Design is service —not manipulating, nudging, coercing, persuading…
The interrelationship that binds, animates, and defines a design capable
system is service. Service is a contractual relationship where purpose and
intention is blended with instrumental skill, judgement and agency (Nelson and
Stolterman 2000). Service is a word that has many meanings in different
contexts. It has a sense of ennoblement at the same time that it has negative
connotations for the reasons given by James Hillman (Hillman 1995):
Service offends deep strata of human dignity. We may
all want service, but who wants to give it? For service still
means menial service (not banking, brokering, telephoning,
teaching, installing, diagnosing or writing). The first trouble
lies in the word, which invites in it cousins—serf, servile,
servant, servitude, servility, all descendants from the
common Latin ancestor, servus, slave. Service, as it is
defined in our culture, is hardly empowering, or
empowering only to those persons who can command
service and the system for which we slave.
Kinds of Power
In education one studies the liberal arts, not the servile arts, a
representative and enduring cleaving of mind from body and spirit from
matter. It is representative as well of the aversion and fear of submissive
relationships of control, in contrast to control over one's own self interests.
Service is perceived as putting one’s self in an inferior role at the beck and
call of demands issuing from above or below depending on your station
These service relationships are without much appeal to anyone except
martyrs or those who willingly enjoy sacrificing their own self-interest for
the benefit of others. However, service can be seen in a more positive and
more appealing light, as there are other systemic, service relationships that
do not require self-sacrifice or martyrdom.
Service can be defined as a self-referential, systemic relationship as in
self-serving. In the search for truth (scientific, artistic or religious) one serves
ones own purposes i.e. artists express their own feelings and emotions while
scientists follow their own curiosity and passion and believers search for a
true god(s) and metaphysical invariance.
From a design perspective, service is defined as other-serving. Design
service is the quality of empathy, embodied in design communication, which
is mutual rather than unilateral. Service, from a design perspective, is very
different from the kind of empathic relationship employed in helping or
fixing as explained by Rachel Remen ((Remen 1996)):
Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on
inequality; it is not a relationship between equals…. Service
is a relationship between equals…. Helping incurs debt.
When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like
healing is mutual. There is no debt.
Rachel Naomi Remen
In the Service of Life
Noetic Science Review
Design service is defined by the contractual (formal or informal)
relationships of mutual and diverse benefit. In a relationship where there is
an exchange of value of equivalencies there is no inequity, inferiority,
domination, obligation, or unilateral control. Design, as service, is dependent
on the presence of an authentically empathic system of relationships.