The Design Brief

The design brief is a written description of what a new project or product should do. It asks and helps to answer: “What is the true problem or opportunity here?”

The design brief is written by the designer to clarify what will be achieved, particularly in relation to client expectations. It shows what the designer has in mind and gives other parties, like the client, a chance to influence proceedings. In a commercial relationship it becomes an agreement. 

But more importantly, the design brief allows a designer to lead the way, bringing stakeholders on the creative journey and setting a creative tone for the project.

Designer and client. Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

How does this help a free creative who may not have clients?

All creative projects involve other people. In my painting practice I have run projects with fellow painters that eventually toured around my state and involved people from the media, government and community groups. Not to mention the viewing public. Writers will deal with editors and publishers. Musicians with band members and venue operators. You get the picture.

On the path towards financial independence you may have commercial relations with actual clients. Or funding bodies, sponsors, patrons, partners, employers, bosses, etc. In this module you will learn how to write an insightful brief for your creative projects in one hour or less.

What is the true problem or opportunity here?

In design school writing the design brief is considered the most critical element in the success of any given project. It pulls together all the conversations held between the client and the designer and articulates the desired results that everyone needs from the design. It clarifies that the designer has understood project requirements and sets the tone for interactions during the design process.

Who are you doing this for?

A client is someone who uses the professional advice or services of a designer. It also means (according to Lexico) “a dependent”. So, someone who depends upon the designer—to use their creativity—to solve their problems.

A client is a person who sees a problem and does not think they can solve it on their own. A person who values your creativity and is willing to pay money to get your help. 

Wow, what a wonderful opportunity for a creative person. If you ask around, creative people who work as designers tend to love their careers. Because they get paid to use their creativity to help people by solving problems. Designers get a lot of respect, appreciation and, lately, money for doing this work. No wonder they like it.

What sort of problems do you want to solve?

Knowing what sort of problems you want to solve will ultimately dictate who you chose to work with as clients. You always get a choice. 

For example, industrial designers want to use their creativity to design products. They want to solve problems using everyday objects. Some will specialize in motor vehicle design, which means they are interested in solving the transportation set of problems. Others will work on medical products—they are interested in solving health related problems. And even within these areas designers will specialize in, say, medical appliances for aged care—which ultimately means they want to solve health problems for older people. And finally, the true problem you are solving may be as specific as helping an older person to walk, or open a door, or sound an alarm, take their medicine…

There is always someone who will benefit most from your design—the person who uses it.

Clients are usually representatives of the user. For example, the client for the design of an appliance for aged care is likely to be a manufacturer of those appliances. Who will bring you in as the designer to consider the needs of their clients—older people. 

In this sense the client relationship is a custodian or steward type of relationship that passes down from the client to the designer, on behalf of the end user and other key stakeholders. When you accept a design challenge you become the de facto custodian of the interests of important other parties; particularly people further downstream like the end users.

The challenge of the design brief is to get all the potential interests clear in your head and make a commitment to the set you want to champion. For practical and ethical reasons, that is usually the end user’s requirements. But if it is not, you have to make this clear from the beginning.

As a designer, it is best practice to understand the project at hand before getting to work on the design concepts. 

Getting started

Print this blank Design Brief

The following headings provide the basic structure of the design brief. (Over time you may develop your own template.) It is incredibly important to keep this document simple and straightforward. This is hard to do because it requires clear thinking. But that is EXACTLY the purpose of this process—to help you think clearly about what is the true problem and opportunity here.

As you fill in each section remember:

  • limit the word count and be as clear and concise as possible
  • focus on a limited and prioritized set of items, rather than creating exhaustive lists
  • use plain English for readability (see the Hemmingway App if you need help)
  • it is a living document, so you can come back later, with the client, to make adjustments

The problem statement 

(1 or 2 paragraphs)

What is the true problem or opportunity here? 

