Business Thinking for Designers

Why you need to know business

Understand the business impact of design

Listen to Chapter

by Ryan Rumsey

Within a week of starting what I thought was a dream job, I was overwhelmed. At three months, I was really struggling. After six months, I doubted my abilities to fill the role.

What had worked as a design leader at Apple was not working at Electronic Arts (EA).

In the spring of 2011, I accepted an opportunity to shape a new organization called Worldwide Customer Experience (WWCE) at EA. After years of paltry customer-satisfaction ratings, EA tasked WWCE with supporting a transition to a “player-first” organization. In my role as senior manager of customer programs, I was responsible for leading a team of UX designers, program managers, and front-end developers.

I was highly motivated for the challenge and expected to excel from day one. But it didn’t happen.

While quitting and finding another gig was an option, it didn’t feel right. I had taken a big personal risk in leaving Apple to join EA. I told my family it was a risk worth taking, and I felt it was my responsibility to make it work.

Choosing to stick it out ended up being the best professional decision I’ve ever made. By being uncomfortable, yet committed, I opened myself up to learning a new way to succeed. I had to adapt to survive and that meant developing skills in an area I had previously trusted others to handle: business.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve been able to expand and refine these skills while leading design and strategy at companies like EA, Nestlé, and USAA. What I’ve learned is if you understand the basics of the business model and strategies in which you’re working, you’ll be able to spend less time explaining the value of design and more time actually designing. It will also increase your credibility. Developing this understanding may be easier than you think.In an effort to share best practices with others, I created my own company, Second Wave Dive, in 2019. Since then, I’ve worked alongside teams large and small to help mature design in their organizations. In this book, I’ll pass along some of what I learned and what I teach, but first let’s talk about why designers benefit from fostering business skills.

Design is in demand

Design is definitely having a moment. It’s being driven by the popularity of Design Thinking, Design Sprints, and Stanford’s d.School, as well as the business value created by design for companies like Apple, Airbnb, IBM, Ford, Nike, Whirlpool, IKEA, and others. Business leaders now make significant investments to incorporate design to gain a competitive edge.

From startups to multi-national juggernauts, titles like Chief Design Officer, Head of Design, and VP of Customer Experience are now common. Sketching is no longer just an activity for “creatives.” Post-its and Sharpies are tools of the trade across functions, and business leaders across industries develop their organization’s design potential.

In short, we’ve made it. Our favorite Venn diagram worked!

So you may be asking: Why should designers do anything different?

‘Making it’ is different than we expected

When lists of the top innovation companies are published, a lot of familiar faces show up. From Airbnb to Netflix to Nike, these organizations invest heavily in design to gain a competitive advantage. While many popular narratives describe how these companies turn to design, what’s equally important (and less-discussed) is how design leaders at these companies look to business to drive value.

For many design leaders, “making it” involved years of painful business lessons. And there are many more designers out there today who still struggle to learn these lessons on their own. There has to be a better way forward. Here’s my assertion:

  1. Designers with the most success in our industry are business-aware.
  2. The world needs more successful designers involved in strategic decisions, therefore more designers need to learn the language of business.
  3. Applying known methodologies and tactics provides designers with practical steps to develop business acumen faster.

Ethics matter

“Are we enabling others to do harm?” 

“What do we capture from customers in exchange for money?” 

“If customers aren’t paying, how do we make money?”

Be it privacy, security, or politics, many companies face backlash and/or gain a competitive advantage because they align their ethical positions to those of their customers. (Recent surveys confirm ethics has become an important purchasing factor.)

This trend is so significant that the Business Roundtable, the most influential group of corporate leaders in the U.S., recently changed their mission statement for the first time since 1997. Rather than addressing only shareholder value, the new mission statement speaks to valuing customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders. Even if this move is merely symbolic, leading organizations now realize ethical perceptions matter a lot.

With customers using their purchasing power to support purpose-driven companies, organizations around the globe are aligning corporate values to customer values. As designers gain business acumen, we can influence the ability of our organizations to understand and live up to these values. Also, as employees, we grow more capable of finding companies whose values align with our own.

Organizations need a competitive advantage

Staying one step ahead of competitors usually results in success. To do so, companies investigate different ways to create an advantage. Designers may not always realize it, but our methodologies are uniquely able to help with this.

Take for instance ground transportation. There are public options like the bus and train. There are ride-share alternatives like Lyft and Uber. And there are expensive premium services like limousines and town cars. When companies enter a crowded market with a new product or service, they make strategic decisions to differentiate themselves as the obvious choice for at least one type of consumer.

While factors like pricing or availability are important to some consumers, others may be more concerned with ease of payments, scheduling, ratings, or support. As competition in a market increases, designers who understand business are uniquely qualified to highlight how these factors play out in real-world scenarios.

