With five days to go until the launch of the Regenerative Structural Engineer, here are some questions that we would hope you can answer once you have read it.
What is the difference between regenerative design and sustainability design? Is this just a new version of sustainability or is this substantially different. What does regenerative design mean anyway!?
Why do we need to go beyond being sustainable? Isn’t the path we are on already good enough? What about net-zero design – isn’t that enough?
How can we change the way we design to create a transition a regenerative construction industry? What influence do I have as a structural engineer? Isn’t this someone else’s job?
How do we start to think systemically about the changes we need to make in industry to enable regenerative practice? How do we reinforce the positive changes we seek? How do re-imagine how supply chains?
How do we begin to imagine a regenerative future? What are the ways of thinking we need to adopt? And what are the ways of thinking we need to leave behind.
All designers work to make things better. Regenerative design is a particular type of design because of its declared goals. This isn’t any kind of better. This is a specific kind of better, in which human and living systems can survive, thrive and co-evolve.
So while regenerative designers do lots of the things that regular designers do, (like developing a design brief, having ideas and testing these against the brief), there are two more things that make regenerative designers different. They must
Hold a vision – hold and continually renew a vision for a regenerative future
Create transition – Continuously be working to create a transition to that future.
In social science, a frame is how people understand a situation or activity. We can think of it as how we construct our understanding of a situation. In engineering, many projects are perceived from a ‘cost frame’. People looking at a project from a cost frame build their understanding of the project situation from a perspective of cost. In this situation, cost can be come the guiding concern; the parameter for which we optimise.
Time and quality are other common frames in construction projects. These frames guide our thinking by limiting options, which is helpful in some situations, but unhelpful if you want to establish new thinking.
In design, the design brief is what we test our ideas against for adequacy. If the ideas and the brief don’t match, then either the ideas are wrong, the brief is wrong, or both.
We often think of the brief as something that is fixed but in reality it is something that evolves during the design process. In this entry we explore the dynamic nature of the brief and the patterns that can help us work with a brief more effectively.
Small b design brief
At the start of this exploration of the design brief I would like to loosen our the definition of a brief to include not just those formal, capital B design Briefs, on Design Projects. If we work with the idea of design being the act of making things better (see the Herbert Simon definition under design process diagrams), then we can extend the design brief as being any time someone is trying set some intentions or requirements for a piece of work. Think of this as a ‘small b’ design brief. Whether it’s designing a new font, or planning a holiday with your friends, or writing a report, it is all design and so each of these have a brief. This is helpful because we can draw our understanding of design briefs from a far wider range of situations than those formal ones in the design office.
Design versus shopping
If you fully know what you want at the start of a design process; if you can completely describe the outcome of a design process at the start; then it isn’t design – it’s shopping.
The point about design is that the answer doesn’t exist yet. That is why we do design. To work with an emergent situation and make it better.
So if we don’t know what want, how can we write a comprehensive brief for the project? We can’t, because of the Designer’s Paradox.
The Designer’s Paradox
The Designer’s Paradox says that you don’t know what you want until you know what you can have. I have always heard the quote attributed to my former colleague Ed McCann, but I have also heard it attributed to Steve Jobs.
The more we think about it, the more the paradox rings true. From ordering food in a restaurant to specifying the fit-out of a building, we don’t know what we want until we know what we can have.
Another version is that we change what we want when we know the consequences. You want something until you realise the cost, or the lead-in time.
And for designers we don’t know what we are going to design until we start designing.
As Ed once said to me, the art of design is resolving the resolution of the Designer’s Paradox, iterating back and forth between client and designer to try and get convergence between what is wanted and what is possible.
Design brief versus the contract
The other reason why we might expect a brief to be fixed is that we get them confused with contracts. But whereas a contract is an agreement between two or more parties about what they will exchange, a design brief isn’t an agreement. Rather it is something that they create. That’s because the design brief is itself something that needs creating – that needs designing..
Designing the design brief and the idea together
I once interviewed an official responsible for the procurement of a very large ship. They explained to me that the project started with a series of high-level requirements, which as the design progressed, turned into a more detailed specification. But ultimately, the brief was not fully known until the ship was finished.
Implicit in this story is an important concept. That in design we develop the brief alongside the design. The two develop together. What is required is influenced by what is possible. What is possible becomes clearer as we work through design and changes what is required.
So how to we make progress?
