Two Service Designers beating the odds on an Urban Planning project

A Citizen centred urban planning program which connects streets soul to people’s heart

This article is a reflection of two service designer students working on a project about urban planning while beating the odds of the tough year 2020.

Service design is a discipline that leans on collaboration and hands-on research. So working from two different countries while being restricted from going outside is not usual. That is why we wanted to share some of our reflections on how we came through, hoping you can learn from our mistakes, as well as get inspired by our successes.

Let’s start from the beginning, what success meant for us?

The process of selecting a project in our course is easy, there are several briefs drafted from different clients to choose from. You would usually walk around the class, exchange opinions with your colleges, find colleges to work with, create a WhatsApp group, sync your calendars, and start working. This ritual is repeated at the beginning of each term, followed by a mix of fear and excitement.

But this time things where different. Hours away before submitting our decision, everyone’s phone was constantly ringing. The usual wandering around the classrooms was replaced by a flood of messages with the same subject header: “what are you choosing to work on?”.

Sara and I were both interested in different projects at first and our decision was driven by different motives. One cared about finding the right people to work with the other cared about finding an exciting project to work on. But the turning point was when we had the conversations about what was a success for us? What would make us proud at the end of the project?

We both had the same vision, for us, it was about exploring the project in a holistic way, having fun, experiment with new things, and having a measurable impact. Because we had the same goal, we decided to work together and chose a brief that fuelled our curiosity and that was open for us to experiment. Since we have already worked together prior with three other colleagues, we knew we would achieve our goal, but it was scary to think that it’s just the two of us.

We could see a lot of situations where we would struggle, so we decided to partner with a colleague who was working alone on a similar project. Whenever we would get stuck, we would meet with him to receive feedback or get validation. It was good to add a third person’s perspective because it gave us the motivation to move ahead in the project and helped us reach our goal.

Working from different countries.

Throughout the project, Sara and I were in different countries and had the same challenges as any remote working team. We would often lose motivation, especially during long periods of lockdown.

Before the pandemic, we would work together in the same room around one big desk. To mimic the studio environment, we would stay on the zoom call even when we were working on individual tasks. This was the only way to keep the connection alive, and letting the other know that you were there to discuss findings or to just have a quick chat. We always felt like we were in the same place mentally and the physical distance never bothered us.

Writing things down.

During some of the intense conversations, there would be moments where Sara and I would say or think something fundamental for the project. When asked to repeat it, we would fail to do so. This happened often until we both realised that we needed to start documenting our thoughts before discussing them. This allowed us to have solid discussions but also kept a track of how our project evolved.

There were different ways we used to document these conversations. We started with the classic pen and paper but, because we were working remotely, we would find ourselves holding the paper in front of the camera for the other person to see.

So what started on paper moved to the screen. We used Keynote as a digital diary and sketched on the slide using the Apple Pencil. We were both very bad at drawing but this wasn’t about how well you could draw, it was about expressing ideas, bringing each other on the same page. This new approach always excited us, those drawing discussions were the fuel that kept our project driving at a pace.

We realized the importance of documenting our work when we started to experience lockdown in our own countries in different periods. Unfortunately, the lockdown periods were happening when we started to do field research. Because only one of us could go out, we documented our visits to the high streets, when we were allowed to visit them, by recording our walks. We would then watch the recording together and discuss it. This was interesting because when we showed each other the documentaries, you would hear new perspectives that would have gone unnoticed if not documented.

We are immigrants

The complexity of this project was one of the biggest challenges.

Although we were designing for London, we were not able to experience the city because of the restrictions. So while doing desk research we started to bring our culture and backgrounds into the project. We would reference our own cities, explore them, and presenting them to each other. By doing so we were able to embed some positive aspects into our project. Of course, we had to readapt them to make them familiar to the country we were designing for, but that helped us to expand our creativity and solve interlinked problems.

Researching the meaning of the words

Since neither one of us are native English speakers we often found ourselves not understanding each other. Some words would carry a meaning that the other person would not know or understand differently. Sometimes that meaning was purely fictional or influenced by our culture. We would sometimes argue on the etymology, so we would spend some time researching the meaning on dictionaries or google. This might sound silly but it helped us understand the true meaning of certain words and avoided confusion. We would sometimes go far as visualizing the word through sketches so that we would be on the same page. Afterwards, we would be really careful about what we said and also made sure people understood our meaning of the word.

We took a leap of faith

We know that by being in school we were in a safe place to experiment. While deciding our design strategy we decided to experiment with a new process that I was developing. I knew that the process would work, but it had never been fully tested on a developing project. Experimentation was one of the key factors for our success, so we took a leap of faith and decided to test it out. After all: “ if you don’t try new things you’ll never learn”.

So, don’t fear failure, fear never trying something new.

The duo

Initially, we were afraid of only being two people working on such a vast topic for only two months.

But ultimately we had a lot of fun working together. Since it was just the two of us we could take breaks whenever we wanted, we stopped working sometimes early, sometimes late.

There is a downside to this as well. How do you deal with a situation where there is a conflict? How can we criticize our own work? That is when we would ask for help from colleges and tutors. We would search for criticism and accept it because we knew that’s the only way to expand our thinking, go beyond the size of the canvas and have a successful project.

From our experience, no matter what the team size is, getting external fresh perspectives every now and then is a good way to handle a design project.

Conclusion

Times are tough, and working in teams is not easy. Everyone has something going on in their lives and that goes beyond a pandemic. People may not be able to grab everything in one meeting, topics can deviate, time can be managed poorly, kids may be crying in the background, zoom might not work, etc. That is why I believe that everyone should be looking out for one another. We need to learn to empathize with our colleagues and not just with users. It should be all teammate’s responsibility to make sure everyone is doing ok and support whoever is in need. Find what makes your team tick to keep the momentum of the project. If a team member is having a bad day, just give them the day off and trust them that they would come back stronger the next day. Remember none of this is easy, but again if it was easy everybody would be doing it.

Lastly, When it gets tough going, only the tough get going.

You can check out our project here.

As a kid, I never went to sleep without a story. Born as a photographer, started as an engineer and raised in the start-up ecosystem as a UI/graphic designer.