Why All Entrepreneurs Are Designers

In my recent post on Effectuation, I highlighted the work of Dr. Saras Sarasvathy, who coined the term.

One of the points she makes in her book is that entrepreneurship is a branch of design thinking. This is an absolutely brilliant insight.

First, if you are the sort who thinks that design is a discipline centered around making chairs, teapots, web pages, or books, you should read up on the topic (see below). Design is a pattern for thinking, and while design thinking often produces the “beautiful things” which we have traditionally associated with design, widespread application of design thinking is beginning to have far-reaching effects on our society.

Design thinking starts with a simple grab-bag of elements: one or more goals, and one or more constraints. Constraints might be size, cost, weight, and psychological properties of the user. Goals might be to solve a particular problem or to make money. It is then the designer’s job to propose a solution that carefully considers the effects of the available solutions to propose the best possible, most beautiful and simplest solution.

What do I mean by the effects of a solution? If you follow popular mathematics at all, you might be familiar with the work of Benoit Mandelbrot, who suggests that reality is fractal and folds in on itself to produce patterns of amazing complexity from simple constraints. Mandelbrot’s formulae are a kind of simple design constraint that produce patterns of stunning complexity.

Similarly, designers can create complex patterns on the world by building systems or objects that include very simple design constraints. We see examples of these effects every day: the poorly designed chair that pulls apart its base after a bit of use, or the well-placed door handle that gets shinier and more beautiful with every use.

But these are just objects. What about systems and institutions like the United States government or the American public school system? The US Constitution is a piece of design, as are the laws that built our school system. The effects that those designs are now producing are sometimes more corrosive than their designers would ever have imagined. Both of those institutions are in need of “design refreshes” to clear away unintended corrosive effects.

Entrepeneurship and Design

Sarasvathy suggests that in the process of effectuation, the entrepreneur first makes an assessment of what assets and connections are available to them and then asks the simple question, “What can I do with it?”

At this moment, the entrepreneur becomes a designer. They are looking at what they have as design constraints and trying to move themselves closer to their goals. Sarasvathy makes a key additional insight; after the first round, the entrepreneur asks, “What else can I do with it?”

This puts the entrepreneur into the position of being a broad-based free-thinker, going beyond the simple condition of “how do I work within these constraints to achieve a goal,” but instead towards the question “what is the set of goals that I can achieve elegantly within these constraints?” This is a powerful inversion and is one that gives an imaginative entrepreneur an amazing power to transform society.

And here is a key point of difference between society’s conception of designers and entrepreneurs, even though they effectively perform much of the same kind of thinking: a designer is typically handed constraints and goals and asked to produce a product. An entrepreneur is issued constraints (the context of their life situation) without specific goals and rises to the opportunity to choose both the goals and the path.

I sometimes get frustrated with “designers and architects” because they cannot think of their own work outside of the context of their clients. They blame their own inability to do great work on the lack of vision of their clients, and I have to say I am apathetic to that line of thinking. It is time that designers and architects throw off the shackles of their clients and become entrepreneurs themselves. Show us what you believe, not what you can be paid to do.

Great entrepreneurs have been finding ways to finance their own design thinking for eons. It’s time that businesspeople start understanding that they are designers, and it’s way past time for the greatest designers to become their own clients and produce the great work they are called to create.

Some Suggested Reading


#1 Mike Subelsky on 02.16.10 at 4:57 pm

You've certainly influenced me in this way of thinking, to think of myself as a designer. In my code, as it's gotten older and more complex, I've come more and more to value design as a first principal of writing software – because I've been living with the consequences of good and bad design choices I made months or years ago, mostly unconsciously. Thanks for the book recommendations, I just push the Norman and Brown books on my queue (the Sarasvathy book was already there from your previous post)

#2 miriamfogarty on 02.16.10 at 11:05 pm

Hi, Fantastic Article – I love it. Penny dropping/ Ah-ha moments in it for me…I am starting out with a new business http://www.gulpfood.com/ – all things relating to eating drinking and cooking. One of my personal constraints has always been the space I have in my kitchen to store all the fab and lovely things I like to buy. I am not completely sure where my thinking comes from (however, in terms of genes, my Dad was definitely “a businessman”) but my first reaction ALWAYS is ” I really want this. HOW can I fit it in?” (as opposed to…”Poor me, I can't have that because I don't have room”). My observations of myself are that most of my “creativity”/”design -led -thinking” emerges as a result of constrained circumstances.

#3 yinteract on 02.16.10 at 11:28 pm

Great blog post. You're so right about the need for designers to become entrepreneurs. Not simply in terms of showing what we believe, but also working within less than ideal client scenarios to still find opportunities to turn around brilliant work. In these instances, the constraint may not be cost but rather a perceived “lack of vision” from the client. Solutions can still be found, and that's the challenge!

In the first chapter of Change by Design, Tim Brown wrote that the best design “is often carried out within quite severe constraints.” Both designers and entrepreneurs can probably agree to that!

#4 ADstruc on 02.17.10 at 4:26 am

awesome post.

#5 Marjorie Bostwick on 02.17.10 at 9:57 pm

You are so right! Everyday as an entrepreneur you have the opportunity to design your life…help design the lives of others. After reading this, instead of stressing about the “personal constraints” I will create another solution. I recommend A Whole New Mind for those of us that want to connect with the creative side of business.

#6 Dibyendu De on 02.21.10 at 3:25 am

Effective businessmen and designers are same. But they generally think themselves as different. Hence design thinking becomes the central part of the whole thing.

#7 Antwon Davis on 02.22.10 at 7:37 am

I think this is by far the most compelling article I have found that bridges the gap between designer and entrepreneur through the lens of “design thinking”. It's exciting to see thinkers such as Tim Brown and others who are bringing the topic of design thinking to the forefront.

I think the future of our economies, companies, and governments may even hinge on this newfound merging of business and design through design thinking.

As designers move from the back room to the board room, we will begin to see both products and systems revisited, redefined and re-designed.

Thanks for helping spark the conversation.

#8 Weekly Roundup « by Jargon Writer on 03.02.10 at 11:19 pm

[…] Why All Entrepreneurs are Designers – this post is all about how “entrepreneurship is a branch of design thinking”. Fascinating theory, and one I think I agree with. I can def. see some of the similarities… […]