A bit of drama

With cuts across the board in arts industries, people are looking more closely at the purpose and value that the arts sector provides.

A recent performance of The Edge, directed by Douglas Rintoul and performed by students from Transport and Central School of Speech and Drama at the Diorama Theatre in London last week, explored parallels between journeys made by asylum seekers and journeys made by people from more affluent and politically stable countries.

The narrative of the show was developed and built by the students while conducting a range of what we would call ‘expert interviews’. They spoke to channel swimmers, political migrants and expert climate historians. The result was a series of compelling in-depth insights into the personalities and relationships between people in search of a new existence.

The analogy between drama and what takes place in service design could be looked at in terms of sequences and journeys – both the emotional journey of a character and the actor portraying them, and the physical journey of production. These similarities are reflected in service design in the tangible roll out of a service and the emotional journey of the customer in relation to their experience of it.

Similarly, as a director will both understand the nuances of a character, the nuances of the actor required to deliver the performance and the intricacies and politics around production, funding and marketing of a play, a service designer must reconcile the differences of a company’s function and structure with the role of frontline staffand the needs and requirements of the user.

The collaboration between the range of input and the potential of the results, familiar to both disciplines, can be demonstrated in this recent production of The Edge – a production that addresses contemporary issues and informs them by research into real people’s experiences.

Theatre relies on constant transformation to stay relevant and attract and engage its audience. Particularly at this period, the industry has to prove itself and its necessity.

What influence can service design take from an established industry that is innovating to stay ahead of the game and to fight for its continued place in culture, appreciation and financial support?

Performance and drama has been adopted for many years by the advertising industry, but how could it be relevant all the way through a customer journey – from acquisition, communications and after care and support?

How could the passion of a cast be transcribed into the roles of frontline staff? Could services be delightfully rejuvenated as a result of the input of the ‘cast’ themselves?

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2 Responses to A bit of drama

  1. Hi Paddy,

    I’m a professional actor as well as a professional service designer, so perhaps I can add some input from both sides of your great comparison. :)

    I’ll start (as usual) by sticking my neck out: I don’t think theater is an analogy of service design, I think it is the same thing. At my agency, we use a strongly theatrical toolset in service experience design.

    As well as tools which are familiar to most designers like storyboards, we also use the key iterative development tool of theatrical rehearsal (not roleplay, please) in developing services and experiences. Working with frontline staff, we delve into the subtext and supertext of encounters from both the customer and provider points of view.

    We pay close attention to comedic moments – believing that comedy is where truth meets pain, and that it reveals areas of rich potential insight. We look at the dramaturgy of experiences with theatrical eyes, examining (and planning) dramatic arcs and twists.

    We used these dramatic arcs (and another key rehearsal concept: genuine Safe Space) in our recent international project the Global Service Jam.

    There is another crucial advantage of a theatrical (or “showbiz”) toolset – it gives a robust and precise design language which is already understood by almost everyone in the room (scenes & props rather than encounters & tangibles). That alone is enormously valuable.

    You ask if the passion of a cast can be transcribed into frontline staff? The answer is yes, but to understand why we should not only look at the practiced mastery of a cast on the West End or Broadway (both of which are doing very nicely, by the way). We should also examine the passion and energy of good amateur dramatics. It works so well because the performers are presenting something they have created themselves. The more co-creative the director, the better the energy…

    Thanks, and I’d be glad to continue the conversation!


    PS You can get an accelerated view of some of our methods in this video. It shows an excerpt of our session “Beyond Roleplay – Theatrical Techniques in Service Design” from the 2010 SDN conference in Berlin.


    • Paddy Long says:

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for your reply and for sharing your insights.
      It’s great to hear further examples of someone demonstrating that drama, theatre and comedy are integral to excellent service design. I enjoyed watching video.


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