The creation of artificial enzymes is a key objective of computational protein design. Although de novo enzymes have been successfully designed, these exhibit low catalytic efficiencies, requiring directed evolution to improve activity. Here, we use room-temperature X-ray crystallography to study changes in the conformational ensemble during evolution of the designed Kemp eliminase HG3 (kcat/KM 146 M-1s-1). We observe that catalytic residues are increasingly rigidified, the active site becomes better pre-organized, and its entrance is widened. Based on these observations, we engineer HG4, an efficient biocatalyst (kcat/KM 103,000 M-1s-1) containing key first and second-shell mutations found during evolution. HG4 structures reveal that its active site is pre-organized and rigidified for efficient catalysis. Our results show how directed evolution circumvents challenges inherent to enzyme design by shifting conformational ensembles to favor catalytically-productive sub-states, and suggest improvements to the design methodology that incorporate ensemble modeling of crystallographic data.