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Decolonizing Service Design Ethics and Aesthetics

Abstract: Service Design draws heavily from ancient Greek Ethics and Aesthetics, beginning with the foundational theater metaphor that separates frontstage from backstage. When Service Design engages with cultures that do not cultivate the Greek canon, the decolonization challenge comes to the fore. People who work to decolonize their cultures wonder whether Service Design will remain a tool for cultural imperialism or change to become a tool for autonomous development. This talk presents the author’s effort to develop distinct Ethics and Aesthetics for Service Design to address corporate responsibility, work exploitation, workplace racism, and gender disparities in service codesign sessions. This work is primarily based on Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Theater of the Oppressed.

Keynote address at the Service Design Network (SDN) Next Gen Conference 2024 (online).



Full transcript

Most of the time, people talk about how we can capitalize or how we can extend service design to different boundaries of the world. I’m talking about something else, which is becoming more attuned to the people usually excluded from this process of capitalizing, expanding, and, so to speak, colonization. Let’s see what service design has to do with colonization.

Before we go to that, we need to understand what decolonizing means. Generally, decolonizing means that we are trying to come to terms with the colonial legacy. For example, a lot of Black people were enslaved in Africa 400 and 500 years ago and brought forcefully to work as slaves in America. Since they were already there, they tried to survive and overcome that terrible situation. They tried to make the best out of it and to find and transform America into their new world, their new place.

Samba music style in Brazil and the Civil Rights movements in the US are very important expressions of transforming this colonial legacy into something that is liberating, i.e. something that’s not good for the former slave traders and owners, but instead, good for society in general. Slavery was not only abolished but the racist idea that Black people are inferior was abolished within this decolonizing process.

There are many different ways of framing colonization. One of the most important things that is relevant to the service design is cultural invasion. By implementing different cultural values in a different culture and overlapping that and replacing the original culture, colonization extends its power not just through political aspects but also through cultural values that are considered to be superior to the original values of the culture in place where the colonizers came in.

This has been described by many authors. I’m here drawing mainly on the work of Paulo Freire. He challenged the ancient Greek philosophy where thought stays above everything else and it’s superior to any kind of knowledge that people can have in their everyday lives. This has been standardized and established by Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and others. To this day, Europeans still refer back to this ancient culture as if they were continuing that tradition

That’s the reason why if you go to the Global South, you will find Greek philosophy and also Greek aesthetics being reproduced every now and then, here and there. This is especially true in retail services but also in any kind of service that seems to be coming from a high culture. So, Greek aesthetics and ethics are a kind of reference for this colonized mindset.

This is not a coincidence. Ancient Greek culture and Greek politics relied a lot on the slave economy. All the major work was conducted by enslaved people, not like black Africans, but by enemies captured at war or people who acquired unpayable debts. At this time, aesthetics and ethics worked to legitimize so people would accept this inferiority.

Theater, as a popular art form, was instrumental to that. Theater justified in aesthetic language why some people who have some kind of inferiority should pay, suffer, or work harder than others, especially women. Women in Greece didn’t have a place in the democratic society like we do have for women right now, in most modern countries. Women could not even act on stage. Whenever a female character was invoked in the play, men would use female masks like the one you’re seeing in the topmost right corner of this picture. You can already see that it’s not as potent, not as powerful as the other male masks.

What does this design history have to do with contemporary design? Well, service design is heavily shaped after European ancient Greek canons. Let’s see how this is still being played out. Emojis are a kind of modern mask. With them, men still use female masks to convey what they think women are thinking and doing. In this way, Greek aesthetics still reproduce sexist prejudice in society these days. If service designers use emojis acritically, they are also reproducing it. This is an old-fashioned emoji set that has been already fixed after so much criticism, but the criticism still holds for other things.

We still have this kind of sexist aesthetic in standard uniforms for women. They are different from men, mostly letting the female body be more exposed as a kind of an interface that represents nicety and care, whereas men stay in these stiffer uniforms, representing strength and a technical approach to work. Service design may not include designing uniforms, but certainly includes designing gestures, speech, and tone of voice which can also reinforce gender biases.

This bias is often covered up. Service design inherited from classic theater, this division between frontstage and backstage. Greek invented this division to create this magical appearance of theater, where human and godly bodies would pop in the front stage, and the audience would not know how they came to be like that. Audiences were manipulated to accept a society where body hierarchies were considered to be normal and even justified by divine justice.

