Gonzo service design

Gonzo service design

Ben Reason
  • Ben Reason
  • Founding Partner

Service design is a maturing discipline. Maturing both in terms of the understanding of its value and in the rigour of the methodology. Books such as This is Service Design Doing have captured this with the comprehensive coverage of a textbook. This is fabulous, the discipline is more accessible and widely adopted than we imagined and quality and clarity of method are much higher.

Gonzo service design

The challenge as things mature, is that they become more settled. Think about the difference in people as they age and how they can get set in their ways. If there is now textbook service design, I think we need to also acknowledge a more anarchic approach – what I like to call Gonzo service design.

Gonzo is a word stolen from the new journalism of the 60’s, particularly of Hunter S Thompson, famous for his first person account of a year living with Hells Angels in 1960’s America. Gonzo eschewed traditional journalism’s objectivity and formality in favour of first person narratives with the author as protagonist.

The Gonzo term has also been applied to less formal approaches to ethnography practiced by amateur adventurers, who undertook what has since been dubbed ‘deep hanging out’. Accounts such as Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo, in which the author lives with, and even marries into, the native people of Greenland, provide an enlightening, if not methodologically sound, account of their way of living. Deep hanging out can provide access to understanding and insight that will only be gained through getting so close to the subject that you become part of the community, with access to insider information. The Gonzo gets stuck into the subject and to some degree ‘goes native’ before escaping to hack out a great story.

Gonzo design does something similar. It doesn’t aim to replace good textbook design but to augment it with something a little more raw, essential and engaging. I’d like to explore how Gonzo design applies to five key aspects of service design practice.


Textbook discovery ensures that research participants are carefully recruited, discussion guides are prepared and insights are synthesised to remove biases and ensure compliance to ethical standards and fair representation.

Gonzo discovery aims to find a way to ‘hang out’ with the subject, to get under the skin of their lives and work and to uncover a great story that can jolt people out of their comfort zone and spur them to action. Gonzo discovery is more likely to pick one subject, a lead user or a specific community, that does not conform to expectations and provides a new perspective. Alternatively it will aim to uncover the underlying humanity of those it engages with, by straying off topic to get to know the individuals and community in order to increase empathy and connection.


Textbook ideation synthesises a range of ideas and uses wide engagement and consultation to provide more rounded solutions and evaluates concepts for feasibility and viability.

Gonzo ideation aims to provoke, to go further knowing that things can get watered down. It designs for the extremes, not the eighty percent. A Gonzo concept deliberately confronts holy cows within an organisation. It aims to establish new ground that has not yet been considered. A Gonzo concept may be deliberately ridiculous but in some ways tells a truth. Like a court jester, the aim is to confront conformity and trigger reflection.


Textbook prototyping probes unknowns, moves forward by validating key assumptions and reduces risk by testing before investing. Prototypes work when they are accepted by the majority.

Gonzo prototyping can be for one user group, community or even individual. The goal is to make a service work for someone and build from there. Gonzo prototyping is Wizard of Oz, pretending to be real, in order to create an illusion or alternative reality. A Gonzo prototype may be aimed at seducing investors, not reducing their risk. Gonzo prototyping taken to an extreme could be creating a fake competitor to scare people into action.


Textbook collaboration is generally delivered as a workshop. Activities are designed in advance and participants are guided through them to produce outputs that are thoroughly documented and shared.

Gonzo collaboration leans heavily on having a useful mix of people and getting them together to work more in the style of a rock band jamming.

Gonzo collaboration happens in taxis, after the workshop or in the pub. It is unplanned and unstructured and relies on napkins, text messages and memory. Gonzo is not necessarily inclusive. It goes with the energy, taps into creativity and enables change agents to not always be tied to the laggards. The lack of structure enables people to riff on each others’ ideas and go down rabbit holes to sometimes find rare white rabbits.


Textbook develops stories as customer journeys, experience maps, user stories. These are logical constructions arrived at through synthesis of research and evaluation of options.

Gonzo stories are first person and subjective but no less true for it. The story of a particular customer re-told as if it’s an archetype or a deep account of one location among many. It could be the story from an inspired moment that cuts through and galvanises a vision. Gonzo stories are messier and incomplete but perhaps also feel more real. Gonzo stories aim to have a life of their own and begin to create new futures, new possibilities.

My aim is to remind designers that good practice can become a formula. It’s important sometimes to stray off piste and make space for serendipity, creativity and empathy.

In conclusion

My intention in making the case for Gonzo is not to undermine all of the carefully built rigour of the textbook. We all rely on it to ensure good service design happens. My aim is to remind designers that good practice can become a formula. It’s important sometimes to stray off piste and make space for serendipity, creativity and empathy. It’s good to get lost and live to tell the tale, it’s ok to just hang out. Intuition complements analysis and reduces the risk of over engineering things.

This perspective is also offered to those who find they haven’t got the time, the team or the resources to undertake a textbook project. Gonzo has helped open the door to bigger things or to explore a hunch that’s out of scope but may just prove to be the next big thing. Gonzo doesn’t fit well with planning, budgeting and schedules, which is why slush funds, skunk works and pet projects pop up in the cracks of our logical organisations. Gonzo is good for students who have the freedom, for those lucky to have some downtime but also good for leaders who perhaps have the license to hang out now and again.

The most important reason for writing this is that creativity is not logical and good stories are made up, even if they are rigorously factual. Every account has an observer whose perspective is subjective. Service design is growing in value because it is generative as well as deductive. In the early days of service design, Gonzo was the way we worked because there was no textbook. Sometimes we inspired and sometimes we fell on our faces. Now with the textbook it’s easier not to fail but important to still aim to inspire.

Gonzo has helped open the door to bigger things or to explore a hunch that’s out of scope but may just prove to be the next big thing.