Design thinking

A Service Designer’s Eye on Shanghai

Marcus Mansjö

After 6 months of fairly monotonous project work, I was slowly losing the spark and passion for the work I was doing. Not that it was particularly uninspiring, but I did feel I was losing my curiosity as a professional. I felt I had to rediscover myself as a designer. Not reinvent myself but just rediscover my role as a professional and find my way back to absolutely loving it! So, I bought myself a ticket to Shanghai.

Why Shanghai? Well, I simply felt there’s so much going on over there that I do not have a clue about. It has been some time since my last visit. 6 years ago, when I lived in Hong Kong I experienced parts of the Chinese design community.

At that time, it could be argued, that the design discipline was not mature in China, but over the years things have evolved, and so has the design community. What about service design in China then? That’s what I wanted to find out. So, I went, and immersed myself for a week and wrote down my daily experiences, some of which I would like to share with you.

First Impression Taxi

Getting off a flight, a taxi ride from the airport is often the first time you get a chance to look out the window and reflect on the new country or city you are visiting.

It was difficult to get a glimpse of the city from my taxi window.

My first impression of Shanghai was a rather smelly but still cheap affair. One hour in the cab for 160 RMB, in semi congested traffic, seemed well worth it, but at the same time, it was quite boring. Some attempts had been made to personalize the taxi interior with curtains and a tea thermos but overall the added features were mostly for the comfort of the driver, not for me, the customer.

I was left to hang out with the Mandarin speaking infotainment system that seemed full of advertisements. Either way, for a population on wheels, tourists, business people or locals spend a lot of time in traffic in taxis as the rates are reasonable. There should be room for differentiation other than the color and shape of the taxi itself. I imagine that just spending a little extra time on developing the infotainment system would improve the customer experience immensely. Then again, I am not sure how much customer research is actually part of the typical service development process over here. As for my experience, due to the huge infotainment system and largely thanks to curtains and blinds, it was hard to see what was passing by outside the taxi, something which is of high interest when you visit a new country.

Recycling Efforts

I like what I see in many respects. There are people for everything, every task, large and small, no surprises here. You put empty bottles and used paper on the street, and within minutes, there’s someone there to take care of it, either to refine and reuse it or simply recycle it to earn an extra RMB. Our use of resources is so different, it dawned on me.

I really like that the Chinese make use of everything on a chicken, pig or fish. For instance, intestines, bone, marrow, and so on. They seem to do the same with cardboard, and plastics, etc. People on electric tricycles bike around ringing a bell letting residents know that the cardboard collector is there to pick up their recyclable materials. The cardboard collector then delivers the cardboard to a recycling station and gets paid.

There’s something very old school and beautiful in this process as it is adapted to the needs of a modern Chinese society. Last fall I was doing a bunch of interviews in southern China about attitudes in relation to furniture. For 80% of the consumers I talked to, recycling and care for the environment, and better use of resources came up spontaneously. People seemed aware and willing to put in an effort, which makes me very happy.

Cardboard collector in Shanghai. Old, meets modern entrepreneurship.

Different Perspectives

I went to visit Qiqi Zhang at Shanghai Design Center in the Yangpu District of Shanghai. I learned that the term design in Shanghai is closely related to Architecture and urban planning. This makes sense since it is a booming city and there are hundreds of construction projects everywhere. The product and service design industries were seemingly less prominent in the minds of the Shanghai Design Center.

Qiqi told me there were 1200 design companies in the Tonji University area alone. It put me off guard for a bit before I learned that it was Architecture and urban planning firms, but it still impressed me. The Shanghai Design Center is located on the compound of the Tongji University with 22000 students enrolled in various programs, design being one field. Talking to Qiqi I could not help but reflect on my own design adventure in Hong Kong back in 2006, and how we struggled to get a solid business going. “Like with anything in China, you need to be well connected to the government” Qiqi said. I wonder how much has actually changed in 7 years.

Food & Foot service

What can service designers learn from Shanghainese street vendors? All though old school and non-designed I cannot help but love all the shoe shiners, foot massagers, and street food vendors that clutter the streets. There’s a very rural touch to their services. Although their stands often look worn and torn, they do deliver flawlessly in one major aspect; personal service!

