Design brief

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.