods.
Although you’ll find some of the fundamental principles explained, in general these books focus on the practical aspects of this craft. You definitely don’t need to read these books from cover to cover.
I’d say that everyone needs at least one of these books on their shelf. Sometimes you’re stuck or looking for a different angle, and that’s when these books are a great resource.
And just as you can find books that only focus on Italian cuisine, you can find books that only focus on a specific part of the service design process, like research or ideation.
The books in the list below provide a balanced mix of methods for the entire service design process and are therefore a really good starting point.
Essential service design tools and methods books
- This is Service Design Thinking
- The Designing for Growth Field Book
- This is Service Design Doing
Did you know that the very first episode of the Service Design Show was with Marc Stickdorn one of the authors of This is Service Design Thinking and This is Service Design Doing?
9. Connecting the Dots
Where the previous books in this overview describe the different actors in the movie, the books here help you understand the overarching story that connects everything together.
We all know that you can’t be effective as a service designer if you only look at activities in isolation. You need a clear understanding of the bigger picture in order to run successful projects.
These books help you see how all the pieces of the service design puzzle fit together. By absorbing the information in these books, you’ll start making day-to-day choices with more confidence. As a side benefit, you’ll get much better at explaining what you do and why you do it to the people around you.
These might just be the most important books in this entire overview.
Essential books that connect the service design dots
- Change by Design
- The Experience Economy
- Design-Driven Innovation
- Good Services
- Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation
- Wicked Problems
- Service Design: From Insight to Inspiration
- Designing the Invisible
Did you find a book to start reading? If you haven’t made up your mind yet, check out my top 5 picks again.
This overview is by no means complete or exhaustive. There are many relevant books for service designers out there. I hope you now have the inspiration to go beyond the usual suspects and start exploring some new topics.
Which essentials book(s) would you add to the overview?
I would add Design for Real Life https://abookapart.com/products/design-for-real-life
I believe Design Thinking: Business Innovation (https://www.designthinkingbook.com/) is a great and accessible guide for those who are starting to study the subject
I found biographies of “change people” very helpful, because it made it clear to me that this is not just about using the right frameworks or tools and that simply using these is not going to change your company instantly. There will be struggels and there will be setups where you will be successful and some where, well, mostly not.