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Where does service design stand in France

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par Christophe Tallec | 03.13.11

Somewhere between the discovery and the adoption phase, in France, in recent yearsn Service Design has evolved with more and more “early” adopters. It has only been in the last three years that the design scene, with continues to be product-design oriented, has shown a rising interest for service innovation.


Christophe Tallec

An overview of the Service Design offerings and demand structure
These practitioners tend in their everyday practice to adopt product service system thinking and to build extended design offerings. Some of them, interaction designers or from the fields of information architecture and systems or web design are building a global offering of Service Design around their existing activities. Despite this, the actual situation can be depicted as follows: the service ‘touchpoints’ are designed by industrial / graphic / interaction or information designers, while the marketing and process management retain ownership of the overall design of the service, which goes from the front office choreography to the back office, process and organisational design.

The upcoming design generation, struggling with the paradox of their design roles and ethics within the complex context of the 21st century, see Service Design as a means for product dematerialisation. Because designing services allows a new and wider macro/ micro scale and depth of intervention, it makes them realise what new opportunities it offers. French design schools (such as Ensci/Les ateliers or Ensad) explore those territories by organising seminars or workshops with signs of emerging Service Design departments or regular product- and servicesystems oriented courses.

Some of the students enrich or conclude their design studies by ’innovation in service programs’ in business schools, in which service innovation is focused on strategic and service management aspects. The demand for service innovation boomed last year, and newly graduated designers are directly taking existing Service Designer positions or setting up new ones in large companies based on product and services systems offerings, such as IT/telecommunications (Orange), energy (Edf), transport (Veolia Transports), in which design was often already a part of the internal culture of innovation.

The interest from public services is also growing, with pilot schemes that show the advantages that design is bringing as a tool for co-creation and social innovation. Some think tanks or do tanks are increasingly using design thinking and Service Design methodologies to explore public service issues. Such an example is provided by Fing (Fondation Internet Nouvelle Génération), which intends to link technological and user-generated innovation and currently hosts the 27ème Région program, a laboratory for policy innovation in the digital age. They have been using Service Design in immersive explorations and working teams (consisting of designers, Service Designers, architects, sociologists, creatives…) tackling public service issues at different scales from rural areas to cities.
Service Design is progressively being promoted, awarded and is now the subject of calls for projects. Although Service Design is a rather difficult field in which to judge and to exhibit, it is the subject of national exhibitions, fairs and conferences.

(Agence pour la promotion de la création industrielle) includes social innovation and Service Design in its annual Design Observeur competition and exhibition and leads research on Service Design practices.

That being said about the rising interest in Service Design, there is another aspect of this phenomenon. Companies facing difficulties in properly integrating design into their organization are puzzled by the fact that a Service Designer works in collaboration with different services within the firm. As a result, the Service Design practice suffers from communication and organisational problems. Since internal industrial design and its management are accustomed to working only on products and the tangible side of product-service-system offerings, Service Design approaches are seen as intruding on marketing territory, and designers are only consulted after the service thinking process is complete.

There are additional difficulties when industrial companies are forced by the economic situation to redesign their products into products-services systems, as in the car industry. French examples of services that have been well-designed and marketed in this industry are lacking, considering the current need for structural changes. Though the service aspect of cars (the ‘software part’ we should say) is definitely not an innovation coming from French car brands: Service Design is a tool that those practitioners are now thinking about. There is now political support for cars-on-demand and micro-rental models and pressure from the low-carbon economy is creating a fast-growing market that challenge the economic models of the car industry, a subject in which Service Design has an opportunity to play a great role as a vector of change.
We now acknowledge that design has to go beyond its accepted roles. After having been a vector of innovation applied to the industrial economy, it has to reach new dimensions of innovation in the service economy:

  • Service Design is needed by industry players, who are still driven by old economic models, as a competitive and market-changing tool, in order to transition their economy.
  • For successful players in the French service economy, Service Design is an opportunity to improve their service offerings in competitive environments due to economic recession.

However, design investment seems to be on hold for the moment. The service management of many organisations is somewhere between exploration and acceptance of this kind of design thinking.

In France, there has been a growing industrial-design culture built on product innovation where RODI (Return on Design Investment, to quote the U.K the Design Council) has become the main criterion for evaluating and measuring the impact of design. But the emergence of Service Design in France could lead to a change in this one-sided scheme of evaluation. To draw a parallel between foreign Service Design sectors, we could say that France has great potential for a flourishing Service Design sector with an existing strong service economy, but there is work that must be done in parallel:

  • Companies should work on integrating designers in their service innovation and Service Design departments and manage Service Design.
  • The Service Design offering should build a more networked and better defined sector, lobbying for a better understanding by companies and public bodies alike.

Christophe Tallec is service designer and co-founder of Utilisacteur

Credits: Designer : Fabien Ripaud – Projet : étapes d’utilisation du système « Vélo.City.Zen » / Biennale Internationale du Design de Saint-Etienne

To learn more about the innovation presented in this article, please contact us at

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