Breaking Through The Design Brief

Design is a service that begins with an agreement between client and designer, a shared understanding of the client’s problem or opportunity and the designer’s ability to intervene or respond. How that agreement takes shape determines everything that follows.

A design brief is a written description of a framed design challenge drafted by the client, designer, or both parties together. On one hand, briefs are great for clearly articulating needs, goals, background information, and other important details in one place. It’s the level of specificity briefs provide that makes them so beneficial to both client and designer: when both parties agree on what will be designed, how, when, where, etc, there’s no guesswork about what will be delivered. On the other hand, briefs too often are the start and end of a conversation. When a client is eager to get something done, and a designer is eager to get it done for them, is there a need to discuss anything further?

Actually, yes, there’s plenty more to discuss.

Putting Process Before Product

A big misconception about design work is that it’s only about creating solutions: the client identifies some problem or need and determines the solution criteria (as captured in the brief), and the designer springs into action to make the solution a reality. While many clients and designers normally work this way, settling too soon on a starting point for a design project can have major drawbacks:

  1. The client may get what they want, but it might not be what they really need to achieve impact.
  2. The designer’s work may have far less of an impact than expected, or even negative impact.
  3. The core client challenge or opportunity gets a superficial treatment, or it gets ignored completely.

What’s sorely lacking from many design engagements is the recognition of process, and specifically the designer’s role in initiating and guiding the process effectively. That means resisting the urge to generate ideas and solutions right away and going deeper than what a brief asks for on the surface in order to get to the heart of an expressed need, which may be something completely different.

When the shared goal for client and designer is to have positive impact of some kind, figuring out what positive impact would look like, where to focus, and why that’s the best place to focus should be step one — not simply how to make something happen within a pre-defined scope that might be ill-conceived to begin with. So why aren’t we doing that?

When Business-As-Usual is a Barrier to Impact

Design, like all other creative work, is supposed to be just that — creative, from start to end. While some constraints are necessary to ensure creative work gets done (and done right), too many obstacles early on can severely hinder the process. Limitations abound from the client side; some make their way into the brief, while others remain hidden behind the scenes:

  • time constraints
  • budget constraints
  • existing initiatives
  • power dynamics & internal politics
  • decision-making gatekeepers
  • the need to seize an opportunity
  • the need to avoid a problem
  • legal & regulatory concerns
  • internal conventions
  • convenience

Despite their creative and free-flowing nature, designers themselves bring their own blend of restrictions to the table when framing a project:

  • narrow specialization & expertise
  • fixed repertoire of solutions
  • strict methodology
  • attitudes & biases
  • project selectivity
  • marketing potential
  • future project potential
  • business targets
  • internal conventions
  • convenience

All too often, both client and designer accept such boundaries as immovable and unquestionable, which precludes any real discussion of what’s truly fixed and what’s flexible. The paradox is that both sides may desperately want to do something different — something bold, innovative, unconventional, revolutionary — but what paralyzes them is the fear of doing something different — something that might rock the boat, get rejected, upset the boss/client, waste a ton of money, produce no measurable results, or just make them look foolish. Without open dialogue about all the different factors influencing and shaping a design project, real impact and meaningful results will remain out of reach.

Enabling Understanding to Explore Possibilities

It may sound touchy-feely, but it’s absolutely true: understanding is the foundation of a fruitful collaboration. Great things can happen when client and designer (and all other people involved) are genuinely on the same page, but it takes a good dose of patience, courage, honesty, and commitment to get everyone there. Some basic practices in the project-framing stage can encourage more insightful and productive discussions:

  1. Get it all out in the open. It’s common practice to play one’s cards close to one’s chest and filter information when ironing out an agreement because it might not seem relevant or even jeopardize the potential project. Any facts that have direct or indirect bearing on a project should be shared, like who the real decision-makers are, what larger timeline or context the proposed project fits into, and what other related work is happening in parallel. (Note: sketching and diagramming are immensely helpful when engaging in this fact-finding work.)
  2. Ask all the questions. You don’t know what you don’t know, and making assumptions to fill knowledge gaps is risky business. Start with a blank slate and build, step-by-step, a complete picture of the situation at hand — especially the “why” — even if some people already know or think they know something already. Blind spots in knowledge do happen, so chances are that the exercise of “bottom-up” information gathering might help everyone move together on equal footing and even surface some not-so-obvious facts.
  3. Suspend judgement. When in exploratory mode, the designer should invite as much input and generate as many facts as possible, without criticism or evaluation. It’s an ingrained habit for many people to stifle their own thoughts and those of others with sharp rebukes like “that’s impractical” or “we weren’t asked to do that,” rather than give them a chance to be heard, but it’s only through uncovering and considering a variety of perspectives that new connections and possibilities can emerge. Creative thinking can happen in surprising ways; hearing a so-called “bad” idea might trigger a new line of thinking that potentially knocks down some perceived barriers.
  4. Identify what matters, then prioritize. Once everything is on the table, it’s much easier and far more constructive to start applying judgement and shaping what a design intervention could look like. What were the key findings from the exploration? What needs immediate attention? What can wait? And what are some “experimental” ideas that are worth testing out? This kind of systematic approach can help focus idea generation and provide a structure for organizing them into practical categories.
  5. Facilitate potentially tough conversations. Even if the client and designer have a breakthrough moment and conceptualize a high-level, high-impact intervention, the next big challenge is gaining buy-in. Whether it’s the CEO, senior leadership, or a few key stakeholders in an organization, explaining a situation and proposed approach so it makes sense to them is critical. More than just “storytelling,” this kind of conversation involves addressing their main concerns directly by building a solid case for change using pertinent data, qualitative insights from different people involved in the change, and other supporting evidence.

Products and services are the bread and butter of the design industry; as long as there is demand for them, briefs will be around for a while. But as problems become more multi-faceted and multi-layered (not just multi-disciplinary), framing what design can do in this broader context requires a much more open-ended, dialogue-based approach free from preconceived solutions. A neat and tidy brief may be good for neat and tidy problems, but when there’s a mess lurking under the surface — shrouded in unknowns and surrounded by mental and organizational blocks — it’s best to shine a bright light on it all and see what’s possible.