The effect of ligand density on anion-exchange membrane chromatography (AEXmc) for the purification of recombinant baculoviruses (rBVs), potential viral vectors in clinical applications, is studied by surface plasmon resonance on customized AEX surfaces and gradient elution experiments on Sartobind D membrane prototypes with different diethylamine ligand densities, complemented by dynamic light scattering analysis for estimation of the hydrodynamic particle size of the various biologics. A chromatographic-column model based on the steric mass action model of ion exchange is employed to analyze the gradient-elution AEXmc experiments, extrapolate the results to other operating conditions, and provide directions for process improvement. Although counterintuitively, the experimental evidence provided in this study shows that the lowering of ligand density is beneficial for rBV purification by AEXmc in bind-and-elute-mode, because it decreases the residual concentrations of host cell protein, dsDNA, and non-infective rBVs in the eluted product cut, and increases the overall yield by roughly 20% over current standard values. Overall, we present a case study on how rational design can streamline downstream process development. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2011; 108:1347–1359. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.