Each and every vendor or shoe shiner has his or hers own style of stool or trolley, fitted with personal features. Many times it is the same person interacting with customers, always in the same consistent manner with the same consistent offering, wherever they are needed and have their customers. Mobility and flexibility is key here. This simplicity, honesty, personality and consistency is something we should all remember and strive for when designing new services.

Super Subway

Much like the fantastic subway system in Hong Kong, the Shanghai one does not fail to deliver a simple and easy to navigate (even for non mandarin speakers) on time service. Cheap, safe and hassle free to find your way. The service of buying your ticket is beautifully executed. It is clear this system is new and not stuck in old habits like the Stockholm or New York subway system that feels hopelessly out of date in comparison. In this respect we are miles behind the Chinese. It is so easy to find your way it is almost ridiculous! Just take buying a ticket in a vending machine for example:

A three click ticket:

1. Point on the map to choose what subway line you want to take.

2. Select what station you want to go to.

3. Select number of travellers.

4. Pay, get your ticket and go! 

Sthlm and NYC are hopelessly behind the Shanghai metro.

Taobao wow

I had heard about before, but had never fully understood how it worked. It is like an online street market. From what I understand the concept is you apply to be able to use taobao as a platform to sell your stuff, not only old second-hand things, but things you produce yourself.

I like the idea of having an online market place for small entrepreneurial startups selling everything you could possibly imagine. This way you would be able to reach out to the masses without even having to have your own website or even company, which everyone does not have the ability or resources to do. So basically, toaobao is shortcutting the whole process of setting up a company, web shop etc, all you need to do is to create a profile and upload images of the products you want to sell and you’re up and running with your small enterprise. It seems it is a great and very accessible platform for small businesses to start from!

The Chinese wonder

Got on the bus at Shanghai South Railway station to go to Xitang, the town where parts of Mission Impossible 3 was filmed. The town was pretty and all, but saturated with bars, and tourists posing and taking pictures on the picturesque stone bridges.

Amazing how they’ve seized this opportunity to capitalize on the increase in tourists post the MI3 movie. It was striking to see how this very pretty old town on the water has been allowed to be partly destroyed by karaoke bars. The Chinese do not seem to be very sentimental. The most interesting part of the trip was the bus ride itself, and simply walking the streets of rural China, drinking a 6rmb beer and have people looking at you as if you were an alien. On the bus, looking out the windows, makes you realize the magnitude of the effect of the Chinese wonder. We passed factories so large you could not see the end of the buildings, and everywhere in between them, wherever there was soil, people were growing crops or farming pigs.


I have seen rural China before, visited factories many times, and seen hundreds of workers lined up in assembly lines. I consider myself very fortunate to have done so because it gives me perspective. I wonder what would happen to our consumption behavior if more people actually got to see the backside of it all with their own eyes?

Lost in Translation app

Another neat service I discovered was English-Chinese translation apps, e.g. Placo. You write what you think a sign or a sentence says, the app then gives you suggestions on different signs and their meaning. This way you can compare and find the sign(s) you have in front of you and get their exact meaning. There are also apps, e.g. Waygo, that scan signs and translates them but they are still not fast and extensive enough to be truly useful.

Placo app

The Big Idea

Now it was time for me to leave the constantly horn honking, street spitting, hard working and deeply intriguing Shanghainese people and return to my reality at Veryday in Stockholm. Looking out the window after 40 minutes of flying, I still saw city and factories. How far do you get in 40 minutes? 400-500 km of factories, housing projects and rural Shanghai model XXL. I’m having the same thought I did when I visited China for the first time in 2004; There’s clearly a big idea, which many have concluded before me. Never the less it is interesting, scary and mindboggling at the same time. There’s a clear plan for the future, and China is building for it in every sense of the word. Everything is on steroids, from roads to malls, railway stations to mines. 

Looking back at a relaxed but eventful week in Shanghai I felt my passion for my work coming back to me again. The services I experienced and the drinks I savored during the week left me wanting to know and understand more. There are so many dimensions of rapid changing China that are so hard to comprehend, explain and analyze, and I’m probably not the right person to do that. But as designers we need to keep an eye on China and Shanghai, if for no other reason than to help us understand why we absolutely love what we do and what role designers should play in shaping our global future.

Looking out the window I could still see 400-500 km of factories, housing projects and the rural Shanghai model XXL.