What makes a good business designer?

All designer share the goal of solving a problem or meeting a specific need via a design strategy or process. But, even so, not all designers are created equally.

That last statement, it is not in any way meant to suggest that certain types of designers are better than others. Far from it, actually. What we mean is that every design craft brings something different to the project table, and it’s that blend of specialist skills that brings a richness of flavour and originality to any design concept.

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Business design, while still quite a young and developing craft within the world of service and product design, is no different. Having spent time meeting, chatting and listening to business designers of all experience levels, we’ve come up with a list of things we keep hearing when we ask them: “What does it take to be a good business designer?”.

We’ve boiled them down and categorised them into four key mindsets to make them more digestible.

Maybe you run a studio and you’re looking for the right talent. Perhaps you’re a design lead thinking about how to help your designers develop their skillset. You may even be a business designer yourself and want to figure out where you could improve.

Whichever your case, we hope these insights from real business designers might serve as a guide when you’re thinking about how to do good business design.

Be a good communicator

Communication is a bigger part of business design than some people might realise. Communication as a business designer can involve wearing a few different hats in order to get an important message across.

Firstly, you have to be a good translator. It’s a business designer’s job to take the jargon-riddled and sometimes-abstract language of business and repeat it in a language that other designers can understand. That might mean simplifying really complex systems or explaining how best practices from other industries apply to your team’s current problem.

You also need to be a good storyteller. A business designer’s ability to tell good, consistent stories is what determines how successful they are at explaining business concepts to his or her team, or event to clients and users. If you’re going to try to explain the value of a specific business model or concept to the one you’re trying to design, you’ll need to demonstrate how the model works or at least help your audience imagine it. A strong, clear narrative is essential there and our Triggers Storytelling Deck can help with that.

Not just a good design thinker but a good design ‘doer

If you ask a bunch of business designers what the difference between them and a service designer, a lot of them will repeat certain words. Words like ‘viability’, ‘tangibility’ and ‘realistic’ have come up a lot whenever we’ve tried it.

It’s about making the intangible tangible

In reality, they’ve got a point. A lot of business design seems to be about making sure a concept can actually become a real thing and have real value (i.e. money) for a real business. It’s about making the intangible tangible.

Turning research insights into actual product or service concepts that you can really test with actual users. Designing a business model that will generate money from it. Transforming the product or a service from a one-hit-wonder and a sustainable, living business. A good business designer is either responsible for or highly influential in making all of these things happen.

Be creative (yes, creative!)

“A business designer needs to be able to make the business as beautiful as the design.”

Sometimes, business designers are not spoken about in the same way as other kinds of designers. Maybe it’s because a lot of what they design happens behind the scenes if you’re looking at it from the user’s perspective (see the next section). It could also be because business design doesn’t have as much as an artistic or creative connotation to it as other design disciplines. This last hypothesis is a bit misguided though.

Business designers have to be just as creative as other designers. We learned this when we were designing our Business Design Deck. Business designers need to be able to think in a creative way about how a business works or how it is run. As Carl Fudge, a project lead at IDEO’s studio for organizational change puts it: “A business designer needs to be able to make the business as beautiful as the design”.

In other words, the beauty in the design of any product or service is just as much down to the business designer as it is to the visual design or any other design input. You’ll remember we mentioned this at the beginning of this post, which nicely links us to the end of it.

Be prepared to be both a team player and an unsung hero

As we mentioned in the previous point, a lot of the value of business design is wrapped up in layers hidden beneath the layers the user actually sees. But that’s OK; that’s part of good business design: it makes a design concept seem to work as if by magic.

“Really good business design is invisible.”

Rohini Vibha (a business designer at IDEO) takes it a step further in her article about what ‘good business design’ looks like at IDEO, saying: “Really good business design is invisible”. That quote may sound like something from Harry Potter but there are other ways you can look at it.

A lot of good business design — arguably like all good design is closely related to good relationships with people. In business design, this might be even truer. A good business designer not only has to be able to relate well with team-mates of other disciplines and backgrounds but they also have to solve a problem for both the client and the user. Although that often ends up being the case for other designers, it’s not necessarily the same.

So while much of a business designer’s contribution to a final concept isn’t seen by the end user, when a project team doesn’t have a business designer’s input, the difference is certainly noticeable.