What is Business Design?

Learn about the modern approach to business building.

Business strategy and design thinking are converging into a new approach for solving business challenges known as business design. This makes sense given that design-driven companies continue to outperform their peers and also explains why so many management consultancies are rapidly acquiring design agencies. A decade ago, business design was an emerging role in design agencies. Today, however, it’s an established role in consulting and moving in-house as well.  

How do We Define Business Design?  

Business design brings a design mindset and methodology to solve business challenges and deliver viable business models. At Prophet, business design is a method for developing products, services and ventures for our clients that are differentiated in the market and able to capture value for their businesses.  

Why is Business Design the Modern Approach to Business Building? 

There is some magic that happens when you bring the design process of divergence and convergence to bear on business challenges. It gets business leaders out of the mindset of competing over existing market share and reorients them to think about what new value could be created based on the emerging needs, motivations and behaviors of all humans involved in the value creation equation – customers, users, employees and communities. 

At Prophet, when we embark on a business design project, there are some key things we set out to do:  

  • Achieve a deep understanding of business challenges faced 
  • Bring a design mindset and use design methods to solve them, including creating new methods 
  • Develop iterative plans and models based on real-world scenarios to understand what will be most viable in the market 

The goal of business design is to ensure that neither of these scenarios happens: 

  • The business minds determine all the requirements for a new offering and bring designers in to beautify the interface 
  • The design team creates the end-to-end user experience of a new offering and brings the business people in to give it a price tag 

The defining characteristic of the business design function is to constantly balance the needs of users with the needs of the business, in the near and long term. A business designer will always ensure that business logic informs any design-build or seek out to better understand the logic that supports their design – whether that be loyalty leading to higher customer lifetime value, efficiency leading to higher transaction volume or something else entirely. On the other hand, a business designer will see through a short-term value capture scheme if it has the potential to hurt the long-term viability of the business. So, it is about balance on two fronts: managing desirability and viability and managing the time horizons. 

Three Examples of Business Design Frameworks 

Here are some business design frameworks that show what it looks like to solve business challenges with design methodology: 

Human-Centered Opportunity Sizing = Total Addressable Problem 

The Total Addressable Market (TAM) approach to opportunity sizing assumes that companies are constrained by the industry in which they operate today and that to outgrow the market, they must take share from incumbents. In contrast, the business design approach to opportunity sizing is based on the Total Addressable Problem (TAP), which a business is trying to solve for users. Rather than starting with an existing industry, such as the hotel industry, it starts with a user need, like the ability to feel at home anywhere in the world. Framing the opportunity based on what you are helping users achieve creates new possibilities and use cases.  

Take Airbnb for instance. Airbnb’s growth far exceeded the budget travel market that it originally entered. Now, Airbnb competes with luxury hotels, short-term rentals and travel services outside of lodging. Uber is another great example. It started from the other end of the spectrum as a high-end car service but through a TAP framework, it far outgrew the taxi industry and instead became a micro-mobility platform with food delivery, bike rentals and healthcare transportation. Lastly, Amazon started in e-commerce, but through a TAP framework, grew to provide convenience in all aspects of household management, including building a smart home ecosystem.  

Human-Centered Commercialization = Incentive Design 

Business design creates outsized value by aligning emerging behavioral and business models and then makes value exchanges that are sustainable and durable in the long run. Before folding in 2013, late fees accounted for 16% of Blockbuster’s revenue. If the way a business captures value is in direct opposition to its users’ best interest, that is not a sustainable business model.  

Netflix’s subscription model, however, aligns user and business interests. The more you watch, the more data Netflix gets on what you like to watch, the better they can recommend additional content. Subscriptions lock in recurring revenue, enabling Netflix to make bigger bets in developing new content. And it is not just about value for customers. Netflix invests heavily in creators with new stories to tell and targets those stories to the right audiences. One of the most important activities in business design is creating growth feedback loops in which new demand drives new supply while increasing value for all stakeholders. 

Human-Centered Planning = Test and Learn 

Business design preferences emergent and iterative models over linear and deterministic planning. You can learn more about the viability of a new business in one meeting with users than in a week of modeling future cash flows based on historic assumptions. A business designer is comfortable with the knowledge that an assumption being off could mean a 10x change in revenue projections. They will not boil the ocean perfecting those assumptions, instead, they will put something into the market and see what happens. Of course, businesses need cash flow today to explore new problems to solve for their users tomorrow. A business designer will think about what can be EBIT-accretive today, while also investing in experiments to rapidly test and learn what new business models might be most relevant in the future. 

Check out our most recent research – Building Business Resilience Through Innovation


Despite its gaining popularity, business design remains a widely misunderstood discipline, yet it is the most important future skill. At its core, it requires a human-centered approach that is simultaneously focused on the needs of customers, stakeholders and key business imperatives.  

At Prophet, our business design team comes from the design world and the business world. We self-selected into business design because we saw that there was no longer a product-solution fit between traditional business strategy tools and the types of challenges we are tasked with solving for clients today. A business design approach is fit-for-purpose to future-proofing businesses as the needs, behaviors and expectations of humans and what is enabled by technology changes at an unprecedented rate. 

Start employing business design to solve key business challenges. Get in touch today.  

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