Service Design, Years Ahead of its Time
Issue   |   Fri, 10/18/2013 - 01:01
Photo courtesy of Mark Jones
Mark Jones spent his twenties in the fashion industry.

What’s the first image that pops into your head when you hear the word “design”? Do you see Ferraris? Curtain catalogues? Starving hipsters? Or do you imagine an open-concept industrial warehouse where professionals from the full range of intelligences work simultaneously to turn forward-thinking insights into real-life consumer products and services that likely have improved your own life?

Mark Jones ’81 is a service design professional and leader at a fairly recent global design firm called IDEO that has revolutionized human-centered design. Jones co-leads their Chicago branch — one of ten located in major cities throughout the world. IDEO focuses on “design thinking,” where a design team aims to combine what is desired from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.

Jones’s liberal arts education and extensive range of strengths and interests led him through many of the more commonly stereotyped “design” careers before he began his now 13-year career at IDEO. In everything from best-selling wind chime earrings to an ongoing initiative to help major libraries achieve youth-centric, contemporary appeal, Jones has always been ahead of the game in anticipating and shaping new products and services that will prove most valuable for both companies and consumers.

Early Aptitudes

Jones grew up in Baltimore, Md., with his father, brother and sister. Though his mother, an interior designer, passed away when he was only six years old, Jones credits her for his creative genes.

“I would say I was a nerdy, artistic sort of kid, not too sporty,” Jones said. The only surviving evidence of his early artistic pursuits is an “odd, ceramic piggy bank that looks like an egg.” Jones’s other main passion was the outdoors, where he loved to fish, sail and go crabbing.

Unlike his brother, who is now a real estate appraiser, Jones was never one for consistency.

“I’m always looking for change,” Jones said.

Jones is also living proof that being artistic does not cancel out an aptitude for quantitative skills.

“Math and science were the subjects that came easiest to me in high school,” Jones said. In fact, he was so strong in these subjects that he applied to Amherst specifically because, at the time, the college had the highest acceptance rate for getting into medical school.

“I applied Early Decision, so Amherst was my first choice.” Jones said. “I just loved the whole feeling of the campus … I went with some friends from high school and had such a great time — it really had a great sense of community.”

During his visit, Jones experienced firsthand the College’s most archetypal pastime.

“There happened to be a snowstorm, and people were ‘traying’ down Memorial Hill. It was this big campus scenario of people having a great time,” Jones said.

At Amherst, Jones continued to take mainly math, science and art courses. The open curriculum was not one of the aspects that attracted him to Amherst, but, being a true liberal arts student, he ended up taking classes in every discipline. His favorite professor was a talented painter, Lorraine Shemesh.

“She was fabulous. She was the best critic I’ve ever seen, frankly, in my life. She had the ability to teach people at any level and make them better,” Jones said.

Jones became so taken with his artistic pursuits that he soon decided to focus on what had formerly been a hobby.

“I spent more and more time in the studio, and eventually had to switch my major,” Jones said.

Jones had a very positive experience at Amherst.

“I was one of those people who never left campus … I never felt a reason to go away on weekends,” Jones said.

Another reason why Jones spent so much time on campus might have been his major musical involvements with the choir, early music group, madrigals and several operas.

“There was one point in my art career where I remember Lorraine saying, ‘You’re spending as much time singing as you are in art, and you’re going to make a choice here,’” Jones said.

Service Skills

After graduating, Jones started teaching at The Tobe-Coburn School for Fashion Careers to support himself while he pursued painting. He taught color theory, window dressing and business communications. He also helped out an acrylic jewelry designer. Jones soon decided to join the fashion world full-time, and he started a special two-semester degree for college graduates from the Fashion Institute of Technology. While there, he learned the full range of fashion skills, such as drawing fashion sketches, draping dummies with muslin, making patterns, sewing and fabric science.

After graduating, Jones was hired by Macy’s to design menswear. Soon after that, he joined a friend with an outerwear catalogue, where he enjoyed using his knowledge of fabric science to make jackets and other outdoor garments. Following that, he decided to start his own jewelry company.

“It was cast metal and stones. I had a necklace in the Smithsonian catalogue that ran for a long time … I made most of my money out of several catalogues,” Jones said.

After his years in fashion, Jones noticed that he was at risk of losing his “fresh eyes,” and was also yearning for a more intellectual environment.

“I had a wind chime earring that put me through grad school,” Jones said.

Jones pursued a graduate degree in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology while remotely managing a booming business that spawned from this single, musical design.

“It took me no more than four hours a week,” Jones said.

At the IIT, Jones pursued strategic design. The school’s philosophy was based around human-centered design, a concept that would eventually lead him to IDEO.

“It was all about understanding what people need while observing them in the houses, or a hospital … we were creating a reason or rationale for why things should be designed,” Jones said.

Jones graduated in 1995 and found an internship opportunity with another recent IIT graduate at a management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company called Accenture. He worked in a research lab of around thirty people, and was one of three human-centered service designers.

