Cross-section between design, public services, and policy: an interview with Assistant Professor Seungho Park-Lee

In this interview, we meet Assistant Professor Seungho Park-Lee who explores the cross-section between design, public services and policy at UNIST Design. Conducted by Associate Professor James A. Self on Monday June 19, this abridged version delves into professor Park-Lee’s professional and academic journey and the his recent projects with the members of New Design Studio.

Prof. Park Lee(left) and Prof. Self (right)

James Andrew Self (JS) I’m here with Seungho Park-Lee, Professor of design and the director of the New Design Studio. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you today, Seungho. 

I noticed from the published material on your lab, NDS, that your particular focus is public service design and design for policy. I think service design is nothing new, but perhaps newer than some other design disciplines, like product or graphic design? Could you start by explaining what service and policy design entail, perhaps sharing examples from your own work?

Seungho Park-Lee (SPL) Thank you, and it’s a good pleasure to talk to you about my work and research. If we talk about the birth of service design really briefly, it was from the business management side and also from a top-down perspective for businesses that have very strong service aspect to them, say airlines or franchise restaurants, or those that sell the intangibles goods such as insurances and banks. Business scholars got interested in designing and managing services, as firms need to manage the service delivery process and get the consistency going. Wherever you board a plane, you should feel the same if you are flying with, say the British Airways. Whether you fly from Korea or Dubai, you just feel like it’s their service. So, the basic tools such service blueprinting was already born in the 80s by the likes of Shostack.

The diagram of shoeshine | Source: Shostack, G. L. (1984). Designing services that deliver. Harvard business review, 62(1), 133-139.

Now, designers enter the scene, perhaps early 2000s. Our role early on had been about quality user experience and/or user interaction because at a point any business becomes standardized. Let’s take, again, airline business. You buy the ticket, you fly, eat, sleep, and arrive. Or, you go to a restaurant, you eat, pay and leave. The experience becomes the differentiation point – what really distinguishes one service from the other, or one business from the other. Therefore, designers have come into the picture in developing so-called “touch points” to provide distinctive experiences in a more user centric way. In order to do that, conducting user studies and co-designing with users and so on have been increasingly important.

That said, the recent decade showed to the world that design can deliver much more than just experience – such as helping client organizations transform themselves to become more human-centric and exploratory advancing not only upon the touch points but also the mechanism underpinning those touch points. Essentially that’s what I do, albeit more focusing on public services and policy. Today, the exploratory part of designing services is gaining traction, namely user studies and co-creative process, and this is also becoming useful for designing for public policy.

JS That’s interesting. But off the back of that question, maybe we could track back a little bit and talk about your journey from where you started off to where you are now?

SPL Sure. I went to Hongik University, which is known for its styling and it’s a well-known art school in Korea. Hongik teaches more artistic design practices, applied arts kind of thing, really well and I was studying product design there. Then in order to replace my military service with industry experience, I studied basic computer programming, got a license, and applied for jobs in digital services. During the four years or so my job as a concept designer, or planner as we call it in Korea, was basically creating service concepts and information architecture for websites, content syndication strategies. I worked with developers, graphic designers and launched several websites with different scales. 

So, when I finished that, I had industrial design education at the back of my head, as well as four years of digital design or digital services practice under my belt. I wanted to combine these and started applying for jobs overseas. I sent my applications and portfolios to 53 companies around the world and slowly getting few interview opportunities. Two from Korea, one from the UK, and one from Finland. I went to Finland because the consultancy that offered me a job there was interesting because they were doing product design and digital services at the same time. That’s how I ended up in Finland. 

After couple of years, however, the subprime mortgage happened, a really tough time for everyone. And I also had to find an alternative, and I applied to master’s study at Aalto University. And one of the guest speakers for celebratory lecture was Marco Steinberg there, who was the director of Strategic Design at the Finnish Innovation Fund, SITRA. I got very inspired because he was talking about using design to innovate public services and public policy. Long story short, I started chasing him and met him by chance in a supermarket and thankfully, he invited me to his office. I went there with my Portfolio, enthusiastically talking about my future paths. He gave me a lot of advice and early the next year, he approached me through his colleague and gave me a year of time to work with him. That one year really changed my thinking and my career path.

Helsinki Design Lab’s Archive

After that I returned to school, Aalto University, and completed my master’s thesis on Finnish beef consumption. I know it may seem a strange thing to tackle for a designer. Through the project, for example, if one is to tackle Finnish beef consumption, he or she has to always look at the dairy consumption because Finns consume so much dairy and roughly 80% of minced beef in Finland are from those dairy cattle. I was trying to combine systems thinking and behavioural insights and then create ideas that could be systemic interventions. 

Then I built a course called Design for Government during my doctoral study, which basically follow the same line of reasoning – combining design thinking with systems thinking and behavioural insights. The course collaborates with Finnish ministries and other governmental institutions for designing public services and policy. This year is the 10th anniversary of the course, and it’s still going strong there. 

Design for Government | Photo by Glen Forde
Design for Government | Photo by Abigail Garbett

JS That’s a good achievement. And now you’ve arrived at UNIST, and are you continuing with the similar lines of work? 

SPL Yeah. UNIST is, of course, science and technology-oriented university – very different from any school I’ve been to – and I wanted to find my place here. What early design researchers in Aalto University tried to do was placemaking, creating projects for new kinds of design practice and that gave rise to empathic design, for instance. So whatever project comes, I try with similar approaches. Tweaking them in discussion with the partner organizations and turning them into service or strategic policy intervention project. That’s how I started doing policy projects with the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2022 and the Gwacheon National Science Museum in 2023. 