Becoming a leader requires spending less time on craft

Many designers aspire to lead other designers, teams, practices, and organizations.

There are wonderful resources to help new design leaders learn how to manage others, provide opportunity and visibility to designers, and lead junior talent in seeing the forest and the trees. The further designers progress down this path though, the less design craft will play in day-to-day responsibilities. Craft becomes the responsibility of others on the team.

As designers move into leadership roles, they are increasingly responsible for decisions that impact both customer value and the company’s bottom line. This includes managing budgets, allocating resources, hiring/firing, and calculating return on investment (ROI). These responsibilities are building blocks of business, regardless of industry. And while design leaders may not have to crunch numbers every day, they need the skills in order to competently participate in discussing expenses, operational planning, strategy, and the other day-to-day concerns of company leaders.

Ultimately, design leadership is about building better companies and team culture. Those who do it well stretch themselves beyond just design.

We’re the new kids on the block

I’ll be blunt. Designers need to learn business because we can’t expect our counterparts to listen just because we’ve arrived. We need to meet them where they are. That means learning what other functions do, why it’s important, and being able to bridge the communities of business, design, engineering, and product.

Driven by digitization, companies around the globe have created products and services over the last 25 years at an unprecedented scale. They’ve needed engineers and developers to turn big ambitions into practical realities. And now that competition is fierce, business leaders turn to designers to find new ways to create value.

While the power of design is making products and services better, it’s important to remember that we’re joining an ongoing conversation. And the truth is: they could build things without us.

It’s 2020 and design is a key differentiating function for many companies, but it’s still an optional function. To deal with existing cultural norms in a business—and shape new ones—designers must show how they provide value to those functions that have been there all along.

The opportunities ahead

The opportunities designers have in today’s marketplace are robust. Traditional, for-profit companies are transitioning from purely financial priorities to customer-first. Non-profit or government organizations are transitioning from economic models to community- and citizen-led. And designers are being asked to participate in these transformations, large and small.

Business-aware designers have the ability to influence outcomes in ways no other function can. We have the power to impact the professional and personal worlds we want to live in. The next step for designers is to go beyond having a seat at the table, to being a leader at the table. With our influence, we can build healthier societies through healthier businesses. But we must know business to begin.

How to use this book

Business models, financial portfolios, and industry regulations are not typically the focus of a designer’s work. Yet each of these can be impacted by design.

The tools and frameworks in this book are meant to help you evaluate fundamental business concepts. This will put you in a better position to influence strategic decisions beyond the typical purview of design. Throughout the book, I’ll share advice from my experiences leading design, product, strategy, and development teams and organizations. I’ll also share insights from my peers and offer practical tips you can try for yourself.

I’ve divided the book into thematic sections:

  • Business basics you should know
  • Develop a business perspective
  • Transcribe design value
  • Communicate trade-off options
  • Put it all together

Given that no business or organization is the same, there’s no linear, step-by-step learning process that applies to all situations. Therefore, the book is not meant to be followed like a process or guide. Instead, each section serves as a reference to which you can return as needed to tune your business skills in parallel with the real-world scenarios you face.

Whether working as an in-house designer or at an agency, for a large organization or a startup, the lessons in this book will be relevant. Feel free to skip around to find the content that’s most applicable in the moment. But try to keep the following mindsets as you build your business expertise.

Approach it like a new language

In 2013, my family and I moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where French is the primary language. While my wife and I had some understanding of French, we quickly realized it would not get us very far in our day-to-day interactions. We had to find a way to learn quickly.

After a recommendation from friends, we began The Michel Thomas Method. A core principle of the method is to remove anxiety from the learning process and boost the confidence of students early and often. While we didn’t become fluent overnight, within a few weeks we were able to have many of the basic conversations we needed, with little stress.

Developing business acumen can be a similar process. Accepting that business is an unfamiliar language, we can take small steps to join conversations and develop confidence through familiar methods. Over time, we’ll begin to understand the different dialects used by different organizations within the business.

Recognize patterns to anticipate

At the beginning of Michel Thomas’s instructional audiobooks, he demonstrated that I already knew more French than I realized. Many English words ending in -able, -tion, -ical, and -ary have the same meaning—and similar pronunciation—in French. In giving these examples, Thomas provided basic patterns to build on.

As a designer, I’m confident in my work when I can anticipate what users do, and I have methods and tools to familiarize myself with patterns of user behavior. But when business leaders first began inviting me to meetings, I couldn’t anticipate what they would do. As a result, I was intimidated by the people in the room and their conversations. I assumed it was all very important, complex stuff, and my confidence was shot.

I was fortunate though. I had a wonderful mentor at the time, Jeff Bradburn. During one of our daily walks, he reminded me that I researched humans every day and that the people in those meetings were “just humans.” It was at that moment that Jeff demonstrated that I knew more than I realized. I had the methods and tools to familiarize myself with patterns of behavior. I just needed to apply that knowledge to learning business.

