img patternimg pattern

A transdisciplinary approach to designing better services and spaces

Spatial and Service Design together can create rewarding environments where people’s needs are met beyond their expectations.

Gea Sasso
Service Designer

29.05.23 - 8 mins read

The design of a brand’s physical spaces often fails to provide the best environment for the services offered. Customers and employees can feel frustrated because of the inability to live a good experience despite a beautiful location aligned with the brand’s identity.

As designers, sketchbooks, blueprints and renderings are some of the main tools we consider when contemplating physical spaces and places. Experiences-wise, we recall tools like user journeys, co-design activities and ecosystem mapping.

But what we aim at when considering the contextual design of space and services is something more. And it involves a good collaborative process that integrates aspects from both Spacial and Service Design to create the perfect ground for social and relational activities.

Spaces, services and experiences

Because of my mixed design background, I can’t help but notice uncomfortable spaces or cumbersome services wherever I go. Sometimes, brands create spaces to benefit users without probing into their true needs. In other cases, services may frustrate users who cannot perform the required actions. 

The potential and limits of each discipline, especially when complementary to one another, underscore the importance of using diverse knowledge and backgrounds as a shared resource when designing experiences. 

But before getting into the thick of things, I’d like to mark down some key definitions to help us share the same understanding of this article’s language.

The two definitions are interesting for a few reasons:
  • It takes a while to find a good definition of Spatial Design, while there are many definitions for Service Design. 
  • Spatial Design definitions don’t often mention people (users, customers or just human beings) or space as grounds for human activities. Whilst Service Design definitions mention “location” as one of several factors (even though it can be referred to as a digital layer).
  • It’s hard to trace where Spatial Design comes from. It looks more like an evolution of other disciplines/fields (Architecture, Urban planning, Interior Design...). On the other hand, it’s easy to trace Service Design’s evolution and milestones that established today’s discipline.
  • Spatial Design is defined as a discipline or area, whilst Service Design is depicted more as a process.

Spatial and Service Design

Human and non-human beings who use, adapt, invade, and appropriate spaces (as well as objects, products or any designed object) often do it without instructions or consent of those who designed them.

To better respond to users’ needs, designers could involve them in the planning process or co-create together. Most brands are great at generating “wow” effects that impact the users’ memory but fail at meeting users’ needs. 

Circumstances are also important. Sometimes, it is best to provide the right degree of customisation, while in others, to anticipate an action or need. We must consider how malleable brands’ spaces and their experiences are for users. They are well-designed when they answer needs and don’t let brand identity take over.

  • Spaces are material, and they are made of brick and mortar. As much as we can imagine “temporary”, “light”, “ephemeral” and “multifunctional” spaces, we still have a degree of steady tangibility that must be considered. 
  • Services are almost untouchable. They are flexible and can evolve and transform easier than spaces can. Experiences can become tangible through touch points, but their systemic nature still allows a certain degree of change.

Spatial Design relies on creativity and is exceptional, magical and inspirational. Its projects shape up in a tangible and immersive dimension, and they can be so final-image-driven that renderings are the only way to communicate them well. The result of a Spatial project is usually defined, final and concrete.

While Service Design processes are stratified (multiple layers of interaction), methodic and interconnected, their result enables further design operations, which can be undefined and evolving. They convey ideas through a process that includes moments and interactions but lacks visual representation and tangibility. In this context, foundational elements of the experience, such as Interaction and Visual Design, are essential. 

Each discipline has a different scale and focus. In a typical Spatial process, with tight budgets and deadlines, investigating future users’ needs and behaviours is simply not a priority. Nonetheless, co-creation would be ideal not only between stakeholders but with users too. 

In short, we need to reimagine the whole process for each discipline to improve the outcomes of both design processes. A transdisciplinary take that leverages complementary abilities to improve output and enrich the outcome through cross-pollination.

So what?

We need to develop a cross-disciplinary approach for our practice to transform spaces through the “experiential lenses” of Service Design.

Almost any service unfolds through a physical layer of spaces, objects, interfaces, people, etc. That’s why spatial designers can and should have a role in designing how the physical dimension of services manifests.

The real shift must now take place in how the design process is built, accommodating not only different professionals but also activities, tools, methodologies and outcomes that will give back an increased, multifaceted experience.

Complex emotional spaces

Space has the power to engage its user emotionally, and user-centred environments are experiences designed for emotions. Moments happening within a physical framework weave together spatial design with experience design. At the same time, intelligently designed experiences have the power to fit users’ habits and stick in their memories. The efficiency and effectiveness of an experience rely on how flawless the interactions between users and the service are.

This joint approach may benefit several contexts: retail, offices, hospitals, and public entities. They are all complex systems of people, spaces, and services that deserve a design process and set of competencies that are at least as articulated as they are.

Ultimately, every space is a complex entity intrinsically linked to those who pass through, inhabit, and use it. It is impossible to imagine a space without what defines it - encounters, relationships, and interactions just as it is impossible to imagine needs, desires, habits, and necessities without contemplating user participation.

A transdisciplinary Service + Spatial approach is young but promising: we move forward by bringing together designers from different disciplines working on real projects with enough room to experiment, try, fail and improve.

Connect with us

Learn more about our projects and what we can do for your business.