Business designers have used a design approach to help organisations manage market uncertainty, accelerate value creation, and build innovation culture. A full stack business designer is also able to facilitate sustainability transitions.
This article started to form after a lunch meeting with a colleague, where we both begun to reflect upon our professional paths so far. When I was looking back at the three decades since my own architectural studies in the nineties, it was almost inevitable to also think about the evolvement of design as an approach during this time. This perception is certainly affected by my personal journey from architecture into creation of digital experiences. When contemplating this, I realise how solid a foundation the best parts of my own studies gave for a journey also outside realms of architecture, with an empathetic approach to user experiences and a respect for ecological aspects. If we think about the Triple Bottom Line model of Profit, People, Planet, then I would say that the People part from this design background has been surprisingly natural to combine with the Profit part of digital business development. Lately, I have seen the circle closing on the Planet part. Let us come back to that, after a quick retro of how I think the People and Profit parts have evolved in digital business.
The late nineties were an exciting time with all nascent digital services. First it was mostly about coming to grips with maturing web technologies and working out suitable forms of visual design. Eventually expertise in addressing usability started to emerge. User-centredness still was more about the user experience within the business developer’s and designer’s idea of the service, not very much concerning if the service was relevant for the user or not. This is where design thinking entered the scene around the turn of the century, trying to conceptualise new services from a dialogue with potential users. Still, coming up with something desirable, does not mean it is viable.
When building digital services, the lean methodology soon was introduced, with an aim to reduce waste – just as in traditional manufacturing. On the business side this took the form of lean startup, realising that things are complex and can sometimes be understood only through experimentation. My personal takeaway from working with startups is that sometimes “it might not be plannable, but it can still be doable”. Iterative lean methodologies are natural to adapt for a designer mindset, so evolution soon created a new hybrid, the business designer, to connect the worlds of business and design. Practitioners of this emerging discipline are familiar with handling tools such as design thinking, lean startup, business strategy, and customer success, all depending on the task at hand.
Practitioners of the emerging discipline of business design are familiar with handling tools such as design thinking, lean startup, business strategy, and customer success, all depending on the task at hand.
My second professional pivot from a background in design came when taking on a new opportunity in corporate responsibility – especially around environmental sustainability. I now notice, almost every day, how previous experiences in combining design and business strongly support a purpose in sustainable transformation. It is about curbing climate change and overuse of resources, as well as mitigating and adapting to risks related to that, but also identifying opportunities to help customers.
Business design is traditionally said to be “designing for viability”, essentially meaning empathetic iteration from just an idea to actual value creation. A detailed description might add that it is about envisioning the future (strategic foresight), understanding customer needs (design thinking), finding market traction (lean startup experimentation), and determining a unique position on the market (business strategy), or even facilitating transformation of an organisation’s innovation culture. In my experience, a common denominator in all of these for a business designer is to manage uncertainty.
Business design is traditionally said to be “designing for viability”, essentially meaning empathetic iteration from just an idea to actual value creation.
Even though societal unrest and rising costs at the moment of writing this article might be top of the mind for people, many of us have developed a chronic concern about climate change and overuse of resources – with a plethora of negative social and economic sustainability effects. Many business stakeholders, such as investors and authorities, already mitigate risks by requiring businesses to have a well-formed sustainability narrative, supported by evidence. Similar to how a business enterprise can be highly successful by either being very efficient or very innovative, an organisation can be highly sustainable by either having very low footprint (negative sustainability effects, such as greenhouse gas emissions) or very high handprint (positive sustainability effects, for example by deploying circular business models). It is worth underlining that sustainability also can mean other forms of responsible conduct than from an environmental point of view. Social, economic, digital and possible other business-specific forms of sustainability are equally important to understand.
A full stack business designer aims for such versatility that a design approach can be applied for both viability and sustainability. The challenge for businesses will increasingly become to combine these two aspects, and there is hardly anyone more suitable than a business designer to facilitate it.
With designing for viability comes great responsibility for sustainability.
Therefore, I strongly propose future proofing the still emergent discipline of business design through the simple manifesto of “With designing for viability comes great responsibility for sustainability”. This proudly borrows from both design thinker quotes on how a design approach has relevance for economic sustainability and pop culture quotes about how great power implies great responsibility.
Sustainability and Business Design, Elisa