“It was mostly people with Ph.D.s in computer science, and what they were looking for was someone to help inform them in what they should be designing,” said Jones. “It was a very exciting place to be, because it was the heyday of research. We had an awful lot of freedom in terms of what we could do for up to a year at a time. We’d do a two-to-three page brief which would be approved and we’d go do it.”

The internship turned into a full-time job, and Jones spent five years there on the cutting edge.

“This was in 1998. We were thinking, what kind of services would people use in their cars when they’re connected to the Internet?” Jones said.

The research lab was used to looking seven years into the future.

“We asked, what would location based services be in a car, what would real time services be? You know, we were actually pretty darn close to the types of things that people are using in their cars now,” Jones said. “It was really cool looking far ahead.”

While Jones enjoyed his work there, he began to become frustrated that, unlike in the fashion world, nothing he designed was close to going into the marketplace. He started to look for other opportunities, and found that his thesis advisor at IIT was working in the Chicago office of IDEO. The branch was looking for a researcher, and hired him in 2000. Jones’s first big research projects involved envisioning what the world would be like once the Internet transitioned from dial-up to broadband. Jones built several major prototypes related to a predicted movement into a digital world — for example, phone companies were realizing that they would abandon Yellow Pages in favor of digital searches.

One early service design that ended up being widespread involved redesigning 1st Source Bank’s entire service experience.

“They moved from a traditional bank teller situation with this big sort of barrier to this whole side-by-side banking where the customer sits right next to the tellers, and they look at a shared screen,” Jones said. Walking into a bank today, anyone can see for his or herself that this concept has spread like wildfire.

Some of his more recent projects involve an online banking system for younger people called Virtual Wallet, where users can get a reading on their money with a calendar and another device called Money Bar. It was voted four years in a row for Best Online Experience. Another up-and-coming project, which will soon be rolled out to over 700 Walgreens, are newer, more personable pharmacies called “wellness stores.”

IDEO was the first company to combine design and engineering simultaneously, later incorporating a design research firm. Jones’ own branch in Chicago reflects this core dynamic. His offices are housed in an old manufacturing building, with a huge kitchen as a congregation space, and with ten project spaces where teams will work for around three months on a specific project. A core team of an engineer, an industrial designer, an interaction designer and a researcher will call upon other workers of various disciplines, such as copy writers and architects, to help them along the way.

Apart from being the managing director of the Chicago branch, Jones is currently working with the Chicago Public Library and another in Denmark on a project to help them be more innovative, the work for which will eventually be published as a toolkit to be used by libraries around the globe.

Elizabeth Spenko, who co-leads the service design group at the Chicago location, described one of Jones’ most valuable aptitudes.

“Mark has a rare ability to help teams turn the corner from research to design during what IDEO refers to as the synthesis phase. He can walk into a project space, absorb a vast amount of information from user stories to client capabilities to competitive threats, and create a simple framework that unites the team and our clients around a future direction,” Spenko said.

Jones believes that companies looking to win long-term customer loyalty should provide a service that meets the mindset of the customer, based on their emotional needs and the efficiency of the service provider’s operational needs.

“A really important part of business is a very tightly aligned team that makes decisions quickly and finally across all parts of the organization so that they can move along and make things happen,” Jones said. “What really works is when they trust their instincts. Companies that only base their decisions on market research tend to move slowly.”

Artfully Unplugging

Jones has since moved on from his artistic practices toward activities that get him outdoors. He loves to garden, play tennis, and will cook “anything vaguely Italian,” because he finds that he’s able to be most inventive and creative with that cuisine.

“I often don’t follow a recipe — I just see what’s good at the farmer’s market,” Jones said.

Jones has a wife, Lynne, as well as two 15-year-olds and an 11-year-old. They have a 10-acre farm in Michigan that they visit whenever possible.

“It’s a screen free zone: no electronics, no phone, no TV, no iPads,” Jones said. Their land includes a barn and a stream, and Jones loves to do things together with his family and friends such as chopping wood, building bridges and making campfires.

While he loves his time far away from the big city, he appreciates the community of the suburb of Evanston, voted one of the best ten neighborhoods in the country. Lynne recalls searching for their house together.

“The house looked like a total dump, with holes in the walls, peeling paint, a yard overgrown with thorny bushes, dead mice, and asbestos in the basement. I was skeptical, to say the least,” she said. “But, Mark had a vision. After much renovation to our house, which turned out to be a historic landmark, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m glad he’s so good at seeing past the obvious and at getting the big picture!”

Spenko also attested to Mark’s reliably visionary schemes.

“Being a great systemic thinker who can pull pieces of a complex story together is only part of what makes him effective. His humor, optimism and desire to build off others has made him one of the most influential people I’ve worked with at IDEO,” Spenko said. “Through observing him, I’ve learned to be a better guide. Instead of providing the solution, he’s taught me that helping teams uncover an insight or opportunity is more rewarding and impactful.”