Follow-up notes on keeping a briefing diary

As part of our introduction to conceptual design course I ask participants to spend a week keeping a briefing diary. The aim is two-fold: to recognise that design briefs come in all shapes and sizes, not just in a formal design context; and to give participants the chance to apply the tools we discussed for picking apart a brief.

A brief is a statement of desire, a description of how someone wants the world to be. If someone asks another person to do something, the former is setting a brief. If you are arranging something for someone else, you are responding to a brief – either one you have set yourself or by the other party. Looking for briefs in everyday life gives us daily opportunities to practise using the tools for unpicking a brief.

In the workshop we discuss the concept we talk about the five elements in a brief: the explicit, the implicit, the assumed, the missing and the unknown. The task given to participants is to keep a daily diary of what briefs they have been given and to identify the five elements in the brief they have been given.

The following are notes to help people who have completed a briefing diary to reflect on what they have learnt.

It doesn’t have to be technical – if you have only logged examples relating to techncial briefs, try to find non-technical examples, for example being asked to write a report or research a particular topic. In that task, what is the explicit, what is the implicit, what is assumed?

Look for the ambiguity in the non-technical – it is tempting to ignore the non-technical components to a design brief when carrying out this exercise. But it is in the non-technical that we can often find the most room for interpretation. This is where the implicit and assumed are.

The assumed works both ways – when thinking about what is assumed in a brief, think about what the writer of the brief is assuming you know, but also think about what you are assuming. No two people have the same view of the world and no two people, however capable of empathy they are, can fully see the world from another’s perspective.

Don’t get stuck on the implicit versus the assumed – some people doing this exercise get hung up on the difference between the implicit and the assumed. The two words are just intended to provoke you into thinking about different ways to interpret what has been written. Remember, the implicit is what is implied by what is said. When that person uses that word would do they mean? The assumed is what they don’t think they need to say, maybe because they are assuming a shared understanding; or what you are assuming about what they are saying.

The missing versus the unknown – this distinction is critical: the missing is information that, for whatever reason, was not included in the brief; the unknown is stuff the client doesn’t know they want until because they haven’t realised it yet. Remember, according to McCann’s ‘Designer’s Paradox’, ‘you don’t know what you want until you know what you can have’. This means the process of doing design helps the client understand what they want.

The unknown emerges over time – you can’t write down the ‘unknown’ element of a brief at the start of a project. It is something that emerges as you do the work. If you have started working on a brief and started presenting work back to the client, it is only at this point that you can see if the client requirements are changing. Equally, it could be your own understanding of the brief that changes.

Overall, the process of design is to achieve convergence of brief and outcome. Neither stay fixed; they move together in relation to each other. Our aim is to achieve that convergence as effectively as possible.