Business, Come Meet Design.

What is business design? This is a question I receive quite often. In fact, it’s a question I asked myself more than five years ago when I began my path as a business designer. My prior experience as a strategist — across brand, digital or communications — provided me with minimal insight into how I might be equipped to tackle my new role. I even looked on this platform for answers, and found a few responses, but many of the articles I read lacked the clarity I desired. Maybe that’s how the people I speak with today feel? Nonetheless this is my attempt to articulate my response to the aforementioned question.

However, before I respond, let me take a moment to provide a brief history into how the practice of business design evolved, as I believe it is valuable context into the question “what is business design?”

Emergence of Business Design as a Practice

Design thinking, as we know it today, has been helping businesses solve difficult problems for decades. Its origins may have begun through product design, but quickly designers and their clients realized that that lens alone was myopic. More importantly, that application of design thinking alone did not provide a steady strategic partnership between client and vendor.

Instead design thinking could be used to tackle a breadth of challenges businesses faced in the context of accelerated technological developments and unanticipated competition. Eventually, academics and the media began to endorse and publicize the power of design as the great competitive differentiator in a rapidly dynamic world.

Thus the power of design in business was substantiated not by designers, but instead by the academics and media that influence thought leadership and public opinion. Quickly, the popularity of design thinking rose, giving design consultancies greater opportunities to partner with companies of all sizes.

At the same time, design consultancies recognized a need to ensure that solutions, whether they were a new product or service, moved from conception to implementation.

This decision to consistently deliver design solutions based on clients’ evolving needs created a demand for new talent. That talent needed to not only be well versed in design methodology, but familiar with business operations as well.

So, What Then Is Business Design?

One additional note before I share my perspective. The maturity of business design as a practice varies across markets. For example, in North America, business design is considered a well established practice, but in parts of Europe, the maturity differs widely from one market to the next. As such, the varying levels of maturity in business design is largely dependent on the talent available within a particular market. Nonetheless I will approach this topic from a predominantly North American perspective.

Business Design Is…

In short, business design is the combination of design methodology and business fundamentals to unlock growth through new experiences, products or services. It is strategic. It is imaginative. And it is pragmatic. Business designers are ultimately responsible for ensuring that new solutions are grounded in current and potentially future realities. However, those ideas must strike a balance between unforeseen possibility and current reality while garnering what Accenture Interactive’s Chief Strategy Officer Baiju Shah likes to call “organizational confidence.” That “organizational confidence” is paramount to move businesses from places of comfort and possibly complacency to experimentation and agility.

How Does that Differ from Business Strategy?

Based on my experience, traditional business strategy is still grounded in academic frameworks that were popular decades ago. Although business schools and companies are striving to provide more timely research and case studies that resemble today’s competitive dynamics, traditional strategy prioritizes the familiar. I argue that business design by default prefers to explore the unknown. More tangibly, business designers take great comfort in high levels of ambiguity and take great joy in the notion of play. This does not imply that they are unaware of business needs, shareholder value or quarterly earnings. Instead the business parameters are simply perceived as another set of constraints in the design challenge.

What Does the Future Hold for Business Design?

As more organizations embark on creating experiences to drive customer loyalty and business growth, they seek new talent that will help reimagine how things have been done. Therefore, there is great opportunity for business designers to not only serve companies through a typical client-vendor relationship, but also within organizations by leading teams aiming to build a company’s ability to innovate and create new experiences.

Regardless of whether one applies business design to organizations, externally or internally, practitioners will most likely encounter two recurring questions:

  1. How willing are organizations to adopt new talent and ways of working that will challenge previous norms and conventional thinking? Will they make space for new talent to share their experience and help usher in innovation? Or will they resort to standardized ways of working?
  2. How will business designers evolve their craft and reinvent their own skills? What will business designers do to advance their practice as more people enter the field?

Design thinking is no longer a bright, shiny object. Many people are aware of design thinking, and although business design is still a relatively obscure practice outside of the design community, it will eventually gain greater awareness and be challenged by traditional business strategy, agile methodology or the latest business methodology. Therefore, it is imperative that business designers, regardless of their years in the field, prioritize further advancing their practice and address emerging challenges facing today’s organizations.

When I began my journey into business design nearly a decade ago, I was uncertain whether this new professional aspiration was simply a fad. Yet here I am still deeply engaged in this work and the potential it holds to continuously reimagine the world we live in, which is a testament to the broad application of business design for a host of challenges.

Regardless of the path you’re on, we will repeatedly need new ways of thinking and doing. So whether your approach to problem solving is business, design or anything in between, it’s vital that you not only clarify your work, but consistently demonstrate the value in the work that you do, if we are going to sustainably create a positive impact for our ever-changing world.

For further reading about Business Design…

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