By Anja Laubscher
Ana Monroe is a service designer for The Lab at OPM, where she works with a variety of federal clients including the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Veterans Affairs. With training as both historian and futurist, she attempts to address “the complex future through the lens of the complex past,” as she likes to put it. She currently sits on AIGA Design for Democracy committee and has been a fervent member of the professional association for design.
We spoke with Monroe about her personal career trajectory and the evolving nature of service design in the City.
Anja Laubscher: What was your career trajectory to becoming a service designer in New York City?
Ana Monroe: I came to New York to study history at Columbia University in 2000. After graduating I realized I wanted to be a designer. I am a big believer in the apprenticeship model of learning through practice and so I found my way into production design and eventually motion picture to learn the practical elements of design and business. I’ve always been interested in technology and in 2012 I developed a mobile application for iOS, called D_Coder. An application that turns text into emojis, the english text disappears, and the phone looks like candy. In the process I was intrigued by this idea that systems, like iOS, are closed human designed systems that are often difficult and buggy because they’re complicated, and sometimes buggy by design. That captivated me, so I went back to graduate school to compliment my years of practical experience. After graduate school, a lot of hard work, and multiple interviews I received this fellowship, working as a service designer at the Lab. Service design is ideal for a designer like myself who really enjoys cross-disciplinary spaces.
AL: What exactly is service design?
AM: An example of service design we interact with everyday is health insurance and health care. The interactions that you have at every point—whether it’s billing or getting into and out of an appointment—are all designed interactions that work together and they’re all attached to other systems behind them. When you start realizing how interconnected and interdependent systems are, you start seeing services from a design standpoint.
You really are looking at all of the ecosystems underneath a service. And that’s what I really love about design—the ability to think huge, but never forget the details either.
AL: You have such a rich history and extensive relationship with the various design industries you’ve worked in over the years, what drew you to service design specifically?
AM: It’s the scale of it. Being a production designer, you’re creating an entire world. I can’t adequately emphasize to you just how fake TV and movies are. If you’re looking at a shot of a desk and there’s a cup of pens, it was rented by a set decorator and put on the desk. That’s the level of thought that goes into these productions. It’s extraordinary that service design to me can be the “in real life” equivalent of that level of detail. You really are looking at all of the ecosystems underneath a service. And that’s what I really love about design—the ability to think huge, but never forget the details either.
AL: On your website you quote the artist and professor at your graduate program Richard U. Wheeler saying that you don’t like to “play games, you like to break them.” How is that evident in your design process and work?
AM: It was such a prescient thing for him to say. But it’s true, I’ve never been interested in using systems explicitly how they’re meant to be used. I’ve always been interested in how they would work if you used them differently. And that’s evident in D_Coder. My idea was that not everyone wants all the messages they send to be part of their “internet permanent record,” as I call it. And so my patent filing in 2012 actually predates Snapchat’s patent filing for things that disappear from the internet. Up until the late 2010s internet system servers were designed to keep everything forever and I thought: “what if we don’t want to keep everything forever?” So I broke the system. I designed integrated systematic wipes of our servers as a feature on D_Coder, to allow people to get rid of what they created. And of course now we see this everywhere.
AL: What has been most surprising about working as a service designer at the Lab?
AM: The most surprising thing is how difficult it is to describe to people the difference between strategic thinking and design craft. I struggle with this every day at the Lab. I love making models because that is where you start making decisions and move forward with your service or product design based on your research. Making—drawing a picture, making a model, or doing a mock up—is such a deeply ingrained practice for designers but difficult to adequately communicate to non designers.
AL: Service design is a relatively new and flourishing part of the design space, how has service design evolved and expanded as a practice in New York over the last few years?
AM: It’s crazy expanding. I’ve always been a huge advocate that designers are incredibly smart people. But for some reason designers have traditionally been brought in at the end of projects to “make things pretty,” which is every designer’s phrase nightmare. But we’re finally getting in on the first meeting, when the idea is starting to form or the client is coming in for the first time. Designers have the ability to be both universal and microscopic at the same time, which conditions us to have strategic views and interact with lots of different parts of a team. So once we got into the room and showed the diverse teams what we could offer in terms of speaking across various lines, all of a sudden the design team became central. There wasn’t a word for it and so we just called it “service design” because we are designing all these various parts.
AL: Your work at the Lab | OPM is focused on federal design and innovation projects. What does service design offer the City from a public standpoint?
AM: So much! Because that’s what the government does, it offers services to citizens. The United States pioneered this idea of a federal government, not a national government, so that means that the states, cities, and counties all have their own governing rights to provide services to their citizens. And the federal government provides the larger system that recognizes that these states don’t exist in vacuums. What service design can do for New York City and the federal government as two pieces of a larger system is to help make that system and interaction work better at practical levels. So if New York City says “okay, we want people to have x, y, and z,” and the federal government is like “no you shouldn’t do that,”—there’s conflict. And service design can help the two sides come to the table to find a consensus.