Being part of a community

Practitioner stories
9 min readJun 22, 2021
all the illustrations from this article are grouped here, one about feeling as an outsider, another about expending outside Scotland, building a community and one about who should be part

In this summary we explore the Community theme. It was identified alongside four other themes as part of the Practitioner Stories. You can read the quotes from this theme on our website.

We asked practitioners how they build collaborations with other people practicing in their area, and where they thought the Service Design community in Scotland should concentrate its efforts. Interviewees told us about the communities they participate in, and the communities they would like to have.

“Community” was used broadly and meant different things at different times for our interviewees. It could be the Scottish Service design community, but also a wider Design community beyond Scotland (and even beyond the UK), and sometimes, it meant the community they live in.

Our previous summary was about Sharing. We saw that some of our participants didn’t feel safe to share. But quite a few also told us that they felt “outside” the service design community despite their experience. We spoke about the lack of honesty and critique in online spaces, and the benefits that practitioners gained from sharing in more private spaces. In this article we expand on these issues.

These insights can help us build better communities.

  • What practitioners like and dislike from the communities they belong too
  • Tips on how to set-up, grow, and manage communities of practice
illustration showing a person apart from a group discussing together

Feeling like an outsider

Even though all of our interviewees had a mid to senior level of experience working in service design in public and third sectors, many still felt like outsiders:

“Our community is not inclusive at all. It’s so difficult, and I feel often that I am on the outskirts of things. Which makes it really difficult to articulate your place.”

An expectation that you have to put yourself forward

In our previous article we saw that people do not feel confident enough to share or feel inadequate because of the amount and quality of work shared by peers. Similarly, some people feel excluded from online design communities on platforms like Twitter because there are “a lot of really loud voices”. Practitioners feel pressure to share their work “because we’ve created this space where we constantly have to put ourselves forward”. But this “is not for everyone”, and people feel they cannot share at the pace that “big names in the field [do:] constantly networking and talking about the things that they are doing…”

Some cliques, design rhetoric and lack of critique

Another way in which practitioners felt as outsiders in design communities was connected to the lack of honesty in the ways we share our work in public forum. A fair number of practitioners criticised the general design discourse and uncritical praise.

Some groups are seen as “people [who] just go and praise each other about the work they are doing without thinking critically about it”.

“There are some people in the community that are put on pedestals without interrogating them at all, it’s just about visibility, who gets to be seen, who’s story gets to be told.” [‘Community’ was meant here as Design community and not just in Scotland]

Some people feel disengaged because they are frustrated by “the rhetoric, conversations, and behaviours in some service design communities”. In a future article we will speak about the debates that practitioners feel are missing in service design communities and discourse.

What do we want this community to be?

From our interviews, it became clear that communities of different types and sizes offer different kinds of value to practitioners. They find value in spaces with different degrees of privacy and management, as well as disciplinary and geographical outreach.

A space where people feel “safe to share and are nurtured” by their peers

Public spaces to display our work

Some practitioners felt that we still needed to join efforts to better present our work, “show what service design looks like: […] real delivery in really complex and difficult environments”

Closed groups

Some designers are more comfortable having a closed group of people for deeper conversations, either within their organisation or through personal networks, with designers or across multi-disciplinary communities.

Designers only

As we saw in our previous article, practitioners benefited spaces where they can honestly share the challenges and experiences of their work. Conversations among designers are also important for “moral support”.

Personal networks

Some people who don’t “feel very welcomed in set design communities […] shape their own communities” through personal connections. These personal communities allow for more “emotional conversations” and, since lockdown, some groups have strengthened these networks by meeting weekly with colleagues inside and outside design.

Spaces for collaboration

We also saw that the community yearned for wider, collaborative spaces to share resources: spaces “to be able to facilitate and reuse elements and exchange knowledge”.

illustration for the concept about who should be part of the group

Who should be part of this community?

Some think that design communities are “very disparate and siloed, [leading to a] loss of knowledge and sharing”. People spoke about a lack of sharing across communities and the creation of “walled gardens within the international community of service design — people try to build walls around [their communities and work, as a way] to make money to survive”. But our “ethos moving forward” should be to “create free and open connections between people”.

Some people value informal networks, “environments where people come, find each other and start to flourish and develop naturally as a network of people”. You could “collaboratively share things, in an informal way”, that’s “how people learn”.

Communities beyond design

While there is value in designers’ only spaces, a few practitioners valued cross-disciplinary communities and wanted to engage with a wider community that encompasses overlapping approaches.

Some felt that, in existing communities, “you have public and third sector people of a particular level. You don’t have the people on the whole delivering the services in that space talking about it. You have managers or strategic level people”.

There is an interest in sharing learning with other “disciplines that work in similar ways”. Having “ other perspectives [will help us] see the bigger picture here, [so] why don’t we just have a community of people who are contributing to change, based on people’s needs”.

illustration showing our logo (a map of Scotland with people holding a piece of jigsaw) and arrows showing expansion beyond Scotland and some questions marks

How big do we go? The whole of Scotland? Wider?