The problem statement describes the issues to be addressed or the conditions to be improved upon. It outlines the gap between the current state and the desired state (of a process, product, service, system). This statement helps to define the scope of the project. It does not describe the solution or the methods for reaching the solution.

Sometimes the true problem or opportunity is not the one the client initially describes to you. As the creative thinker in the house, you are in the best position to look outside the box and discover the hidden underlying issue or problem. If this is profoundly different to what the client is expecting, you will have a challenge convincing them. But the design brief will help.

The structure of this first statement of the problem should get everyone on the same page. To write a persuasive problem statement, you need to describe (a) the ideal, (b) the reality, (c) the consequences and (d) the proposal. For example:

Ideally older people living independently at home will be able to take their medicine without the daily assistance of another person. In reality the labels, bottles and prescriptions for medicine have very small writing that is hard to read and full of medical terminology. As a consequence older people get confused and scared and make mistakes that cause stress and complications in their health. So we propose the creation of an object and/or system that will remove the need for daily intervention and increase independence.

It is easy to see how a problem statement like this might lead to any of the following solutions:

Design goals

(The top 1 to 5 goals: one paragraph each) 

What are your desired design outcomes? 

Design goals are targets for design work. They are usually agreed on by stakeholders as the criteria for comparing and evaluating design outcomes.

When writing a SMART goal make it Specific, Measurable, Achievable and Realistic within a particular Timeframe

Design goals may be tangible, aspirational and/or practical. For example: you may want to win a design award with this project. This is an aspirational goal, but it is also tangible (since the final design must align with the selection criteria for the award); and practical (since the project must be completed in time for submission to the award).

Typical design goals: the quality of the end product; the type of styling; the level of innovation and authenticity; the degree of complexity or simplicity; usability and user experience; customer needs and perceptions; fitness for purpose; technology; manufacturing; compatibility; maintainability; learnability and discoverability, privacy and security; safety—the list is endless. And highly specific to the project.

For example, the final design for dispensing medicine to older people will allow the patient to take their medicine each day without assistance; will be easy to use (open, close, clean and store); will be easy to read for people with diminished eye-sight; will be easy to fill at the pharmacy or in the home; will cost less than $5 per unit to manufacture; will be in production within 3 months of this brief.

In determining your design goals it also helps to consider how this project ties in with your broader career and life goals. See our module on Getting Things Done.

Functional requirements

(Up to 10 functional requirements in order of importance: one paragraph each) 

“Form follows function.”

Carlo Lodoli, Jesuit Monk, 18th Century.

What are the functions that the design must perform to succeed? 

Some functions will be obvious, essential and non-negotiable.

Obviously a water bottle has to hold water and not leak. A watch has to accurately keep the time. But both of these items will also have additional functions that may be less obvious, seem less essential; but are also non-negotiable. For example, each should be easy to carry, maintain and clean.

And both will have some number of aesthetic or psychological requirements that may not seem obvious or essential and even begin to compete with each other. For example, the watch must also be easy to read, reliable, comfortable to wear and attractive. The water bottle may have to withstand rugged treatment, be easy to find if dropped in poor visibility conditions (snow storms, caving, water sports, etc.) but match standard dress requirements for an organisation like the army or the scouts...

The hierarchy of design needs

When identifying the functional requirements for a design there will always be a hierarchy of needs that the designer must balance as they develop and refine concepts. 

In order for a design to be successful it must first meet people’s basic needs before it can attempt to satisfy higher level needs. The following diagram maps the hierarchy of design requirements to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

[Source: Universal Principles of Design. See also: Designing for a Hierarchy of Needs.]

Mapping the given functional requirements for a project against this hierarchy helps designers to evaluate and choose between options when they are forced to make trade offs. The lower levels must be satisfied before moving on to the higher levels. So in the case of the watch, you would not focus on the attractiveness of the watch (creativity) at the expense of readability (usability).

What aspects of the design are critical to success?