Now I know, most business meetings are quite ordinary. The more I witnessed status updates, task delegations, and pats on the back, the more I recognized behavioral patterns and could anticipate what people in the room would do. Learning business is as much about anticipating needs and behaviors as it is learning terms and concepts.

Similar patterns of behavior exist inside most organizations and industries, and the questions business leaders ask of design leaders and their teams are remarkably the same. In the sections that follow, I’ll point out basic patterns to help you anticipate what happens next and prepare for meetings with business leaders.

Rely on your design skills

Design, at its core, is applying an intentional approach to problem solving. As you apply processes to different problems, you broaden your relevant knowledge and vocabulary. The same can be true of learning the language of business.

For example, while still at Apple, I applied design methodologies to a business management problem while prototyping several digital applications. The end result went beyond expectations and ended up having a positive impact on employee retention. My point is, we can still do what we’re good at—design methodology—but apply it to all the needs of the business, not just the customer or user experience. Doing so helps us better communicate and partner with other teams, understand the broader effects of our work, and progress in our individual careers.

Methodologies like Design Thinking, Double Diamond, Lean UX, or Human-Centered Design do more than create an interface. By applying those powerful tools to solving business problems, you will level up your business knowledge and impact.

Identify the intersections

Have you ever seen those crazy storm chasers who try to get as close to a tornado as possible? They speed around in vans and trucks with one eye on the clouds and another on the radar. Their goal is to know where the big cell is, which direction it’s heading, and when it’s expected to get there so they can find the right moment to meet it. The same is true for designers who want to get close to the action.

Every project or product you work on will have a variety of elements that influence how well the project will go. Timelines, values, goals, personalities, etc. are all factors to consider in finding the right moments to converge with your colleagues.

To level-up your business impact, it’s critical to know where business partners are, where they’re headed, and the factors shaping their viewpoints. Throughout this book, I’ll teach you how to know where your business is and where it’s going so you can be at the right place at the right time. Some of the exercises will be introspective in nature and may be challenging. But they’re well worth the time.

Three steps to anticipate the intersection:

  • Step 1: Identify the direction, velocity, and intensity of your business partners
    Analyze where they’re coming from, what they’re looking for, what their priorities are, what expectations they have, and what they get when they arrive.
  • Step 2: Discern the direction, velocity, and intensity of design
    Are you considering the same factors as your colleagues? Are you working from shared values? Do you have the same priorities? Are your expectations the same? Analyze where you’re coming from so you can both head in the right direction.
  • Step 3: Project the potential intersections
    Identify places to meet up along their journey. Suggest options of new destinations after you connect. Provide them with accountability to stay aligned in the new direction.

Use the scripts

Meeting the expectations of business leaders is a learned skill. While we all have different ways of learning, a handy script can often quicken the process.

In this book, I provide scripts to limit your frustration and keep you moving in a productive direction. Scripts are useful reminders that you typically don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Designers deal with similar business scenarios and behavior patterns across industries. The scripts—along with other tools and frameworks—should accelerate your progress.

The step-by-step scripts are provided for real-world scenarios. Examples of those scenarios include:

  • Getting buy-in from business partners
  • Calculating the ROI (return on investment) of design
  • Connecting design objectives to business objectives
  • Negotiating with non-designers
  • Communicating trade-off decision risks and benefits


Now that you know how this book is intended for use, you’re ready to dive in. Just keep in mind that learning any new language takes time and patience. But with design methodologies in your tool belt, you’re better equipped than most to investigate and recognize patterns. And soon, you’ll understand how intention can directly and indirectly shape decision-making in your company.

About the Authors

Ryan Rumsey
Founder, Second Wave Dive

Ryan Rumsey is the CEO and founder of Second Wave Dive, where he develops boutique leadership programs for professionals in the digital product and services industries. Second Wave Dive has worked with product, design, and executive leaders from companies like Apple, Lyft, Workday, ConsenSys, Dell, ANZ, and Autodesk. Ryan has a hybrid background in interaction design, front-end development, and product management. Previously he led digital product innovation and transformation at Apple, Electronic Arts, USAA, and Nestlé. 

Currently listening to: The Wind + The Wave. This Austin based duo gets me grooving with a mix of pop, folk and indie rock. Bound by extremely personal writing, on point musicianship, and vocals that just don’t miss, the final results are albums as complete as they come.

Currently inspired by: My kids. I feel refreshed by their willingness to challenge everyday norms with confidence and courage in creating their own identities while dealing with the pressures of growing up or fitting in.

Cultural thing I’m lovin’: Traveling without a plan. Days and weeks of working non-stop can really impact my mental health. Taking spontaneous trips, by myself or with my partner, allows me to recharge and be my best for my family.