An Interview with Robbie Bates
For Touchpoint Vol. 10 No. 1, I chatted with Robbie Bates about how the agency-client relationship is fundamentally changing, and trends in the world of service design. Our discussion follows.
In his dual roles as Design Director and Business Director at London-based Uscreates, Robbie Bates juggles the challenges of addressing the evolving nature of service design, and of the service design agency itself.
Me: At 13 years old, Uscreates counts itself amongst some of the longest-established service design agencies worldwide. In that time, it's earned a respected reputation based on a strong track record in public sector-focussed service design. Can you share a little more about the type of work your agency carries out, and your role in particular?
Robbie Bates: Seven years since I started at Uscreates, I still find explaining what we do succinctly difficult! In the broadest sense, we’re a service design and innovation agency focused on improving health, wellbeing and public services. Our work is all about designing better products, services and experiences that ultimately lead to better outcomes for people; from health to education. That might be working to design a new preventative mental health service across South London, or finding better ways to support those who are being impacted by the housing crisis in Newcastle.
My role in all of that is a bit two-fold. Firstly, I’m a Design Director. I’m responsible for the quality of our work – ensuring it achieves impact, and leading teams and organisations through the messy and ambiguous design process. It’s often less about ‘doing the designing’ nowadays, and more about creating the right culture and environment so that our teams can produce their best and most impactful work. As a designer-by-training, it’s a big and on-going learning curve for me, moving from being a designer to being a design leader.
The second part of my role is looking at where we go next as a design agency. As one of Uscreates’ Business Directors, I’m focused on working with our leadership team to understand some of the big challenges and changes that might impact how we and the organisations we work work with operate in the future. It’s really about practicing what we preach, and using creativity and design to think about the future. For example, we’ve been using speculative design methods to inform our strategic discussions, using it to think critically about who we are, the people we hire, and the work we might want to focus on in the future.
Speculative design is something we’ll be touching upon in the next issue of Touchpoint, as one of several ways we as service designers can ‘design the future’. Are there other instances of new techniques and emergent areas of service design that you’re exploring?
The projects I lead require a range of different expertise and skill-sets from our teams and networks – from the more traditional and established service design techniques to more experimental approaches like speculative design or open data expertise. Over the past six months we’ve been experimenting with how these ‘next practice’ techniques and methods can benefit the work we do, and the outcomes we achieve through our work.
For example, we’ve been working with the EU Commission to design fictional prototypes and artefacts that help policy-makers across the EU consider the ethical, social and regulatory implications of emerging technologies such as Blockchain. On work like this, we’re blending skills in product design, foresight, socio-techno policy and systems change.
One of the key elements of the SDN’s mission is to work towards ensuring that service design becomes the ‘new normal’. What evidence have you seen, and steps have you made, towards making that a reality?
One of the biggest trends we’ve witnessed and been part of over the past few years, is how service design is being increasingly taken in-house, and organisations are building their own design capabilities and cultures, rather than just outsourcing ‘design’. We’re really seeing design being framed as an attitude rather than just a technical skill. For me, that’s a fascinating and complex process, and one that is symptomatic of service design being taken more seriously as a way of supporting meaningful and lasting change.
This provides a real opportunity for us and many other service design agencies, to really think deeply about our role as a consultancy, where we’re not just ‘doing the work for clients’, but we’re really partnering to help organisations think about the value of design, build the right teams, and shape lasting culture change that enables design to thrive once we take a step back. It’s an incredibly complex process to really embed ‘design as an attitude’ within an organisation, and requires us to really understand the DNA of an organisation, its history and the often ‘unspoken’ values or power dynamics that sit underneath the surface.
For us, it’s about really allowing teams to feel what it means to design, and understand the emotive factors that result in impactful design work. Design-thinking has been great at raising the profile of design and for putting a recognised process in place for many to understand design in principle, but where it often falls short is in by setting design up to be linear and a process that is one-size fits all. This often means that people understand the principles and theory of design, but struggle with its ambiguity once they are actually ‘in it’. It’s therefore increasingly our role to support and coach people through this, helping to not only understand ‘the process’ (i.e. tools and methods), but the softer, emotive parts of working collaboratively with people, understanding their needs and being able to know when something isn’t working and course correct.
The opportunity to have matured alongside the UK service design market for more than a decade must put you and your colleagues in a position to step back and see some broad trends. What stands out for you?
Design education in universities is often a space where we see some of the interesting trends emerge across the industry. Whether that be the cross-over of design and social innovation, or the practical application of speculative design, it’s a space that breeds experimentation and encourages the mixing of practices such as business and design, or fashion and electronics. Outside of Uscreates, I’m a teacher and mentor, and have been fortunate enough to teach service design and innovation across the UK and around the world, from Stanford’s D.School to the University of the Arts, London. It’s taught me a lot about what we can expect from the future of design, and also what skills and attitudes are coming through the next generation of designers. It plays directly back into our work at Uscreates too, where shifts in the industry are encouraging designers to not only be design practitioners, but also teachers, coaches and mentors.
Another interesting shift we are seeing is a move from services to systems. The nature and complexity of the issues we are designing for means that a single service or solution isn’t going to solve the systemic drivers that underpin the issue. There are many levers that need to be pulled to create lasting and meaningful change, and they often require more than one person or organisation to pull them. It’s an interesting shift from singular design projects, into much more collective design practice, where we’re asking ourselves what it means to design for a ‘living system’, where there are thousands of causes, drivers and players within it. It’s complex, and requires us to acknowledge its complexity and work within it. For me, part of being a designer is now about understanding the notion of power and really thinking about how design can play a role in shaping new power dynamics that underpin the systems that we are trying to influence or change.
Lastly, and perhaps less of a trend and more of a personal observation, is the importance of intentional and collective imagination in the design process. We’re living in times of rapid and monumental change (societal, political, technological, economic and environmental), and we are often in the position of responding or reacting to these changes as they occur, or shortly before. Because we’re increasingly being asked to use design to support bigger ‘transformation’ efforts or to explore broader macro shifts — such as ageing populations and the impact of AI — the role of imagination has never been more important. It’s important because, as we design for the future, we should be carefully considering what it is we are collectively designing. As we design products and services, what is the impact that they might have in the future, what are the unintended consequences we might be creating or the bigger impact we might be having on people or society?
Imagination is a powerful tool for asking the ‘what if’ questions, and experimenting with the ‘art of the possible’. For me, the power of imagination is something that can get lost in the linearity of a ‘design process’, and as human beings, something we should consider as one of the most powerful assets – an ability to imagine the future.
This article also appears in Vol. 10, No. 1 of Touchpoint, a journal published three times per year by the Service Design Network, and providing in-depth coverage of all aspects of the service design discipline.