Design in Business and Business in Design

What’s the relationship between business and design? How shall we think of the two in one big picture? Do designers need to understand business more? Should businesspeople understand design more?

Those are tricky questions. And then Alan Cooper started a thread (in his characteristic fashion not so different from that of “And that’s when the murder began”):

We don’t have to always agree with everything Alan Cooper says, while what he says almost always provokes further thoughts.

Here we go.

The Asymmetry Between Business and Design

What I find interesting is the asymmetry between business and design.

The notion of designing as both a universal human activity and a much narrower professional one is identifiable and unambiguous.

But what is business-ing as an activity? The notion of doing business is just an umbrella term that includes, but not limited to, management, marketing, designing, branding, operation, etc.

Almost fifty years ago, Nobel Prize-winning economist and business school professor Herb Simon pointed out that the act of designing was core to management, because anyone interested in turning an existing situation into a preferred one had to pay attention to design. And for the next forty years at least, those of us who study, teach, and practice management proceeded to ignore what he said.

—Jeanne Liedtka

Doing business includes designing. The traditional stratification of work follows the analytical approach of divide and conquer. And that approach goes to extreme in management – hierarchical structures intentionally create encapsulated units of knowledge (worst case becomes the silo mayhem) by delegation.

The notion of business people NOT designing is a rather new one. Before design was forcefully specialized into professions we’re familiar with today, almost everyone in business designed universally AND professionally.

Business used to understand design so well, until large scale managerial challenges and information overload started to hurt.

In order to design professionally, designers always need to understand business. The ones who don’t, can’t.

The Divide Between Business and Design

That doesn’t mean designers and “businesspeople” should be exactly the same. Stratification still exists and rightfully so. It’s a matter of how much business and design should overlap.

Or, as described above, is there even such a dichotomy of the two?

Not necessarily so.

Design is in the operation of business. Business is in the purpose of design. How could the two be separate? When and only when business is indifferent, or when design is not purposeful.

Maybe it’s not that business don’t know design, or design don’t know business. Maybe it’s indifferent leaders trying to appeal to special interests instead of serving the ones who could benefit from the business. Maybe it’s ignorant designers not even trying to justify what they’re doing and why.

Good businesses know design. Good designers know business. We all see them, don’t we?

The moment we start to talk about business versus design, we fall into a blackhole of analytical nonsense, where any random proposition could be justified by manipulating the interpretations of the two, which is, by the way, what some companies do when they start projects and hire people.

So how do we talk about business and design in one picture?

The Synthesis of Business and Design

We may need to differentiate two topics: business in design and design in business.

Business in Design

There’s no such thing as designers should know something about business before they get their hands on a problem. It’s not a matter of whether they should, but that of they may or may not.

Early hopes that by describing design as problem solving we had captured its essence were, in the end, not justified. The problem solving models of design are particularly helpful when you want to control a design process, or to make your design project run more efficiently. But the problem solving model is silent when we want to know more about design than just how to control and structure it.

…Design can indeed be seen as learning: as a designer, you gradually gather knowledge about the nature of the design problem and the best routes to take towards a design solution. You do this by trying out different ways of looking at the problem, the experimenting with various solution directions. You propose, experiment, and learn from the results, until you arrive at a satisfactory result.

—Kees Dorst, Understanding Design

Designing is a learning process. Designers explore the problem space to identify what kind of business understanding they need to accommodate in order to bootstrap the divergent thinking, usually by collaboration.

I don’t think you can design anything just by absorbing information and then hoping to synthesize it into a solution. What you need to know about the problem only becomes apparent as you’re trying to solve it.

—Richard MacCormac

Designers are not almighty. It’s not possible for them to know and understand every business before they have a chance to work on something relevant. It’s ridiculous to assume that designers should know business. Designers may or may not know business and they can when necessary.

In solving problems involving unfamiliar business domains, a designer grows new “receptors” to catch the “business signals” in the new business context, and therefore bond relevant business knowledge with her own design knowledge.


That receptor mechanism in the design practice is how designers approach business understanding.

The receptor mechanism is naturally coupled with individual designer and is very difficult to scale on the organization level.

To scale that design capability, we need to talk about the second topic: design in business.

Design in Business

The act of designing is in every layer of a business: architecture, operation, management, and value creation.


Unfortunately, many tend to focus merely on design in value creation, but omit design in all other layers. Design in value creation is mostly easily seen and very friendly to media. The visceral creativity fits well into the dramatic arc of the media rhetorics. No one loves to mumble about all the other pains in the ass. What’s worse, perhaps, is to deny them by introducing bullshit.

Bullshit is not the same thing as a lie. To lie, you need to have some respect for the truth. When you lie, you are trying to cover something up. Liars know they might be found out. They know that there is a truth, and that they are on the wrong side of it. Bullshit is another matter altogether. According to the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, the bullshitter has ‘a lack of connection or concern for the truth’ and a remarkable ‘indifference to how things really are’. Bullshitters do not lie. They don’t try to cover up the gap between what they are saying and how things really are. Bullshitters are indifferent to how things really are. They don’t care about whether their claims conflict with reality. Bullshitters are not concerned that their grand pronouncements might be illogical, unintelligible and downright baffling. All they care about is whether people will listen. While liars can go to elaborate lengths to cover up, bullshitters unashamedly put it out there for everyone to see. And what’s more, bullshitters consider their handiwork to be an art form. Like any good artist, they long for an appreciative audience. The more accomplished bullshit artists expect applause, awards and significant recompense for their masterpieces.

—André Spicer, Business Bullshit

There are some fragments of an organization that have been designed. Those are good bright areas. The rest are gray areas filled by bullshit, because of the absence of meaning. People learned how to navigate those gray areas by bullshiting. Those areas must be intentionally designed.

Anyone, regardless of her title, who works on those layers of design is the de facto “designer” in your business.

The only way to scale the design capability, especially when an organization is transforming, is to orchestrate the design practices in all layers of an organization, so that all of them support the receptor mechanism when carrying out design activities.


Obviously, we can’t do that manually because we’re already relying on digital technologies to communicate, coordinate, and even collaborate.

The Way Forward

Only a transformable organization can sustain that receptor mechanism of the design capability on scale, and afford the flexibility to reconfigure the design practice at each layer of the business.

The way forward goes far beyond design.

For an organization to become truly transformable, we need to reimagine the architecture.


Special Thanks: Andre Milchman, for thoughtful comments

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