What is Business Design – and why is it the most important design job of the future?

Photo: Domanske

Fjord's business design director explains why applying design principles – and skills – to business is the next big thing for both industries (and maybe you too).

A cohort of expert designers last week chalked out in an excellent article, the jobs that will be needed in design over the coming years and decades, from Augmented Reality Designers through Fusionists, and Embodied Interaction Designers, via many others.

The article was of course based on the entirely reasonable premise that the world is changing fast around us and that businesses need to adapt and evolve rapidly to ensure nothing gets missed, and that they grasp the right opportunities.

Trouble was, most of the contributors missed possibly the most important design role that not enough people are talking about: Business Design.

In spite of brilliant examples across many industries of companies getting a whole lot of stuff right, for the most part, businesses and organisations still don’t really grasp the potential of what a design-led approach can do. Many people working today in large and not-so-large businesses still think of design as either a purely aesthetic profession, or even an advertising discipline, and not as a problem-solving mindset well adapted to helping companies with a host of practical, real-world challenges.

So before we start planning for future careers in new areas of design as our technologies and platforms hurtle forward around us, we need to consider carefully the importance of Business Design – and of recruiting Business Designers. And that’s the key role that’s missing in the article. Some agencies and consultancies are really starting to get this right, and it’s starting to become a bigger part of design education (not before time). But it’s not universal yet – and it should be.

6 ways to approach Business Design

1) Whenever we’re designing for clients, or internally within our organisations, we’ll do better if we understand how our outputs influence the business case of our area. Not much happens within companies without a bunch of stakeholders agreeing to fund something, with some kind of anticipated result. We need to understand what that result is, even if it means we challenge it for all the right reasons. But design lives within a business case, whether we like it or not. So better find out how we evolve or change that business case. And even crunch some numbers.

2) Whenever we launch something that we’ve designed, how are we going to prove it’s working? Or not working and needs improving? As part of the design process itself, we need to be building in the moments and linkages to ensure that – once a service or a product is launched – we can show how it’s doing. Intrinsically linked to the first point, this is going to be critical for a host of people who’ve paid for this new idea and who want to see what it was all for. And no, a Cannes Lion is not enough for most people. Their P&L is where success shows up.

3) Reputations suffer when products and services fail. And no-one wants that. So as we’re designing and developing, we need to be thinking about how people are going to support this new product or service. What needs to change within the organisations we’re working for? Are their departments and teams set up correctly? Do they have the right people with the right mindsets to look after a new product or service, especially if it’s one that seeks to set them apart and do something new…? So we need to be helping design aspects or even entire new organisations and ways of working, because even seemingly small UI decisions can have profound (and costly) organisational consequences.

4) A lot of people in large organisations can feel overwhelmed by the design of a new product or service. It’s really exciting – but how on earth is it every going to get delivered? It feels like most of the design community is pretty au fait with the Minimum Viable Product concept, but a lot of our clients and organisations really aren’t, beyond using the words. We often need to product manage things for our clients, and in so doing help them to break out of very traditional Prince 2 project management ways of thinking. So breaking down our designs into key and peripheral features, with an eye on what’s most important for the end user and for the business, is a critical skill.

5) If the first four points were about components of Business Design, this one’s more of a mindset thought: Design is (rightly) obsessed with doing the right thing for the end user of whatever we’re designing. And that’s as it should be. That level of empathy is critical. I often think, though, that we also need to have very deep empathy for the clients and organisations we’re working within. That level of empathy helps us put ourselves in the shoes of employees and leaders who are critical to the success of whatever we design, and enable us to think through the practicalities involved in points one to three. Business Designers often feel like translators, navigators, almost the glue between several very disparate groups of people. It’s a real skill.

6) And finally, Business Design stands or falls on its ability to tell the right story at the right time to the right person. This is a classic design skill: the ability to communicate well, and get everyone else as excited and on board with the vision, but also the practicalities, talking the language of the user, and the language of the business or organisation we’re designing for.

So it’s really Business Design that’s going to play a big part in making all the new design roles of the future to be successful. And before you say that it sounds like consultancy, it isn’t?. Iit’s a design role, and a great Business Designer is just that: a designer, intrinsic to the design process but critical to business success. Perhaps one day we’ll all be business designers at heart, and it’ll be as much a part of design education as anything else. But until then, better start recruiting Business Designers.

John Oswald is business design director at design and innovation firm Fjord.

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