Graphic Design’s relevance to Service Design

10 min readApr 2, 2024


by Jakob Schneider

Graphic Design: providing visual explanation

This chapter explains what graphic design is capable of and what role it can play within service design — from the perspective of a graphic designer.

It is nearly impossible for any product or service to be available on the market without a graphically designed element. Wayfinding systems, user interfaces, pictograms, packaging, forms or manuals are all graphically designed. To be successful, these offerings have to be well designed and thought through in terms of their graphical impact and how the information they contain is structured.

An individual’s perception of the world is much more dependent on visual impulses than ever before. At the same time, people have to deal with a plethora of sources of information, increasingly distributed by digital media. It is therefore necessary to develop mental filter systems, or mechanisms of perception through which individuals can continue to make sound decisions about the information and perceptual stimuli presented to them.

Mental models help an individual’s orientation in the world; they are the abstract and reductive mental representation of the complexity all of us face in everyday life — the schemas by which all of us understand the world around ourselves. If, however, a user is confronted with a situation they have never previously experienced, they cannot fall back on an existing model. Knowledge about the payment process at a supermarket, and the mental model of how this system works in their head might or might not necessarily be helpful for understanding how to interact with a new online shopping process. The metaphor of the online shopping cart for example, promotes the development of a new mental model, through reference to an analogous experience. The individual can draw upon known mechanisms and functionalities associated with, in this case, shopping carts to understand a novel and largely intangible online system of payment. Even though online shopping is phenomenologically different from previous experiences the user might have of “offline” shopping.

It is the graphic designer’s task to trigger an individual’s mental models, or at least to positively influence the accrual of such cognitive representations of meaning. It is thus the graphic designer’s task to trigger an individual’s mental models, or at least to positively influence the accrual of such cognitive representations of meaning. This chapter explains what graphic design is capable of and what role it can play within service design — from the perspective of a graphic designer.

Two tasks: information and branding

Historically speaking, graphic design has its origins in the applied arts. It has its roots in the professions of poster artists and sign writers. However, today there are two big fields of activity for a graphic designer, while boundaries of these two fields are fluid.

Branding refers to helping an offering establish a visual identity and familiarity in the eyes of customers. Thus graphic design taps into and adopts a number of patterns of which the customer already has a mental model: use of the colour green in packaging can, for example, suggest an association with the user’s ideas of freshness, organic products or, more recently, environmental friendliness.

Information design, on the other hand, pertains to the task of making complex and abstract content accessible in a simpler way. Through logical composition, visual hierarchy and the use of visual metaphors, viewers are supported in their absorption and comprehension of information.

Branding supports the customer to emotionally approximate himself with the theme or emotional context of the experience. Within this setting, information design leads to a satisfactory and positively associated user experience.

Branding and information design are not opposed to each other. They rather operate with a high degree of interdependency. The branded visual environment reduces inhibition thresholds of participants through its use of familiar motifs. This supports the customer to emotionally approximate himself with the theme or emotional context of the experience. Within this setting, information design leads to a satisfactory and positively associated user experience. Nevertheless, these two fields have different focuses. There is no disputing that branding is an essential part of market positioning, as it creates the atmosphere that motivates the user to become aware of and consider the offering in the first place.

Information design has far greater underlying and explicit influence in the service design process, since it changes how society handles information, and moreover has the power to affect users’ perceptions of the value of a service proposition or indeed of any of the information transfers between service provider and the service recipient that is integral to the service experience.

The works of a pioneer of graphic design, Henry C. Beck (1902–1974) are a good example of this. He created the prototype of all public transportation maps. Beck’s plan of the London Underground adapted the geo-metrical clarity of an electrical circuit board for the geographical position of the Underground stations. In doing this, he made the complex system more understandable and accessible through visual abstraction. His approach of combining two fundamentally different topics — electrical wiring and public transportation — helps the user develop their own mental model. In fact, he changed our way of imagining the Underground’s conglomerate of tubes and stations.

The need for orientation and reliability

After decades of progressively more empty public advertising and the obvious manipulation of advertising promises, the customer is fed up with not being taken seriously and seeks authenticity. (Gilmore, J. H. and Pine B. J., 2007) It is necessary to accommodate this mind set. How authentic is a cleaning service whose visual presentation is itself messy? How believable is a grocery market, specialised in organic products, which shares a similar corporate design to a multinational convenience food company? How much trust is warranted for an online tool that appears inconsistent with the Internet’s visual language, or uses web aesthetics that are ten years old?

Customers today have a strong sense of how a product with service components can be integrated into their everyday life. Such products are often sold on the basis of helping to simplify their life, not to create further confusion. Users become increasingly annoyed when they feel a product is irrational — for instance: having to press the start button, to shut off a computer; being debited after pressing “proceed”, despite wanting to check again the entered address before you confirm a purchase online or noticing two screws are on the wrong position when the cupboard has already been built.

A negative feeling occurs, at least unconsciously, if one encounters bad graphic design or disparities in visual communication such as those mentioned above. An improper presentation of an organisation makes the customer uncomfortable and produces inhibitions and sometimes even anger. Moreover, if the use of an offering is perceived as difficult and exhausting, this may cause unwillingness. It may be forgivable for a customer that their bank’s corporate identity does not really inspire confidence, but they become upset when they cannot see their balance because the pixelated letters on a screen are too small to read.

