The concept of “empty space”, also known as whitespace, is familiar to visual designers. It refers to intentionally leaving empty space around and between different design elements. It can be very noticeable (macro) or very subtle (micro). Its goal is to help the users to navigate their way through the design outputs. This reduces the users’ cognitive load. Cognitive load refers to the limited capacity of our working memory to process information at any given time. In service design, empty space is yet an undiscovered, but potentially very powerful, tool.

Author: Milla Mäkinen

Navigating in the Service Complexity

Services are everywhere. Globally, they generate over 60 % of GDP (OECD 2023). Customers around the world interact with services on daily basis. Many earn their salaries from them. The more service-surrounded we are, the more we need good service design.

Navigating in services is always a cognitive effort. Thus, when defining “good” in service design, we must start with the customer. What the customer needs defines, which design elements are essential for generating good customer experiences: human, physical, ambient, digital, or organizational.

As a lecturer in Service Design at LAB University of Applied Sciences, I like to start from the broad picture of the network of different elements that make up services in order to understand customer experience. Human elements are all the encounters between people within the service (customer-staff, staff-customer, staff-staff and customer-customer interactions) and their characteristics (actions, gestures, words, tones of voice, appearance, etc.). Physical elements include tangible artefacts such as buildings, floor plans, furniture, leaflets, posters, forms, lighting, etc. and their characteristics. Ambient elements include non-tangible artefacts such as temperature, air quality, smells, tastes and sounds, and their characteristics. Digital elements refer to the websites and applications, robotics and other digital technologies, their features, and data collection and the use of digital data and AI. Organisational elements include the management system, employee rules and regulations, norms and tacit knowledge about, for example, how to behave in the service, and their features. In short, if we zoom in on services, we can see that services are made up of various interrelated design elements, which make up the service touchpoints. Interaction with these elements should create value for the customer.

Five circles within each other, each circle including an image and a text describing different service design elements: human, physical, digital, ambient and organisational.
Image 1. Service experiences are made of multiple design elements (M. Mäkinen)

The complexity of service design lies in the fact that services do not automatically create value. John Seddon (2008) points out that services create both value and failure demand. Failure demand is the demand for services caused by “a failure to do something or to do something right for the customer”. Value demand is demand based on customers getting what they need. The key is that the customers should get only what they need -nothing less and nothing more. (Seddon 2008, 72.) Seddon draws our attention to service “waste”. He points out that waste is (hu)man-made and “a consequence of system conditions: measures, roles, process design, procedures, IT, structure, contracts, and so on” (Seddon 2008, 80). Seddon identifies seven types of waste created by services: defects, overproduction, transportation, inventory, motion, waiting time and overprocessing (Seddon 2008, 81). According to Seddon, services can create two outputs for their customers: value or waste.

Avoiding Poor Service Design

Poor service design can add unwanted issues to customers’ lives: cognitive load, frustration, annoyance, confusion, anger and a load of time wasters. Today, many services are overloaded with service elements and touchpoints. Customers might feel like drowning in the amount of newsletters, feedback surveys, apps and their updates, websites overloaded with information and complex forms with dozens of questions. Employees may feel overwhelmed with the number of digital platforms, meetings and instructions that they face behind the service desk. The unnecessary additions to services can create service cacophony and ruin the customer experience.

While in the right service contexts service automation technologies can be a value-adding element, in the hospitality context they may endanger the core of the customer experience, hospitableness (Tasci & Semrad 2016). Some technologies, such as too-humanoid robots, can cause discomfort and fear (Grazzini et al. 2023, Mende et al. 2019). In fine dining restaurants, where human contact is seen as a significant aspect of the service charm, replacing human contact and interaction with digital solutions is perceived as a sacrifice that degrades the customer experience. (Vo-Thanh et al. 2022.) In social services, where the customer’s problems may be very complex human life problems with no solutions or very complex solutions, the essence of the service is reduced to the human-to-human interaction; two people in a quiet room paying attention to each other. Unnecessary additions to this, or the removal of this altogether, can make the customer feel that no service has been realised at all. (Mäkinen 2023.)

The power of simplicity has long been recognised in the sphere of design, starting with Don Norman’s concept of user-centredness. He proclaims to be in a “fight against unnecessary complications” (Norman 2011, 4). Service designers should join the fight.

A frustrated customer surrounded by red circles with images of app updates, service robots, e-mails, chats, complicated websites, constant messaging, meetings and physical environments.
Image 2. Services that are unnecessarily complex may cause cognitive load to customers (M. Mäkinen)

Norman has no sympathy for bad design (Norman 2011, 4). He clarifies that bad design can cause emotional stress. When design solutions are capricious or arbitrary, they cause annoyance and confusion. Confusion is bad, because it makes us feel helpless and powerless, and takes away our sense of control and understanding. The key is to design solutions that reflect understandability, with understanding. “Simple everyday things can be confusing if we encounter them in large numbers where each thing, though simple by itself, comes in many varieties and forms, each requiring a different principle of operation”, he reminds (Norman 2011, 6).

Keeping the Design of Services Simple

The key to good service design is to keep it simple; to design cognitively friendly services by applying the concept of empty space.

A calm customer surrounded by red circles that have been crossed over with images of app updates, e-mails, complicated websites, constant messaging and complicated physical environments and green circles with images of meetings, social robots and chats.
Image 3. Applying the empty space concept to service design can reduce the cognitive load to customers (M. Mäkinen)

How do we apply empty space to service design? First, we need to recapture the essence of service experience, that is the etymological meaning of service as “helpful acts”. This is what the customer is looking for, not for the overwhelming amounts of information and possibilities of interaction. In the age of technological abundance, we should ask ourselves, which touchpoints and service design elements should be left out of the service to deliver the best customer experience. Does the service include the essential touchpoints and design elements and only those?

It is time to start a movement against service cacophony and for cognitively ergonomic services with meticulously designed empty space.


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Milla Mäkinen (PhD) is a Lecturer at LAB University of Applied Sciences, Institute for Design. She teaches service design and works as a service design expert in LAB University of Applied Sciences’ RDI projects.

Illustration: (CC0)

Published 16.10.2023

Reference to this article

Mäkinen, M. 2023. Discovering the Empty Space in Service Design. LAB Pro. Cited and date of citation. Available at