What is Business Design?

Harvard Business Review September 2015

Harvard Business Review September 2015

I am a Business Designer.

The same month I started my Masters in this field, it was the cover story of the Harvard Business Review.

For me, the epiphany came when I visited California College of the Arts and the University of San Francisco on the same day in March 2015. I was looking for a graduate school that would make me a more successful entrepreneur.

At CCA they offer a Design MBA, a 2-year Business Design programme that teaches design thinking for business inside the environment of an art school. At USF they offer a Master in Entrepreneurial Management that takes students to Taipei, Barcelona and San Francisco in a whirlwind 1-year business degree.

From the outside, the USF programme definitely looked more appealing to me. Travelling and learning in different environments sounded exciting. And yet, when I found the campus in San Francisco’s financial district, it struck me that this was very "establishment". My anti-authoritarian streak did not like it at all.

The course structure confirmed my fears. While the topic was entrepreneurship, the teaching style was solidly conventional business education. Learning was dominated by lectures and assessment by written assignments.

CCA on the other hand, has their graduate campus in the design district of the city. It's set in a couple of industrial buildings with white-painted concrete floors (and the occasional paint splatter). As I walked around the campus and saw the studios of the various creative arts being practiced there, my heart began to open up. This was exciting.

When I saw the Business Design studio, the epiphany finally hit. Entrepreneurship isn't a science. It's not a set of formulas, processes and strategies you can learn. Entrepreneurship is an art. It involves play, empathy and deep introspection.

Entrepreneurship is an art. It involves play, empathy and deep introspection.

This can only be taught through the completion of creative projects that encourage experimentation and self-reflection. CCA does this through studio courses in each semester, but I decided to stay in Europe and attend Domus Academy instead. Domus Academy has an even more all-in commitment to project work. The entire 1-year curriculum is arranged around four 6-week project sprints.

There are four main definitions of design (according to me).

  1. Design is the creation of replicable technology. The earliest human technologies are stone tools. The similarity in the stone tools in use at any given time across vast distances suggests that the design of those tools spread rapidly. In this sense, design is the DNA of technology. Design is the domain of artisans, who share the designs of their craft with each other.
  2. Design is the process of creating a blueprint for something to be produced. This is the industrial definition of design. While artisans have to produce their own designs, an industrial designer only creates the blueprints, and machine technicians use industrial machinery to turn the blueprint into products.
  3. Design is the look and feel of a product. This is a common definition of design but really refers to sub-disciplines like interaction design. And even then, is a gross simplification. Eighteen months ago, my definition of design was the 3rd one. But now, it’s this:
  4. Design is a process of understanding human needs and filling them in new ways. Embedded in this definition is the understanding that humans are at the center of design. Design starts with understanding a person, and their needs. Only then can new solutions be found.

Design is a lot about perspective. We are able to innovate by taking a perspective that others are not taking in a particular situation.

Designers gain perspective through research. Design research is really a process of stepping into the perspectives of the people being designed for. By watching, interviewing, and otherwise capturing people's experiences we gain insight into their lives. This insight gives designers perspective, and the perspective allows us to ask better questions.

We must be able to hold paradoxes in mind, and deal with contradiction. Eventually we can turn the questions into a coherent narrative and clearly define the problem.

Finally the search for the solution can begin. First, all the possibilities have to be explored. Crazy ideas have to be made crazier. Until eventually, we hit a point of peak ideas, and begin a process of elimination. As we begin creating feasible solutions and testing them with our users we remove what doesn't work and refine the rest, until eventually we arrive at something that feels like magic.

Idea space in a design project

This, is design.

And now, what is Business Design?

Business design is simply applying this process to business challenges. As a Business Designer I use design methods to find the intersection between human needs, technological feasibility and business viability to create new value for customers and the organisation for the long-term.

In other words, I help businesses innovate.

Business Design allows me to do this effectively because it is a praxis-oriented approach. In our accelerating universe, existing assumptions and conventional wisdom are unable to keep up with the shifting reality. In a situation of such uncertainty, fingerspitzengefühl* is a better way to move forward than well-established theories. Since design itself is based on this sort of highly-contextual approach, it can create a lot of value for organisations struggling with change.

It happens often that the question changes through this process. Recently I spent a few hours working with an entrepreneur. He came to me with a question: How can I sell excess stock of a failed product and recoup my investment? A Business Design approach starts with empathy. Who are you? What is your product? What do you get out of selling it? In the end, the question changed to: How do I donate the stock to a good cause and spend my time more purposefully and profitably?

For an individual entrepreneur, this process can be completed quickly. For a large organisation it will take longer. But the principles are the same. Start with empathy. Gain insight. Define the problem. Let the solutions flow. Test prototypes. Create something of value.

That's Business Design.

Any questions?

* Fingerspitzengefühl (literally finger tips feeling) is a common expression in German for an intuitive approach that applies situational awareness and instinct rather than assumptions (existing models) about what is going on. H/t Venkatesh Rao, Breaking Smart.

Join the conversation on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Josh Levent