Service Design Is All Around You. So What Distinguishes The Best Of The Best?

Editor’s Note This piece is part of a series explaining each category in Fast Company’s Innovation By Design Awards.

Service Design Is All Around You. So What Distinguishes The Best Of The Best?

We live in a world full of design choices that few of us ever really appreciate. Consider the last time you went to the airport and flew in an airplane. You might have checked-in online, and then arrived at the airport with your boarding pass at hand. Then you might have tapped into a kiosk to see about an upgrade and arrange to check your bag. And then you passed through the check-in and took a look at your ticket to see where you’d be sitting. When you finally boarded the plane, you had already passed through the outcome of dozens of tiny design decisions, and that wasn’t even the last of it: Consider the way the flight attendants greeted you, the way your boarding was managed, and the scripts they read over the PA to greet you.

Antenna designed the kiosks; Huge designed the website. JetBlue designed the service.

Design is all around you, and that’s really the crux of the service-design discipline. It’s a practice that lives in-between others–it lies not in simply the design of the check-in kiosk or the boarding pass, but in the integration of all of those into one total experience. When companies speak of being design-driven, this is where the rubber hits the road. This is where a company shows its consumers that there’s an overall vision for how the company treats them. Likewise, within a company, it is where serious thought is being applied to how people work, and how to make them work better, in processes such as shipping management or project management. But the key in all of these is that there’s a mix of digital, physical, and interpersonal facets, each of which have been designed in some way.

Service design can be writ small and large, ranging from the check-in process at an airline to the way you order at a restaurant to the way doctors manage their patients. It can be fantastically complex or dead simple–think of the shipping management process at someplace such as Gilt, or some swank, highly tailored personal concierge service. But the important thing above all else is a coherence of vision and a recognition of the essential humanity of the people who use the service.

Examples of service design:

  • Airline check-ins
  • Comprehensive branding systems
  • Shipping processes
  • Customer-service systems
  • Concierge programs
  • Back-office software and services
  • Patient-care systems


Ben Fry

Ben is principal of Fathom, a design and software consultancy located in Boston. He received his doctoral degree from the Aesthetics + Computation Group at the MIT Media Laboratory, where his research focused on combining fields such as computer science, statistics, graphic design, and data visualization as a means for understanding information. In 2011, he won the National Design Award for Interaction Design from the Cooper-Hewitt.

Dave Morin

Dave is the CEO and co-founder of Path, a smartphone-based journal that fosters a sense of intimacy by limiting the number of people with whom you can connect. Before starting Path, Morin was the Senior Platform Manager at Facebook where he was a co-inventor of the revolutionary Facebook Platform. He is also an angel investor and advisor.

Melody Roberts

Melody is the Senior Director, Experience Design Innovation at McDonald’s Corporation. Over the past five years, Roberts has integrated experience design into the practice of innovation at the corporation. Today she leads strategic cross-functional initiatives, manages the experience design team, and consults to disseminate design and innovation best practices company-wide.