Visual presentation plays an important role in three ways. It pre-empts the actual service process, it controls customer expectation, and it can promote trust during interaction. The so-called look and feel can evoke a positive prevailing mood, or even makes the service usable in the first place through visual aides. Lastly, the visual appearance acts as an anchor that links the user to the positive experience. Visual control is henceforth a key competence in the conception of design propositions.

Visual control

“These days, information is a commodity being sold. And designers — including the newly defined subset of information designers and information architects — have a responsible role to play. We are interpreters, not merely translators, between sender and receiver. What we say and how we say it makes a difference. If we want to speak to people, we need to know their language. In order to design for understanding, we need to understand design.” — Erik Spiekermann, graphic designer

When standing in front of a cash machine, previous design propositions determine if you, or maybe your own grandmother, will be able to interact successfully with the machine. Putatively banal parameters like letter size, fonts, colours, positioning and notably a logical formation and formal organisation of the given information is critical.

For graphic designers it does not matter if they are working on a product or a service offering. Whether they have to create a print product, an interface or a three-dimensional presentation, it is imperative for the graphic designer to know what they want to offer the customer on a visual level, in order to adequately convey the thoughts and concepts standing behind the design proposition.

The visually independent positioning in the market competition is more of a side effect and actually roots in the functional task. If they want to see how and if their design is working appropriately they have to see the entire context and the surrounding system as a whole.

Assume a local community centre wants to redesign its waiting room and hires a qualified graphic designer, granting him absolute freedom. The designer might identify the touchpoints: doors, seats, signs, service counter and a cashier window. Facing these constraints, they ask two questions: Which emotions should be aroused in each area, and how can it be explained to the citizens what they have to or can do in this location?

The role of a graphic designer does not lie in sticking a previously developed logo on each and every surface. The answer to both questions could lie in a structured process outlined through bold lines on the floor. These could lead the user from the door, to take a queuing number, to the seat, the counter and then finally the cashier window. Additionally, a big sign could explain the whole process. A distinctive colour code, consistent with the colours on the sign and the stations, can on the one hand communicate the station’s meaning in an emotional way, and on the other hand assist in structuring the room spatially. On the already installed display panel it could be explained why the citizen has to wait and for how long, by using an information graphic.

After a consistent and functionally designed system has been established, these exemplary measures could be recursively applied to all further touchpoints. Ultimately the visual orientation system could be embedded in a corporate design, which stands for openness, clarity and reliability, achievable for example through a clear, simple visual language.

It is nonetheless important to understand that the role of a graphic designer does not lie in sticking a previously developed logo on each and every surface. The complete visual appearance consists of far more factors than just such signage. The use of colours, text, photographs, the chosen medium, the type of production — there are countless ways to keep an image consistent and also countless ways to dilute it. As many parameters decide what is told by whom, as how it is told.

The orchestration of these factors requires designers to be open to current trends and familiar with previous trends to best enable them to understand the world of their target audience. There are certain photographs that most viewers would consistently place as from the nineties, which could be very unfortunate if this aesthetic is not what is desired by the organisation. At a detail-focussed level of typography, which could be seen as the equivalent to pronunciation and pitch of voice in the design world, the viewer can be addressed loud and clear, quiet and playful or serious and outdated.

The given example of the community centre illustrates the relationship of branding and information design in a meaningful way. In the case of service design, however, the team works out its focus group very precisely, it analyses and modifies operations on and offstage and verifies the designed outcome in repeated experiments. It is able to plan and accompany the process with the necessary expertise. These examples of how graphic designers think and operate should indicate that they are indispensable members of a service design team.

How graphic designers contribute to a service design process

The creation of a comfortably usable form, the development of a pictogram system, the design of an information graphic, the concept of user guidance in digital media, and in fact every kind of visual positioning in the branding of services and service organisations, needs the experience and expertise of professional designers. Today, such designers work typically at the end of the process: The strategic planners develop a concept, lasting several weeks, and the designer is asked to “create a couple of nice pictures” just before the deadline. Doing it in that way wastes an opportunity. The full integration of visual designers in an interdisciplinary team from the beginning should be as self-evident as the hiring of a project manager.

Graphic designers have a distinctive visual imagination and think early about how a planned idea will work in practice. They depend in their work on thinking mostly about the moment when the user comes into contact with the product or service offering. This special perspective contributes to the development process right from its onset. The creative team benefits from the designer’s ability to create mock-ups and prototypes with relative ease. These can already have certain functions and can therefore help in detecting misconceptions, making it easier for team members without creative background to play the user’s role and integrate themselves with the creative process.

Regardless of the specific task at hand, the graphic designer is an asset because of their own way of analysing the environment. The special perspective they possess in interpreting how graphic information and culturally coined visual codes work is valuable for creating functioning design propositions.

Orientation and style as a necessary combination

Visitors of different nationalities have to orientate themselves on the extensive convention area. The system guides them to the right place. And to make the walk seem shorter, it’s entertaining: outside they are greeted by bright flags, inside by distinctively striped signs and big walls of colour. The chord of colours, like colourful wallpaper, makes the uptake of information both pleasant and easy. The coding of the various destinations works subliminally: pink leads to the congress, blue to the exits, red to the halls.

Branding and information design complement each other in a symbiotic way. Function and emotion combined define the concrete parameters like typography, colours, form and composition.




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