in Business Design

Business Design Career Advice

I’ve gotten this question from students and others entering the field a few times, and frankly still ponder it for my own purposes, so I’m going to lay down some thoughts on it here.

The question is:

I’m very passionate about pursuing design strategy and bridging the gap between developing engaging user experiences (product side) with the economics/marketing/strategy (business side).

The way the question is framed is telling. 99% of us still think of business and design as separate concepts. And all the Fast Company cover stories aren’t going to change managers’ attitudes for several years.

If we acknowledge these concepts have not been bridged already, we can expand this question to ask “In what kind of situation can I experience the sort of personal growth necessary to learn what I need” as well as “What kind of organizations will have greater success in bridging these concepts?”

To know where to work to experience personal fulfillment requires knowing what companies will have some success in this area. And that requires knowing what clients these companies are likely to have. Taking a client-centered approach I ask who is this client? Maybe it’s Steve Jobs, because although he already does it better than the rest of us he might want a staff that can do what he does. It’s not a manager at a conservative company, because he won’t experiment with new approaches. Probably the client is someone who has a need for a new approach, is open to learning on the job, but can’t do it herself.

So what sort of business designer will be more likely to service this client? Let’s go through the usual suspects:
Design firms: Have creativity credentials, but not necessarily the business rigor needed to help the client feel comfortable experimenting with her budget.
Management consultancies: Have business credentials, but aren’t positioned well to sell the more customer-focused, qualitative, creative approaches to the work.
21st Century firms: For lack of a better term, these are firms that are relatively new but started with this sort of challenge in mind. At MIG we attacked this problem head on, did some great work, but as a new, small firm faced a tough business development environment — if business and design are still two different concepts, selling them as one ain’t easy. Others like Jump Associates do great work and thrive, I suspect, because they emphasize a traditionally-valued competency, like customer research. Ditto for Katzenbach Partners with organizational development.

What does does that mean for the person wanting to learn and do business design? I’d say look for 1) a firm committed to developing this offering, and 2) a firm that emphasizes a competency that parallels your interests.

  1. Hi Victor,

    This is a great post. As a recent design grad I am running into this same wall. On the one hand BW and the like are promoting design/innovation, however as you point out, many companies can’t actualize the leap into this new mentality. I hope to find more of these “21st century firms”; there is so much opportunity for them in today’s market. It will be interesting to see how this develops. I am personally beginning to give up on finding one such firm and considering creating one myself. I think I may be a little naive, but what else is your youth for?

  2. also look for jobs in
    · privately owned companies or owner run companies (corporate culture more likely in favor of business design careers than with publicly traded ones)
    · automotive industry and home electronics industry (many of them have sophisticated design studios where you can learn a lot because your products are targeted towards the mass market and the mass market is a real good teacher)
    · short term you also won’t waste your time working in the project management of a celebrated architects practice or assisting a design star (celebrity is always good because the projects are more prestigious, the pressure is higher, the air is quite different and the pay usually lousy (which is good – so you have to move on after a while)

  3. Good post… but you forgot product management! A product management position can be the perfect way to apply “design thinking” methods into business/product strategy.

    In fact, transitioning from user experience to product management is something a lot of people have already done or are looking to do.

    Most product management positions offer a fair amount of flexibility in how you can approach the role, giving the opportunity to apply a “business design” as appropriate.

    Blog: How To Be A Good Product Manager

  4. Good point Jeff, and an oversight on my part as I’m just winding up a product development project I’ve been working on since November, and thinking about business design the whole time.

    But, there may not be the opportunity to do business design as this is already such a traditional role. In fact, just advocating for the customer can be difficult. When I meet product developers I like to ask them, “Do you know the names of any of your customers?” and they usually don’t; these days customer relationships can be relegated to CRM systems.

    And I’ve heard stories of there being a lot of friction between designers and product developers in places like Yahoo and in media companies here in NYC. The old world of design and editorial is butting against the new world of product management and the roles haven’t been finessed yet.

  5. Great post Victor. I was captivated by the date in which you wrote it and here we are 5 years later and I see the same question come up. I am a User Experience Designer.. have been for 10+ years and just recently completed an MBA in Design Strategy. In my opinion, I think the school should have called it MBA in Business Design – but anyway :)

    I am in the process of transition. I am working for a cooporation I have been in for almost 7 years now. It has been an amazing journey and have loved working for it, however, I have realized that for me to grow and purse my passion as a Business Designer or Design Strategist, I have to change my context.

    I have to find (as you also wisely adviced) “…1) a firm committed to developing this offering, and 2) a firm that emphasizes a competency that parallels your interests”.

    The search is on.

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