Designing Relationships at Service Design Toronto

“Design is relationships” – Paul Rand.

The most recent Service Design Toronto event explored the intersection of design and relationships, including ways to be more intentional in creating our relationships. Three key provocations were explored.

Can we look at relationships as a service?

What do services and relationships have in common? If we define services as:

an exchange of (intangible) value where people do not take ownership of physical elements involved that are co-created, where your outcomes and experiences are likely to be different to mine” (Cooper Service Blueprint workshop)  we can see that there are many common elements to relationships and services.

Services more often than not include human interactions – relationships are a core aspect of a service. A great interaction or relationship can save a terrible service; conversely, a terrible interaction can ruin a great service.

We have all had experiences where excellent customer service has rescued a frustrating and unsatisfactory experience. Designing services is often about designing relationships – between people and things, and people and people. Many service design tools are about understanding and framing these relationships.

For example, stakeholder mapping offers a way to visualize the various relationships that impact a service, and find opportunities to augment and improve them.

Actors Fund Stakeholder Map

Stakeholder map created for the Actors’ Fund form redesign project


How does the design of services impact relationships?

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Image Credit: Elina Lawrie


Relationships are a core human experience. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we see love and belonging as a key aspect of the needs people have. Services have always existed to fulfil this need, and they continue to evolve. In Lisdoonvarna in Ireland, there is a matchmaking festival which has been running for over 150 years. In more modern terms, we see technological platforms like Facebook and Tinder focusing on maintaining and creating relationships. When we look at dating services, we can see the ways in which the design of services impacts the types and tones of relationships formed.

Nothing encodes relationships quite as clearly as the tools designed to create them.” – Jean Hardy and Mark Handel

Online dating services provide frameworks. These services say something about how we see the world, and how we conceptualise relationships. You can see this in the contrast between and OkCupid. is much more straightforward in what it offers – you can be either a “man” or a “woman” looking for either a “man” or a “woman”. OkCupid on the other hand, offers a much broader range of sexualities and genders to choose between. homepage (L) homepage (R) homepage (L) homepage (R)


How might we design our relationships?

There is great opportunity to learn from applying design tools and approaches to relationships. Sometimes existing frameworks (marriage, the nuclear family) may not be serving the purpose they were set out to serve.

Marrying for love is quite a modern construct, and we see ways in which it is being updated and redefined in our times. Emergence of statuses like common law are policy design responses to changing modes of having relationships.  Being explicit and intentional about our expectations and boundaries, in essence designing our relationships, open us up to new ways of thinking about them and relating to one another.

“Design is devising courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” – Herbert Simon

Ayla Newhouse has done work on applying design thinking to dating, and the evening concluded with a modified version of her dating by design canvas, which in turn is inspired by the business model canvas.

Business model canvas is a service design or business design tool that creates a holistic framework for examining business models.

Our adapted relationship model canvas provoked some great discussion on the merits and challenges of applying this approach to something as messy and intangible as human relationships. What does it mean to think about the cost structure of a relationship? Is it uncomfortable to apply business terminology and approaches to intimate relationships?

Try it for yourself!

Download Relationship Model Canvas (PDF) Relationship Canvas