Service design is the new black sliced bread. So what skills and traits are actually required in service design? Surprisingly, it is not traditional design skills.

Service Design is hot. Everyone and their uncle either does service design or foams about it as the new black sliced bread. So what skills and traits are required to be a good service designer among all the enthusiasts? How to launch a career in service design? After almost a decade in the business as a service design consultant, leader, professor and teacher below are my thoughts. And you might be surprised how little I talk about design skills, customer-centricity, or curiosity of the mind.

The word on the street is that “nowadays anyone can become a service designer, and any consultancy can call itself a service design agency.” This is, of course, slightly irritating to service design veterans who have been building their craft, general awareness and business for years. And now pretty much anyone with a post-it and a craft beer can piggyback on the hard work of others. 

This is a major shift from few years ago when the street talk was that “organizations don’t even know they need service design”. Well, know they know. 

However, there is a small glitch. Big companies have begun to “buy service design” from agencies without often understanding what is actually the problem they are trying to solve. To put it bluntly, there are lot of people buying service design per se rather than buying a service design approach to achieve a business impact. It is like a new medicine (service design) has become fashionable and it seems to cure the symptoms (crappy products and services), but very few people have the energy to go and figure out what is the original cause behind the symptoms.

Curing corporate hangovers

Typically the original cause (the disease, if you will) is in organisational structures, corporate ways of working, outdated management principles and governance models. But these are difficult things to start fixing because they require much bigger overhauls than an individual project can achieve (e.g., building company-wide capabilities or changing decision-making processes). To extend the medical metaphor further, it is tempting to keep on taking ibuprofen to cure your hangovers, and much more difficult to look in the mirror and accept that you have a problem with alcohol. In other words, it is tempting to keep on buying service design to cure your cumbersome business development, and much more difficult to look in the mirror and accept that you might have a problem with leadership and company culture.

This is pretty much the backdrop for aspiring service design professionals. And that is why becoming a kick-ass service designer requires more than traditional design skills and mindset. Yes, service design is in high demand, but at the same time, service designers are surprised to find themselves facilitating organisational transformations, designing company cultures, and introducing new leadership principles. And I say ’surprised’ because often none of these facilitation skills were taught in lectures as the core skills of a service designer.

Yes, it is the T shape, because it is true

The skills required for a service designer are twofold. First, there is the T-shape model, which means that a good service designer has a broad general knowledge (the horizontal in the T-shape), and one or two areas where s/he is an expert (the vertical in the T-shape).

The horizontal should consist of business management, ux design, strategy work, user research, data analysis, information visualisation, development and programming, sales, leadership, project management, marketing, social media, industry knowledge, innovation work etc. Pretty much everything that is required in building services from strategy to successful business. 

No one can master all that but a good service designer’s vertical expertise should be anything from the list above. Traditionally it is UX/IX/viz design, agile wizardy, or business design. But I see no reason why it can’t be any of the other relevant areas. Why? Because service design work is successful only if it creates a strategic impact, and to create that impact all aspects of successful business development should be taken into account. Hence, a good service designer can grow from any of the areas that are relevant to create the desired strategic impact. 

No one told me to become a facilitator!

This brings me to the other skillset, which is often overlooked. Like mentioned above, service designers increasingly find themselves facilitating change inside the organisation. The simple reason is that the environment where the service designer would like to plant the new exotic plant (i.e., the innovative service or product) is not ready for new kind of working, thinking, and management. The exotic plant wouldn’t survive for long. That is why a good service designer has to have facilitation skills as well: people skills, organisational psychology skills, workshopping skills, teaching skills etc. And I believe that one vertical of a T-shape profile can be facilitation. If you’re not convinced, ask any experienced service designer how much time they spend in listening to other people, understanding organisational structures, teaching others, making teams work seamlessly, and running workshops.

So for the final part, what is my advice to someone aspiring to become a professional service designer?

Three steps to career epiphany

First learn one vertical skill that is relevant for service design and helps you land your first job. Typically for a young graduate out of university it is UX/IX design, programming, business analysis, or user research. However, if you are already a seasoned professional then it might be your domain knowledge, strategic planning, sales, or marketing. In addition to your vertical, educate yourself with the horizontal. Make sure you know the basics of service design tools, UX design, agile philosophies and programming and architectures, business model design and digital marketing, to name few fundamentals. 

Second, go to work asap. The difference between a good service designer and a bad one is experience. Start building your job portfolio already during your studies and frame all relevant previous work of yours into service design. Show your T-shaped profile through the work you have done.

Third, understand that profile of yours. Fill the gaps, for example, by online courses or by taking part in hackathons. Whenever possible, shape your work so that you can always try out new things and grow to become the kind of a service designer you aim to be. In other words, build your vertical skills on something you really like doing and balance it by learning more about the skills you are not good at. Keep in mind, that no one is a master-of-all, but a good service designer knows enough about everything so that s/he can facilitate the team work of group of cross-functional and multi-disciplinary professionals.

Like I wrote in the beginning, service design is in fashion, which means that there are lot of work to be done. However, it also means that there is healthy competition for the best jobs and opportunities. In that competition skills to facilitate change become the differentiating facto because very seldom are the environments ready and fertile for the types innovations and impact that service design can provide.


Risto Sarvas, service designer who has a long career working with software, design and strategy. At BearingPoint he has played a leading part in creating a unique approach into strategy design which blends hard analysis with the softer side of design thinking. Risto also works as an Adjunct Professor at Aalto University’s Information Networks program.