Do you know the story of the hole and the drill machine? People buy drill machines, but actually want holes. I use it often to explain the difference between ‘Product thinking’ and ‘Service thinking’. Whereas the first will lead to ongoing improvement of the drill machine, the latter emphasizes that needs can be fulfilled also in other ways. In this blog (an adaption of a lecture at service design day Utrecht, May 23) I will argue that we need to look beyond products, beyond services, and even beyond products/service systems. We have to begin with end: what we can do with a system. It is.

do it myselfIn October last year, I got an assignment for a redesign of an innovative machine I did not know at all. I like ‘learning-by-means-of-bruises’, as experiencing products myself provides rich insights and ideas. So I decided to get dirty hands and arranged a traineeship at one of our clients. He was mildly amused to see a PhD clumsily operating a machine. He produces prints as photo’s on a wide range of materials for consumers. It turned out to be a paradigm-shifting event. Not because operating the machine was terribly hard. And not even because I literally got dirty hands and bruises. The shock was because I learned that despite the many possibilities the machine offers, only few were used. The client is a craftsman who can create incredible things with it, yet there simply is no demand for it. His customers order unexciting things, to put it mildly. It is as if he owns a heavy truck, but the jobs he gets can be done with a car as well.

Suddenly it struck me that the most important thing I could design for him was not a better product or a better service. What he needed were applications: things you could produce with this machine.  Applications everybody likes.

Paradigm shifts in design

I used the word ‘paradigm-shift’ not lightheartedly: I am aware that a paradigm concerns the entire constellation of beliefs that sets a practice. And a paradigm shift is , following Thomas Kuhn’s book, a revolutionary change in how to see the world around you and seldom occurs. Yet, the trainee-ship radically changed  ‘my’ design paradigm. To explain, let us look at three paradigm shifts in the world of design  in the past.

pss-1 design by loewyThe first radical change emerged in the beginning of the first century. As a result of the industrialization, design of things became a dedicated task, separated from the craft of making things. Until then, making things and giving shape to it went hand in hand. Yet producing things in series put forward the need to have someone devising appealing designs a priori the act of making.  Design was born and the first appointed designer ever was Peter Behrens at AEG in 1907. He started with the design of the corporate identity – a word that did not exist yet. In time producers became aware they had to win the hearts of the consumers, and more and more beautiful products were conceived by designers. The master of them all undoubtedly was Raymond Loewy, creating many awe-inspiring products. Yet, this paradigm is entirely focused on the ‘object’; humans seem to be ignored. The great cars of the fifties undoubtedly have many admirers, yet none of them will claim that these cars have a high usability, fitness for use or are even safe.

The second paradigm shift is the discovery of The Human, interacting with a product. Not the car with its engine, wheels and so on is the starting point of the designer, who aims to create an object of desire. No, the starting point is the driver, who has to be supported optimally.

It was a Copernican revolution in design: no longer the Object was at the center of the universe, but a Human using it.

car interiorWe named it User Centered Design, or Human Centered Design, and e.g., in car design resulted into the focus on the interior, safety, comfort and so on. It still is the prevailing paradigm for most designers, who cannot believe others as marketers or engineers do not think the same. Funnily, the genesis of this paradigm is actually not so idealistic after all. It was in WO II that Harold Hazen , professor on MIT, noted that the human capabilities and limitations need to be central for developing effective anti-aircraft fire-control. Less abstract: supporting gunmen in airplanes. Well, a revolution has to start somewhere.

After the ‘Human central’ design revolution, we are in the middle of the next paradigm shift: to We Are Not Alone. User-centered design focuses on a  user and a product (or: a service), yet we are all part of systems. Any product is just an element of a much larger system. Drilling a hole is meaningless, if the plugs, the screws, the screwdriver are not ‘magically’ fitting.  A smartphone is useless without apps, providers, internet, 3G, wifi, other humans and so on. The focus of designers suddenly is no longer an object, a service or a user; the focus is the system of products, services, users, and so on. I became a converted designer, when I discovered that my designs for e.g., refilling toner in a printer had a remarkable strong impact on the manufacturing and distribution – and subsequently on the environment.  Once I designed it as part of the system, a totally different design was needed.

Begin with the end

a toner distribution SYSTEMMore and more people discover ‘Systems’; naming it e.g., PSS (Product Service Systems). Once you see it, it makes much sense. However, there is a drawback: the constituents and their relations of systems hard to oversee. And also designing systems is nearly impossible, I discovered the hard way. Even the development of a toner distribution system took years and actually I believe I only partly succeeded. For one reason, there is already a system functioning: with many stakeholders and (tacit) relations. System design never is clean-sheet.  Another reason is that changing a part of the system inevitably results into changes somewhere in the system one is not expecting at all. As we all know too well,  an update of Windows on a PC can lead to unexpected problems  with other software programs. A last reason is that it is always hard to decide what strategy is best best to achieve a specific aim, as in a system there are so many constituents. In order to improve hang up things on the wall, should we improve the drill machine, the drill, the plug, or the screw? Or should we resort to a service altogether?  The problem of designing systems is that nobody oversee all, yet the knowledge of many is needed.

The paradigm-shifting event I experienced while doing a traineeship at a client solved this problem elegantly.

Rather than focusing on the system – including users, products and services, we should focus on What One Can Do With It.

Do not focus on the products (like a printer) and services (like maintenance contracts) that are part of the system, and not even on the user/consumer. But focus on what he can achieve with it: what he can make with the system including the printer, the paper, the maintenance contract and so on.  I name this design-for-purpose, because the system is applied for something specific, it is meeting its end.

Aristotle mentioned that anything has a telos, i.e., a purpose, an aim. The telos of nut is to become a tree. The telos of a system is what one can do with it. My proposal is that for system design one has to start with the telos of a system. More precisely: to design the telos of a system. And I propose to do this radically. Design what one can do with a product, a service or  a system and  validate its value. And subsequently develop an appropriate system of products and services. Don’t start with the drillmachine, and not even with the hole: start with the application. A painting or photo one wants to show. There are many ways, and holes and drill machines may no be necessary.

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