Local networks

Practitioners valued local spaces because these help them build connections with people close to work in similar spaces across organisations, sectors, and fields of expertise.

Scotland-wide community

Some interviewees saw value in service design practitioners coming together as a community to defend our collective interests and improve our practice. For instance, an interviewee would like to see a collective response to briefs and tenders that do not line up with service design approaches. Another participant noted that other design fields; such as architecture or landscape design; were seen as “much more mature in terms of profession [and thus benefit from] clearer ideas and opportunities”.

Another interviewee noted that “a lot of the public sector designers [in Scotland] are not on a high enough level to be able to change things within their organisations or in the national” landscape, but “there is a strength in numbers [and] as a group you‘re much stronger to be able to do that or to get there collectively.”

It just helps people to get case studies, get joined-working, have a platform to shout louder about it”.

International exchange

Some were looking for global exchange of thoughts, ideas and generating dialogues between the Scottish and the international community.

“GDS (Government Digital Service), they are just neighbours. They speak in the same language and they work in a similar system. But it could be other nations, other places. I think we should expand our view a little bit. It would absolutely need to be adapted, but we can at least look at it.”

illustration to build and share where people are building a jigsaw together around a table

Building strong communities of practice

Practitioners also offered some tips for building a good community of practice.

First, it needs a catalyst

“It needs to be started by something or someone”.

Like for the Service Design Scotland meet up group, started by Mike Press and Hazel White from Open Change, which became the Gathering (#SDSGather) during Covid with Barbara Mertlova and Lorri Smyth who help running them. You can join the associated Slack Space even if you are not in Scotland

It also needs someone keeping the community alive

“Watching and listening, keeping the energy and people un-bored, making sure people are connecting”. But it should be simple to keep it “vibrant and informed, helping people get value” from it.

It is most beneficial to the community if there is someone who “has an oversight of what is happening across the community to help connect people”.

The value of small communities of practice is difficult to scale up

They allow practitioners to “collaborate [using remote tools]. But if you scale that up to a Scotland-wide prototype, it becomes a very messy Miro board or team”.

Sharing resources needs data management

Pondering what kinds of things could be centralised, an interviewee pointed out that communities of practice often develop “quite organically” which offers lots of interesting things. But sharing resources requires more work behind the scenes.

Some suggested looking at the user-centred design communities in government (blog post of reflections about it by Kara Kane and Clara Greo) or the ResearchOps community.

“It’s a group of people who take responsibility for doing certain things, it’s owned by everybody but nobody.”

“That community is huge and … what is inherent to that community is that kind of librarianship, some people who will really keep information managed really well… They listen to the community, they know the sentiment, what’s coming up, respond to concerns that they see emerging, and the amount of information that people are sharing about their own work, about tools and techniques is just invaluable.”

That’s been created because the culture of the space feels good to people. And it gives them value and they help run it.”

Centralising community efforts in Scotland: Ownership

A controversial topic might be who should manage such a community of practice in Scotland, since we had very different perspectives among participants.

An interviewee felt that “you need a government body maintaining uploads”, and gave as an example the Scotland Council for Voluntary Organisation (SCVO). However, “there is no overall body in the same way you would have an Architecture’s Guild” and it was difficult to envision a government body to cater for “everyone who is doing service design”.

Another participant thought the opposite, that “it would have to be of an organic community initiative” and should not come from a “particular sector or from government” as it “would immediately be boxed into that corner, where it‘s coming from. And that‘s the thing we need to avoid.”

We heard similar views regarding the Scottish Approach to Service Design (SAtSD) coming from the government as potentially being an issue. As well as felt that the SAtSD could fill that gap: “There is certainly disciplinary and cross-disciplinary stuff that could be going on if the SAtSD was an actual community of people.”

The summary of insights for the “Scottish Approach to Service Design” will come later in our series.

Contextualising Insights

These insights come from 15 remote interviews from June to August 2020. You can learn more about the research project and approach on our website.

Although we speak about service design practice, we use the term service design very broadly.

  • Half of our interviewees self-identified as service designers or have service designer as their job title. Other practitioners using service design approaches have roles in areas such as user research, accessibility, community engagement, user experience design, and design training
  • We interviewed people working in different locations across Scotland
  • Some practitioners worked as freelancers, consultants and contractors; others were employed by design agencies; and others were employed by public or third sector organisations
  • All interviewees had a mid to senior level of experience working in service design and the public/third sector

When we refer to ‘practitioners’, we refer to people who engage in service design approaches and practice within the Scottish public and third sectors independently of their job title.

Want to learn more about the project and want to get involved?

Visit our website, follow us on Medium or on Twitter @PractitionerSt1

Thank you!



Practitioner stories

We are collecting Practitioner stories of Service Design in the Scottish public and third sectors