Specific members of complex microbiota can influence host phenotypes, depending on both the abiotic environment and the presence of other microorganisms. Therefore, it is challenging to define bacterial combinations that have predictable host phenotypic outputs. We demonstrate that plant–bacterium binary-association assays inform the design of small synthetic communities with predictable phenotypes in the host. Specifically, we constructed synthetic communities that modified phosphate accumulation in the shoot and induced phosphate starvation–responsive genes in a predictable fashion. We found that bacterial colonization of the plant is not a predictor of the plant phenotypes we analyzed. Finally, we demonstrated that characterizing a subset of all possible bacterial synthetic communities is sufficient to predict the outcome of untested bacterial consortia. Our results demonstrate that it is possible to infer causal relationships between microbiota membership and host phenotypes and to use these inferences to rationally design novel communities.