So if the brief is not fixed, and not known at the start of the process, then how are we supposed to make progress? Well, the answer lies in seeing the brief as something that you develop through the design process, so that by the end, what is wanted and what is desired match. Here are some techniques to start us on this journey.
Catalytic style is a an approach to having conversations that helps the solution emerge from the client rather than having it planted by the consultant. I learnt this approach from Nick Zienau at Intelligent Action, and it is well worth taking the time to practise using it.
The rules of Catalytic Style
Keep the focus on the client.
Ask short, open questions to keep them talking (what, how, but not why).
Offer quick summaries to show you are listening.
Don’t offer your own solutions – this is about keeping the focus on the client.
The aim of conservation work at Hazel Hill Wood is to help accelerate the diversification of the woodland from commercial forest to a mixed-leaf woodland. Why? Because the more varied the woodland, the greater its likely resilience to a changing climate. Of course, in the normal course of things, the make-up of species in the wood would adapt in response to the changing climate. But these aren’t normal times. Human-induced climate breakdown is causing environmental conditions to change faster than the trees can respond. And so part of our work at the wood is to help accelerate this diversification process.
Design can be many things. It can be a noun, as in ‘I like good design’, or, ‘I don’t think the design is very good’. It can be an adjective, as in ‘designer sunglasses’. And it can be a verb, as in ‘we are designing a new concert hall’.
It is its use a verb that I address primarily in my teaching. By thinking of design as something that we do, rather than something that is created, we can work on doing the designing better.
If we focus on design as something that we do, then the next question we can ask is what does the process of doing design actually involve, and what frame of mind do we need for each stage.
This is the model that I use when I first talk to people about design. When I think of design as a process, I think of my hands held up in front of me like two opposing chevrons. These chevrons conjure up for me four distinct phases in the design process. The four phases are:
Starting – listening to others
Divergent thinking – having ideas
Convergent thinking – improving ideas
Selling – convincing others
In my mind I see the process as something that looks like two opposing chevrons, like this <>
Something starts from very little, blows up into many possibilities and then shrinks back down to a final, well-resolved output.
Each of these phases of operation requires a different mode of thinking. Each of these modes of thinking is something that we can teach.
In this model, design is as the heart of a project process that starts with the identification of some sort of need and leads to something that is used. Here is an overview of each of the stages, each of which can afford longer exploration.
Need – the process begins with identifying some sort of need. That need can be felt by a client, a group of people, an ecosystem.
Brief – the stage at which the brief for the design work is defined. It is against the brief that we will test our ideas. But the brief can never be fully known because of the designer’s paradox and system complexity. We will have much more to say on this.
Conceive – the stage at which we develop our ideas in response the brief and drawing on inputs from our research. In reality our we are usually having ideas right the way through the design process, but it is valuable to identify it as a distinct stage in order to give it attention, to make time for it, and to invest in having better ideas. (See what is an idea and the Kalideascope model for idea generation).
Model – the stage at which we turn our ideas into something we can communicate and test. This is another often-forgotten about stage in the design process. An idea is a pattern in the brain that happens when our neurones fire. To test our ideas we need a way to get them out of our head into some sort of thing – a model – that we can test.
Test – the stage at which we test our ideas, in the form of models, against the brief. This relationship between the brief, the tests we create and the models we use to carry them out is important to understand in order to have a rigorous design process.
Judge – the stage at which we descide on the basis of all the tests if the idea is adequate. An idea may have passed all the tests and still not be adequate. In which you need to go back to your brief to try to understand what is unsaid that needs to be said in order to develop a better design.
Make – the stage at which we start to build the design. This distinction of modelling and making is particularly relevant in the built environment where our modelling might involve simulations, but the making involves large volumes of construction materials. In other areas of design in which it is possible to work on live, usable versions of the design, then there is little distinction between the make model and make stages.
Use – the stage at which what we have design enters into use.
Learn – the stage at which we learn from the design in use. In manufacturing industries, there tends to be a tight feedback loop between use and design. We call it quality control. In construction there is usually a very poor feedback loop between use of the design and the design of the next project.
There are feedback loops at every stage of the process. Developing an idea can lead to new insights about the brief. Writing the brief can cause us to challenge the brief. When we come to judge the final design, we may have cause to come back and change brief.
The aim of regenerative design is for human and living systems to survive, thrive and co-evolve. Understanding what this looks like is challenging when so much of how industry currently operates does the opposite. In this post we explore the best guide we have to thriving – the living world itself. We call this the Living Systems Blueprint.