Tattoos, imperfection, and leading with the heart

Reflections from this year’s SDinGov 2023 conference in Edinburgh

A few days on, I’ve been reflecting on why this year’s conference felt so much about the heart and not the mind.


Three months ago I had the word ‘Eutopia’ permanently and irrevocably tattooed into the inside of my arm. Fast forward in time and I sit in a packed auditorium and see this same word headlining Rochelle Gold’s keynote speech; ‘The journey to Eutopia’. Importantly, not utopia (etymology; greek for ‘no place’- an ideal world that does not exist), but eutopia (etymology; greek for ‘good place’- an attainable and realistic concept of a good place). I think I gave Rochelle a start when I began unbuttoning my shirt sleeve to show her my arm. Here we were, in our respective ways, issuing reminders not to strive for perfection, and to remember to keep working towards a ‘good place’ because a good place is possible.

Her message was powerful. The perfect service (circumstance, context, team, etc.) does not exist. Time is all we have. Just get on with doing what you see needs doing. One foot, in front of the other. Learn from your mistakes. And protect yourself and your wellbeing while you’re at it.

Eutopia = an attainable and realistic concept of a ‘good place’

Photo of Nicola and Rochelle showing Nicola's 'Eutopia' tattoo


On the topic of perfection/imperfection, Dr Jen Manuel gave a thoughtful presentation on what it means to apply UCD in complex spaces, specifically in the context of relational services. Jen emphasised that the work our field has done to solidify our standards and processes can’t always apply in the face of complex relationships and scenarios. Paul Hawken in his book ‘Regeneration: ending the climate crisis in one generation’ reflects that our entire world, our people, our ecosystems, are all founded in a series of relationships. I find myself questioning whether a service is ever truly and only ‘transactional’ - does it not always sit within a web of relationships, where the impact of those transactions is likely to be sustained?

Nature and humanity are composed of exquisitely complex networks of relationships, without which forests, lands, oceans, peoples, countries, and cultures, perish
Paul Hawken

Jen’s message; we have to let go of ‘perfect’ and be willing to adapt our ways of working, our ways of thinking, and our ways of learning so that UCD can continue to play a role in the face of complex relationships. In practical terms that might mean not always having the luxury of a discovery/alpha/beta journey but making do with introducing some ways of working to become a bit more agile, a bit more user centred, a bit more iterative. It might mean seeing user research not just as a vehicle for insights but as one for developing lasting relationships with those impacted by our services, for longer term dialogue and codesign. It might mean exploring how tooling within systems thinking can be adapted and adopted within our discoveries to show how our services, and the problems they address, are related.

Joy as a portal for alternative futures.

Julian Thompson’s keynote packed a powerful punch. His provocation; ‘you are our ambassador of our present realities, reaching into futures and shaping these futures into powerful intentionalities’ 

Julian’s call to arms was to make space for imagination. To use creativity as a way for people who have historically been marginalised to take a central role in imagining and designing alternative futures. That if this doesn’t happen, we will simply continue to find new ways to cope with existing realities and perpetuate injustice. 

Julian highlighted the role of joy as a portal to these imaginings. This same feeling was echoed so brilliantly in Humanly’s presentation on how to conduct research with children. Their colourful accounts of the tactile and multisensory research toolkits they’ve developed, a powerful reminder to bring play and joy back into our practice. Whether for adults, or for children. The message couldn’t have been better reinforced by the beeline for the ‘sticker’ and ‘button’ tables at the conference. No matter our age, we are all children and joy can be our portal too.

You are our ambassador of our present realities, reaching into futures and shaping these futures into powerful intentionalities
Julian Thompson

Leading with the heart.

After the initial embarrassment of the unbuttoning of shirt sleeve incident, Rochelle’s advice to me was to focus on value. What’s the point of doing what we do, if we don’t know if we’ve made a difference? This resonated so much, and has been driving my own passion for bringing impact mapping into all of our projects at cxpartners, to help make sure we’re always exploring the long term value of what we do.  Ultimately, we have to keep that focus on what we’re trying to achieve in the world, and make our way towards that, imperfectly. 

And whilst a lot of the focus at the conference was on the future, there was also a look into the past. Kate Tarling closed out her brilliantly forward-looking keynote with a reminder; ‘remember to also look back and see how far you’ve come’. Many of the leaders on stage this year shared moving and personal stories that had shaped the journeys they’d been on; often these stories stemmed from grief, loss, being defeated by challenging circumstances and people, of failures they’d learned and moved on from. 

It struck me that perhaps Service Design breeds a particular type of leader, who leads with the heart. Who cares deeply about making our world better, about making people’s lives easier, about designing a future we all are proud of.  

The brilliant Kerrie Hughes from Sparck gave us a powerful reminder of the role of feeling in design; 95% of our decisions are guided by our emotions. We have an opportunity as service designers to harness our own emotions and care for the work we do, and use it to ‘encourage the heart’ (Kouzes and Posner) in the way others design, and lead, too. 

This year’s talks gave so much food for thought. Three things I’ll be reminding myself of in these coming days, weeks, months, year;  

  1. Scrap perfection. 
  2. Bring back joy. 
  3. Lead with the heart. 

Thanks to all the brilliant speakers who made SDinGov 2023 such an inspiring one.

Nicola is a Principal Service Designer with 11 years of experience. She's passionate about making things that work for people, that are sustainable, and doing so through collaborative and meaningful research & design.