How Designers Can Deliver Service With a Smile

Great design will never save bad service, but great service will always save bad design.


I’ve got a theory about service design: Great design will never save bad service, but great service will always save bad design.


I say this with a certain level of confidence as I fly from Seattle to Atlanta in seat 31D (yes that’s way down in the back and stuck in the middle). I’m uncomfortable, restrained, claustrophobic and bored. I’m forced to wonder, why when so much of the world’s service provision has innovated over the past 20 years, the airline economy seat remains devoid of any meaningful improvement?

No doubt a missed opportunity. The iconography of the airline economy seat is a legacy. The coach-class seat could be a testament to intelligent design at its best, serving as an example of ingenuity over adversity, creativity over restriction, and common sense over commerciality. But instead, it fails miserably.

When running a finger across the armrest molded cap end detail, ignoring the trapped chip crumbs, you can sense the angst in the designer as he (or she, but most likely he), battled to retain any sense of integrity as the bitter forces of commercial, operational, engineering and cultural inertia resisted, restricted and reshaped his original creative intent. It’s sad really.


Thinking on this I became increasingly frustrated until suddenly something happened: Eye contact. A smile, a genuine connection, with the energized Delta flight attendant. Just like that, that very small connection reprioritized my expectation of brand engagement within the cabin and more or less salvaged the experience.

flight attendant

It was an awakening moment. The flight attendant made bad design tolerable.


Product designers have assumed countless different guises over the past 100 years or so as the profession matured and sought ways of redefining its role and meaning. In the 1920s industry pioneers established the profession of industrial design. The 1930s saw an explosion of experimentation into form, material and symbolism.

The 1950s were an opportunity for industrial designers to master an understanding of production and claim a place in the strategic direction of manufacture. The 1960s saw the more radical 3D designers cross reference popular culture. We saw storytelling in furniture, consumer products and automotive, joining the dots with our contemporaries in fashion, architecture and music. The 1970s saw the birth of marketing positioning and product design evolved again, working with advertising, packaging and retail design as part of a wider narration and taste-setting agenda.

The 1980s gave product design a style. “Lifestyle Design,” created by the ad agencies, celebrated by the media and consumed by the affluent, hungry middle class, riding on the back of a new, confident capitalist agenda saw the growth of product design as a separate, style-forming genre. Everything from aftershaves to lemon squeezers had the stylistic treatment of a product designer.


The 1990s saw the industry finding its own voice by questioning its ultimate meaning. Multidisciplinary, sustainability, semantics, lifecycle, design language and usability fully integrated with the burgeoning interactive scene (that had grown from product design) laid the foundations for the influence that the discipline has today.

2000 and beyond gave us experiential branding and the social networking phenomenon; where the brand becomes a platform for connectivity. Products then became an extension of that overall narration and engagement.

Within this context, today’s enlightening moment onboard the
aircraft prompted me to consider a somewhat under-acknowledged way that a product designer can create value day in and day out: Product design can play a role in
the art of service delivery.


And when we enable people to deliver service to their best
ability, we create human connectivity–that thing we so crave in an
increasingly digitally-framed and automated world.

[Image by Jannisri]

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As the President and CEO of Teague,
John Barratt is responsible for positioning the company for future
success and building upon Teague’s rich heritage. During his three
years in this position, Barratt has guided Teague in building and
strengthening partnerships with some of the world’s leading brands. The
result of these collaborative partnerships is design work that has been
recognized with a growing roster of international design awards.