Last week I had a chat with Jeff Howard, during which I described the presentations at the Service Design Network conference in November. My observation from the conference is that service designers seem to know what service design looks like. The process shown during the presentations looked very similar. This prompted Jeff to suggest that process is no longer a differentiator.

I’ve been pondering this statement since then. How true is it? And what could that mean? The design process has received a lot of attention over the past few years in part due to the push of user-centered design and a focus on experience over features. The best design firms rely on a strong design process that implements various methods. For the most part, methods are known, but flexible enough for variation. A lot of design education, whether it’s in the classroom, a conference presentation, or workshop, focuses on teaching process and methods. Even in the realm of business, design methods have been adopted to incite innovation.

The design process and methods are not very difficult to learn. For those who want to learn them and for design firms that believe them, there is not much room to grow in the process arena. Sure, new methods are created all the time. But I don’t think they revolutionize the process as a whole.

So that leaves us with all good design firms using a similar process with similar methods. How then do you differentiate? Or what is it that actually differentiates one design firm, or one designer, from another, especially if they have a similar focus, like service design?

While there are several ways to answer this question, one I find interesting is the culture and values that a designer or a design firm possesses. These forces affect the thinking during the design process and the making that results. But they don’t receive a lot of attention. Understanding the role those forces play in design process could be a way of articulating value and differentiation when the landscape of process execution looks the same.

I think it would be really interesting to hear design teams talk about how their culture and values influenced the decisions made during the design process that led to the chosen solution. Perhaps less how and more why.