Paradisiacal Slips

On the tricky ambivalence of service design

A column by Michael Erlhoff

It repeatedly happens that fiercely optimistic reflections and perspectives turn out to be mere contradictions. Which is also the case with the former discovery of service design, meaning the design of services.

Because back then, when more than 25 years ago the first intensive service-design projects were developed, it was considered a veritable revolution within both traditional design and the economic discourse. However, it was an innovation for which there were good reasons; after all ecological aspects led to the companies finally declaring that even when they manufactured objects (e.g. cars, washing machines, tables and chairs, clothing or telephones) they were essentially selling services. As they were selling an opportunity for the client of his or her own volition to move, wash, sit, work, communicate or telephone. Which means that these objects can be grasped as key elements or figures within processes, in this case services, and the sale of things around which the old object business was transacted could be transformed into real service structures. Under the heading of “Use it, don’t own it” this has for a long time already obviously been an extremely important argument for sparing the environment.

Indeed, any transformation of goods into the corresponding service would generate an incisive reduction in materials, energy and of course waste. Far fewer objects would then need to be produced and moreover a shared use of things is far more cost-effective (and on top of which design challenged us to re-engineer the objects accordingly). It was just that this type of thinking initially met with dislike on the part of the companies, or at least those who still narrow-mindedly considered themselves vendors of objects and most certainly did not wish to see themselves as service providers.

These reflections were equally little welcomed in design, which until a decade ago (and in most of the relevant colleges to this day) curiously restricted itself in some mythical sense it was a craft to industrial or product design on the one hand and graphic (or ostensibly oh so modern) communications design on the other. It was clearly regulated in these heads and hands, called for the corresponding specialization and was satisfied by such simplicity. When, only two and a half decades ago, in the newly founded Cologne Dept. for Design a Chair of Service Design was established, the designer association fiercely derided the move as nonsense, stupidly calling it “Servi-Design” – an ugly term that sounds like subservience.

For all such stupidity in the groves of academia, service design has since become an established international discipline. In particular multinational corporations are enthusiastic and the field has an ever greater substantive and economic weight within design as a whole. All doubts have long since been swept away in economic ecstasy.

Occasion and reason enough now, full of self-confidence, to criticize these matters, meaning both services and service design in all the complexity that it has developed – in light of new insights. In the midst of the euphoria, to point radically to the miserable and terrible side to this process.

After all, about two decades ago at the then Cologne Dept. of Design (today’s “KISD”) there was a seminar entitled “Murderous Design” in which all fields of design were investigated in terms of this possibly negative component – including service design, for example, in terms of contract killings, i.e. the explicitly professional mode of such acts of killing. Incidentally, much to their own dismay the students who had signed up for the course found out in only a few days how and where in Cologne one could find clients for such business contracts and hire their services, and how much this would cost (it was astonishingly cheap).

Admittedly, this may seem a bit obscure and in fact some of those interested in studying design who had on the open day by chance found themselves sitting in on the seminar and were shocked, thereupon declared that they had changed their mind as to their study interests. However, this ambivalence of service and its design is deeply realistic. After all, service does not mean something per se good. Or at any rate one could certainly not claim so given the highly complex service sector that has evolved and which incessantly employs people and has substantially restructured society to constitute a glut of services. One need think only of the countless fields of medicine with all the ghastly offerings to render one’s own looks more beautiful, to produce children, or to run faster. Or those offering mystical courses, sects and groups that ignore human happiness and are so successful with the ignorance they peddle and no doubt make a lot of money. Or the dispute in the taxi business, fraudulent insurance companies, and banks that only set their own standards and ignore all else, alongside the massive fun factories since you can make so many bucks with events.

We now encounter such services everywhere and all over the Internet, with all the deceptive so-called “social media”, meaning the almost infinite playground of service offerings into which we are permanently being sucked and which has long since developed its own rules of exploitation and with each app opens up new sources of cash for start-ups. Of course, if they actually do earn money they are immediately gobbled up by large corporations.

