What is design entrepreneurship?

Robert Lzicar
MA Design
Published in
4 min readMar 8, 2018

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I have long refrained from answering this question, in order that I might not limit the explorative emergence and development of this concept on the part of our students. But since our second students graduated in the HKB / MA Design in January 2018, I shall now venture to characterise design entrepreneurship, based on my hitherto observations, and I shall endeavour to differentiate it from traditional design services on the one hand, and from common or garden business models on the other.

Course “Design Entrepreneurship” by Thierry Blancpain (Co-Founder, Grilli Type) and Florian Jakober (Co-Founder, Afrika).

Design entrepreneurship is not design

Professional design — whether graphic design, product design or interaction design — has to this day remained a service with a clearly defined client and supplier. A client with a more or less specific design problem — or whatever he understands this to be — comes to the designer and commissions him or her to solve that problem. Over the years, typical commissioning scenarios and approaches have become established — whether it’s about logos/fonts/colours for a corporate design, or a matter of “I’ve developed an app with some IT people, can you please make the interface look better?”. Once the client has been satisfied, the designer submits an invoice that is often far too low — after all, you don’t want to scare off the client, because lots of other designers are waiting for contracts too. The designer then observes how the client grows and prospers with his new corporate design, or her app that’s now easy to use, while the design studio itself is unable to draw any further income from its success. What aggravates things even more is the fact that a lot of things that used to demand the mastery of a craft can be carried out today — at least technically speaking — by anyone with the right software. It’s only the luxury brands who can today afford star designers with an disctinctive recognisable style of their own. At least until now, those who know how to design digitally in a smooth, smart manner can usually find a job with one of the big players or an agency, and often at a good salary too.

Design entrepreneurship evades these economic rituals because the designers don’t wait for a client to bring them a design problem; instead, the designers define the problem themselves and develop its solution in a business venture. And their solution can often be as creative as its team, price and distribution.

Design entrepreneurship is not business creation

Economic traditions and paradigms such as strategy development and profit maximisation are not part of the training of a design entrepreneur, who rarely finds them of interest anyway. Instead, business ventures are emerging that have the potential to change our society. First, designers act out of their own interest — they define their problem based on the parameters of the world that surrounds them, and don’t let it be determined by market research. When defining the problem, social, ethical or political criteria often play a central role, because designers will always be looking for meaning — a meaning that in a best-case scenario they will be able to apply to their solution during the drafting process and thereby make it accessible to others, or a meaning that in a “worst-case” scenario they will simply be able to make consumable.

Design entrepreneurs are rarely concerned about becoming rich through their business. They tend to get more satisfaction when the sense and meaning of their solution are recognised, appreciated and promulgated by others, and when it can be seen to be representative of them, and thus a success. Design entrepreneurs also have a critical eye for growth — often as a result of their training and experience in their work, both freelance and for agencies. Design entrepreneurs prefer to ask what is really necessary, in accordance with the doctrine “less is more” that is instilled in them from their very first semester. This doctrine is seemingly enjoying a second, post-modern flowering today, in an economy that had initially seemed so insatiable but now moves from one crisis to the next.

There are no universal solutions

In the first two years of the “Entrepreneurship” programme, we were able to see — to our satisfaction, in fact — that predefined processes do not work in design entrepreneurship, because the problems are just as individual as the approaches that designers adopt towards them. Personality and extensive individual supervision are crucial to design entrepreneurship, and resist the moudability that approaches such as so-called “design thinking” lead us to believe is possible. So is design entrepreneurship the solution to all our societal problems? No, certainly not; but it can change our appreciation of them by endeavouring to solve them meaningfully and sustainably. Design entrepreneurship can provide large-scale companies with agile business approaches in the form of new services, products, sales strategies and distribution channels, thereby promoting diversity. Where traditional SMEs falter today, design entrepreneurship can in future use innovation and a clear profile to secure our social system.

Robert Lzicar runs the MA Design specialising in “entrepreneurship” and “research” at the Bern University of the Arts HKB. Find out more about the course here.

With thanks to Ferdinand Vogler for proofreading!

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