Citizen participatory workshop for art museum’s carbon neutrality
Internal stakeholders workshop for science museum’s carbon neutrality

JS I like the idea of placemaking. How do you feel that’s been received? This is a hard-core science and engineering research Institute after all. 

SPL Tough in the sense that I don’t get understood by many people, but actually I was super lucky to have received the seed funding from Carbon Neutrality Institute and then also successfully got further projects from two ministries. I personally do not think the fact an individual faculty from other department don’t get what I do. It’s normal. Chemists often don’t understand what physics researchers do, right? But of course, I wish there were more space for us design department because we do need the large space for prototyping and collaborative team work. But any department would welcome more space, too. It’s complicated, right? 

JS Right. You talked about one of the challenges was lack of understanding. How is service related to the more traditional disciplines of design, such as graphic design, product design, and then how does it potentially depart from those?

SPL That’s a good question. I’d say they are related in the sense when a service is designed, they can only be realised through service touch points – be it a poster or a product. Let’s take a franchise café, for instance. You are walking there, but you already have ordered your takeout drinks from the app. But you did not pay just yet because you have a physical coupon that gives you 10% discount. Now in this quote-and-quote unique situation, all the touchpoints should work in sync. Where do you stand? Is there a fast-track like the online check-in for flying? Are the drinks ready before you arrive or do they get made only when the payment is done? How do you pay? Do you use the kiosk or do you have to show the coupon to the cashier? All of these service design decisions influence the information poster, kiosk design et cetera. 

So, designing services require a more holistic thinking beyond a poster, or a discreet product. And that thinking, I believe, allows service design to go beyond services, because how a service is run touches upon so much policy. Many seem to misunderstand what we mean by policy, but legalization and illegalization are only one option for more than fifty policy options for a proactive government. Governments can act as a buyer to make indirect market intervention, they can summon experts and create a consensus or sense of urgency, or even decide to change to call something with a new word. All of those are policy interventions.  

Now I’m doing multiple projects at the same time, and one of them is using futures for setting policy. In short, citizen engagement for policy ideas and exploration. 

JS So, featuring co-design, participatory design, kind of works?

SPL Absolutely, that goes from very abstract citizen engagement to policy ideas. 

JS Now let’s briefly talk about your reusable cup project. Is it more service or policy design project?

SPL I’d say both. When we talk about sustainability issues, often people think about technological solution. A fossil fuel car with internal combustion engine or electric car. Or, the way we produce energy – be it large coal power plant or solar panels. That’s all great, but there are a lot of other problems. If we think about waste management in South Korea, it is estimated that we use 800 million disposable cups per year, and that is only counting the cups themselves. In the summer, especially, most of the cups are one third full or half full because a lot of people drink iced drinks and often when they are done, the ice is right in there. Intact. 

Not only that, if you drink iced latte, there’s milk left. The there’s yogurt, tomato, banana shake all dried up. The economic value of these dirty recyclables is very low, at least 95 percent of them with leftover liquid are being incinerated or landfilled in Korea and globally, which is not a small problem. And then how do we then solve this? Because when these are mixed, it’s just doesn’t make any economic sense to wash them to recycle. So, we need design interventions.

JS So, service design in this case, one might argue, is a human-centred approach to the system? 

SPL Yes, exactly. We must think about the economics and different stakeholders just like traditional services, there are at least two users, one is the consumers who takes the cup to drink the beverage and the other is the barista and/or the cashier. Now, if we use reusable cups there’s another problem because when the coffee shop is receiving orders, especially during the lunch time, there could come five customers who bring different tumblers, they all order different drinks. It’s a nightmare for the cafe because now they have to remember five different drinks in five different tumblers shape with the matching customer. That’s why many service firms in Korea and elsewhere provide circular cup services – consumers use them, return to a designated place, then they get washed, dried and delivered to the café again. 

Various stakeholders sharing opinions about circular cup service
Stakeholder workshop for circular cup service
Opinions from stakeholders following circular cup system
Discussion session of stakeholder workshop

JS I suppose search service design and strategic policy is also about engaging with these various stakeholders to try to understand.

SPL Yes, absolutely, and that’s why it is so much fun and challenging. Now using a coffee cup became a lot more complex and expensive up front although they may lower the cost of waste management and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission in the long run. 

Then there’s more. A reusable cup for circular services is often six to seven times thicker than a single use cup. So, if we produce this cup and then say, okay, it produced X grammes of GHG than single use cup, then we shall use this reusable cup at least 15 times, and we should not emit GHG more than Y grams each time. Now we also have to think about how much water do we put into this washing, how much electricity do we put in order to wash this and sanitizing how much GHG emission does it produce when we move the cup from the washing facility. This is also what we are trying to address in this project by creating life-cycle assessment (LCA) digital tool with the collaboration with professor Hankwon Lim of SPADE Lab at UNIST.

And there comes the role of policy because if you only think about the businesspeople, they will never adapt this kind of cup if they are only a penny more expensive than using single-use cups. Then in order to discover and design a better policy, we need to prototype a working service. Without a working service that makes economic sense it doesn’t make sense to make a policy. That’s why we are doing this project in a living lab setting with two leading service firms in this field, GreenUp and TrashBusters

Prototyping a working service at studio | Photo by New Design Studio
Prototyping a working service at cooperated café | Photo by New Design Studio

JS Thinking in terms working service, policy decisions, and the economics of more sustainable service design interventions is a good place to end the current conversation. There is obviously much more to say around the importance of strategic service design for policy and sustainability. 

Thank you for taking the time to talk today. I hope we have a future opportunity to continue the conversation. In the meantime, good luck with your continued project challenges and successes.

SPL Thank you for your interest and good questions! It was good fun!