Nowadays, we see this happening again still because of the influence of theater metaphors in service design. We try to hide what’s going on backstage, and we design interfaces that make it opaque or difficult to see through the user interface, so you do not see which kind of people are affected by your choices. Users do not see which kinds of people are working for them in precarious conditions, perhaps,
exploited in an unfair way, for example, as it happens to many digital delivery systems.

How can we then decolonize service design? I speak from an experience of working in Brazil for almost 10 years in this field, teaching there and doing research with clients. How can we get rid of this ancient Greek influence? Well, in Brazil, we had these two major inspiring works: the Pedagogy of Oppressed written by Paulo Freire, who I already mentioned, and a different way of doing theater, which is pretty much consistent and coherent with this philosophical view over education: Theater of the Oppressed, created by Augusto Boal.

I’ve been trying and experimenting with using Theater of the Oppressed as an inspirational approach for discussing and putting to the public the service design features that are currently debated in newspapers or in internet forums. For instance, the Uber Comfort Silence Ride feature was rolled out in Brazil some years ago, so we played a scene where a driver was feeling shut up by this specific feature, and the conclusion of the forum was that it was not a nice way of relating people through that premium service.

We also experimented using Theater of the Oppressed as a kind of critical bodystorming. Through it, design students could envision liberating or anti-oppressive interactions in new services like the Pombocop, which is a system for identifying and punishing people who commit transphobic and homophobic actions in public streets.

Finally, I would like to propose that Theater of the Oppressed is not just a practice that can be applied literally, but we can also apply it metaphorically. There are a lot of interesting concepts that you can later check out on the references I provide. In a nutshell, Theater of the Oppressed does not rely on the classic division between backstage and frontstage. Should we want to become more anti-oppressive, we need to draw from other metaphors, like this one where everybody who’s affected by a service, including clients and service providers, can join the aesthetic space at any time that makes sense. They can step in and out, and they can play out their activities in a different way to reimagine themselves working together. We have, thus, a constant redesign atmosphere in service.

Thus far, I have shown service design projects that implemented Theater of the Oppressed in a literal sense. Now I’m showing those that implemented it metaphorically. Raffaella Eleutério, a former student I worked with, collaborated with women coffee workers, connecting women in the rural area with human women in the in the urban area. She let them collaborate so that they could strengthen their bonds and fight sexism in the production chain together.

Another example. Very different from this one. Culture producers in the Brazilian Northeast worked to conserve traditional popular cultures that don’t receive funding in cultural heritage programs. These culture producers devised solidarity economy circuits for their communities so that people would not rely on volunteer work but on paid work. We “printed” a social digital currency through this digital platform with a service interaction mechanism. In this way, they could thrive without having regular currency available for their projects.

My last words are that to decolonize service design, we need to do service design for the oppressed, by the oppressed. This means that the oppressed are designing the service, and they are designing for themselves, so they are intimately the ones who’re gonna profit. That also implies that designers, if they wanted to join the oppressed and recognize themselves as being oppressed, need to find some kind of identity with the oppressed either because they are of the same gender, they have been racialized the same way, they are in the same class, or they have an analogy to draw from. For example, they could be oppressed in a similar way to people on the backstage or the frontstage. I tried to be as quick as possible due to my late start, but you can go deep into this topic if you follow up on these references, and you can search for them on my website thank you very much. Thank you.


Eltis, D., & Richardson, D. (2010). Atlas of the transatlantic slave trade. Yale University Press.

Talbot, M. (2018) The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture, in The New Yorker. 29th October. 

Boal, A. (2000). Theater of the Oppressed. Pluto Press.

Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed (revised). New York: Continuum, 356, 357-358.

Grove, S. J., & Fisk, R. P. (1992). The service experience as theater. Advances in consumer research, 19(1), 455-461.

de Siqueira, I. L. M., & van Amstel, F. M. (2023). Service design as a practice of freedom in collaborative cultural producers. In Proceedings of the Service Design and Innovation Conference (ServDes 2023), Rio de Janeiro. pp. 315-325.

Eleutério, Rafaella P. and Van Amstel, Frederick M.C. Matters of Care in Designing a Feminist Coalition. (2020). In: Proceedings of the 16th Participatory Design Conference. Manizales, Colombia.

Van Amstel, F. M., & Serpa, B. O. Theater of the Techno-Oppressed. Workshop at the Service Design and Innovation Conference (ServDes 2013), Rio de Janeiro. 

Categories: Talks & Lectures.

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