Whereby gradually, and precisely this is problematic, the objects or at least the awareness of the objects, gets lost. Thus, everywhere there are ads for the prompt delivery of meals, clothes and other things. Hardly anywhere is there now talk of the quality of things or meals. That has slipped into a secondary, random domain. Not without pathetic consequences, such as a loss of vibrant knowledge and of quality. Sad enough.

But it can get worse. Author Juli Zeh has, and I can only abbreviate here, recently quite rightly stated that all authoritarian regimes offer themselves as service providers. And in such radical simplicity she is right. From this angle (OK, the text now gets more acute) let us then consider the so blatantly terroristic “IS”, which as we all know seeks with any means to assert a (purportedly) “Islamic State” in North Africa and in the Arab countries. It woos members with pure service offerings such as: Men can have many women, you can take the stage as a suicide bomber and are trained how to avoid hell when throwing bombs, you have real status and live in a collective of the similarly minded, you can feel self-important and learn how to do just that. You then click “Like”.

All such groups and likewise authoritarian governments and parties offer such services and promise paradise if only you follow obediently and act according to the guidelines. Anyone who refuses winds up in hell.

Incidentally, a system that was clearly celebrated by earlier authoritarian regimes manages within the service sector at least temporarily or virtually to create jobs: the construction of Germany’s autobahns by the Nazis, the drying out of the swamps in Sardinia and road maintenance in Fascist Italy. And back then were also the typical orgies of structured popular marches, Olympic Games and other major events that were the image of services for such governments and groups. This ornamentalizes people and society, creates controlled supervision, accompanied by enthusiasm, the joy of those involved as it were. Everyone cheers together like on Facebook, all you need do is confirm that you like it – and who is about to object?

The services that so substantially now structure social life, the economy and even design have gained sway everywhere and long since become profit engines for companies, too. And not just for Apple, Google, IBM, or Alibaba in China or Germany’s Telekom, etc. Indeed, just as many advanced product manufacturers have understood this and are gladly aping it.

A key part has undoubtedly been played by design, and it is striking how much the large consulting agencies now buy in precisely service design and have created in-house capacity in it. After all, for example, the largest design client in Great Britain is Barclays Bank. Which does not necessarily mean that such employers have even grasped the category of service design, but that they tangibly make use of it – albeit in a unilateral or at least reduced manner that they themselves have chosen. The focus here is above all on the IoT, meaning the networking of things and the acceptance of this among the general populace, in an effort to gain permanent certainty on the behavior of users as regards the new digital offerings, meaning imposed playfulness, invariable data collection, and thus the permanent control of what people think and wish and dream. Nothing must be left to chance. Because both authoritarian regimes and many companies justify their own actions to themselves only when they have such control and are thus sure of themselves and can persuasively sell their products.

Design helps here. Surprisingly when compared to its lineage and to the still general social understanding of design, by conducting research and providing advice. For example, a key factor design is currently expected to provide is its “UX” capacity, meaning its ability to foster the user experience. Design studies users’ behavior, is expected to describe what people use and how they use it. In order to develop new forms of use and thus new sales propositions. Irrespective of the fact that such a “UX” is usually pretty trivial and is merely studied in quantitative terms. We know from general surveys or so-called representative studies that at a certain level of abstraction these function. And the market itself signifies nothing more than precisely this level of abstraction. Intrinsically it is all perfectly logical.

Thankfully, however, this is only true at the abstract level. Because the brutality of authoritarian regimes and of the equally ipso facto authoritarian market has not yet destroyed everything that is part and parcel of life. We speak quite justifiably of contradictions. Because what remains the case is that at the smart end of things, services and thus likewise service design spare the environment and at least partially improve human life. And part of this, for example, is that hackers are great service providers (incidentally definitely in the sense of high-quality service design). We also know that hardly has one turned one’s back than people suddenly develop all manner of activities and forms of thought to subvert authoritarian structures (some of course being unconscious). Thankfully, while such authoritarian regimes or over-assertive companies often win over the masses, they lose out in the medium or long term. To which end we need to be attentive and to maintain permanent criticism. Now and at all times in design, too.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. Since 2016 he teaches as an honorary professor at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts.