So you’ve decided to learn about Service Design…

John Lynch
6 min readJan 11, 2023

The demand for Service Design training is high. I see this on a weekly basis — I get the inbound enquiries. This is a natural consequence of the huge international demand for service designers, and the lack of them in the marketplace.

At Context Studio, we don’t do training as such, but below are some of the thoughts I tend to share with those who’d like to get some training under their belt…

A workshop participant sorts insights noted on stick-notes during a 3-day “Design Thinking for Services” programme I delivered with CIID Professional Programmes, Copenhagen, 2019.

Service Design is a practice, not a discipline.

Service Design, and design in general is more like playing guitar than reading the music. It requires “muscle memory”, and it improves through practice, there are various styles, and there is no 100% right way.

Training should provide first-hand experience of a process that unfolds logically, but should emphasise that the process changes all the time (agile) and that Service Designers, through practice, and tools, gain confidence in choosing the right process steps at the right time, for the right context.

Service Design training needs to be experiential…

Building on the above, trainees need to experience framing a problem, setting their own constraints, planning research, visiting a context, conducting interviews (with strangers!), making observations, synthesising what they’ve learned (as an collaborative team), creating design objectives (challenges), ideating and facilitating ideation against those challenges, synthesising those ideas and creating concepts, producing prototypes with the goal of further learning, sharing and testing, iterating those prototypes, and finally framing, modelling, and specifying the solution for a service.

That’s a lot to take in!

I worked as an instructor at CIID Summer School on a few occasions where we allowed for this experiential learning through a 5-day full-time immersive workshop. It’s very hard to get professionals out of their roles for 5 days, but it’s worth it!

Students at CIID Summer School in San José, Costa Rica work with staff at Parque La Libertad — a centre of learning and amenity for the city. This course was a pleasure to teach — design research is best learned “hands on”.

In Ireland, TU Munster provides a part-time, online certificate programme in “Designing Innovative Services”. It includes aspects of on-the-job design work, students bring their training to their role while studying. NCAD’s excellent MA Service Design is due to return this coming academic year, their model has long emphasised collaboration and experiential learning.

I mention these, in particular, because they are courses which offer part-time learning — you don’t have to give up your job! Maynooth University also offers an excellent MSc Design Innovation which also allows a part-time option.

Tools vs Process

There are an abundance of training workshops based on individual “Design Thinking” tools and methods, which are part of Service Design. They’re easier for professionals to engage with, but they tend to produce design practitioners carrying just one hammer, and using it on everything… not just when they see a nail!

Design Thinking tools can be very powerful, but when learned in isolation they can become a hammer looking for a nail!

Customer Journey Mapping, Rapid Prototyping, Qualitative Customer Research Interviews, Systems Mapping, Service Blueprinting — the list is endless. While these are useful, “Tools & Methods” training should include strong content on:

  • what are the underlying principles of the tool
  • why the tool should be used, and when
  • what the tool is NOT useful for (and common mistakes)
  • how the tool might be augmented (in line with the underlying principles)
  • what other tools are complementary to the tool in question
  • further learning pathways (to build upon the tool being learned)

Process-based training is my preferred approach, as indicated above. This orients the trainee in terms of the kinds of activities needed at different moments, and emphasises the iterative nature of the approach. Trainees use a tool at a point in the process, learn something, iterate, and continue — usually by using different, more appropriate tools thereafter.

Developing a Mindset

Service design training should help you to develop a mindset. That means a mindset of customer-centricity but also awareness of the “backstage” – people and systems involved in a service, and elongated (journey-based) thinking which helps designers and teams to understand third and fourth degree consequences of design decisions.

A service design mindset means thinking in terms of people’s interactions across multiple touchpoints, and their dependence on backstage systems, one that acknowledges that a service is never “finished” and embeds learning, prototyping, and iteration.

Principles and Practice

We’ve already talked about practice, which comes through experiential learning. Design Principles are an incredible powerful tool to help individuals direct that practice.

Design Principles are statements of intent that underpin every action a team member takes when working with design. They help people to make decisions as to how to approach a problem using a design methodology.

When discussing design principles I like to reference this talk by Intercom’s

where he explains the value of principles in leadership and the scaling of their company. Design principles are important in service design training because trainees usually go back to their day job and assume responsibility for leadership of the design approach, and scaling it in their companies.

In that clip Des Traynor specifies that principles should be “frequent” — i.e. can be applied a lot, and “generalisable” — i.e. they can be used across a wide variety of decision making.

Design principles formulated by the Service Design and Customer Insights team at Department of Justice, Ireland. This was among the outcomes of a 2021 “Live Learning” project with Context Studio.

There are a plethora of design principles out there to be found online, most famous are probably the UK Government Design Principles, but Ireland recently published it’s own Government Design Principles too. We helped Department of Justice Service Design and Customer Insights team formulate their own principles back in 2021.

Training should include principles, which trainees can apply in their practice.

Live Learning

While the above might help an individual in their pursuit of training, if your organisation wants to build a capability I would suggest an embedded “live learning” approach...

What this entails, is for an individual or team to embark on a project within their role or remit as part of their actual job. It’s a real project, with real problems, and it will have a real impact. They should be guided by an instructor who also serves as a design lead on the project, and depending on the scale of the project might also require design support from graduate or mid-level designers.

The “live-learning” approach means learning happens where the rubber hits the road — working with real challenges in a real context.

This approach means learning happens where the rubber hits the road — working with real challenges in a real context, but with the support of experienced designers. It also provides companies with the added benefit of demonstrating the impact that a design approach can have, both on the outcome, but also on collaboration, innovation, internal relationships, and more.

At Context Studio we’ve used an approach like this when working with Cookpad to bring a design approach to product discovery, with Department of Justice in Ireland to help with the professional development of their Service Design & Customer Insights team, and with Cork County Council as they’re Corporate Services Directorate looked to the future of internal services delivered over intranet.

So, in short — if you or your teams want to learn service design, keep these things in mind:

  • Practice makes perfect, this is not something that can quickly be learned in theory, you need to experience the practice.
  • Process, over tools — there is no substitute for understanding the end-to-end design process, if you’re training on individual design thinking tools you should do so in the context of that process, and understand their place in it.
  • Developing a mindset is key, and it’s helped by the application of Design Principles.
  • “Live Learning” is really powerful — this is when design instructors join your team, and act as “design lead” while achieving learning outcomes on a real live project with everyone on the team involved.



John Lynch

Design is my job. I'm Irish, ex Copenhagen/London, now back in Dublin. Founded Context Studio to improve life in Ireland through Service Design.