Defining success criteria is essential to good design. A design is generally admired both for its beauty and for its functionality. And it is often difficult to separate the two. The most effective approach when considering the functional requirements is to ask: “what aspects of the design are critical to success?” If aesthetic considerations are critical, then this becomes a prioritized functional requirement, because it concerns higher level user needs.

When making design decisions, focus on the relative importance of all aspects of the design—form and function—in the light of success criteria. 

Design constraints

(Parsimonious list: clearly specified)

What are the limitations on the design?

Any given project will have constraints that limit the actions and scope of design. Proper application of these makes designing easier and minimizes error.

It is easy to over-constrain a design. Clients and other stakeholders often frame their expectations as constraints. For example: “the end product has to use the corporate colours.” It is the designers responsibility to sift through the potential list to identify things that are really critical to the performance of the design and/or the designer.

The constraints list should be parsimoniously (stingily) added to. This means that nothing goes on to the constraints list that is not absolutely necessary. As the designer you have to fight to keep things off the list (remember to be nice).

Design constraints can be physical or psychological. We are designing for human beings so we must consider natural biological limitations and limitations inherent in the usage context. For example, if you are designing a toy, then it will have to suit the physical and psychological abilities of a child—which differ significantly from those of an adult. If that toy is to be used in a bath, then it will have to suit a wet environment.

Once a constraint has been imposed on the design you must provide exact specifications and tolerance levels. For example, a 2 year old child has different hand dimensions to a 6 year old. This type of data is very specific and can be found in anthropometric databases.

Design variables

(Optimal list: one sentence each)

It saves a lot of time and confusion if the designer is clear about what they have to play with as they generate and develop ideas.

For example, many painters use a limited palette of colours when painting en plein air (outside). This means they need only carry 6 to 8 tubes of paint to make up almost every colour they can see in nature. A limited palette is easier to pack, lighter to carry and cheaper. The great benefit, though, is that once an artist has acquired the skill of mixing colours accurately, the limited palette reduces the distraction of finding tubes and colour matching and allows the painter to concentrate on capturing the scene.

What are the high impact variables?

Not all variables are worth worrying about. Especially if you consider that everything is a variable until it is locked down as a constraint. And since only a few things are constrained (as per the above section) that leaves just too much scope for design.

“Incredibly, research in psychology has shown that we are often more creative when we have some kinds of constraints. Where people have no constraints for solving a problem or creating something, they tend to focus on what has worked well in the past – coming up with uncreative, derivative works. According to Patricia Stokes, author of Creativity from Constraints, such freedom can hinder rather than promote creativity.”

Source: Enrichmentality

From the endless array of options a designer must select the few that will have the greatest impact on the eventual design.

For example, think about the elements in an app that the developers open up for users to customize. At some point, these aspects of the finished application were not locked down. They were seen as high impact variables from a customer satisfaction point of view.

In any project there will be a small subset of things that if you focus on these you will arrive at the optimal final product. The following diagram illustrates how a designer was able to explore a wide range of ideas for the design of a microscope by focusing on only two simple variables (form geometry and dimensions).

Source: A Short Course in Industrial Design, Eskild Tjalve

Budget

Design decisions have economic impacts. The scope of a design project is often determined by the available budget.

For example, there is no point designing a medicine dispensing system for older people that will result in a handcrafted finished product, if the budget specifies that manufacture should cost less than $5 per unit.

Timeline

As with any commercial project, the designer will be working with a real world timeline. Often these timelines are tight and not very flexible (hence the word “dead” in delivery deadline). Under these circumstances the creative process must fit into an operational context, with measurable stages and deliverables. Whether this process is a warm coat or a straight jacket depends on the designer’s attitude.

Design Thinking

Thinking like a designer can transform the way organisations develop products. The process for arriving at a solution is not set in stone, anymore than the solution itself. Ultimately, you as a designer can decide what you will do in the given time to arrive at the optimal design outcome. However, you will have to help others to come along on the journey which means your plan will have to make sense to them too, and feel safe.


Leave a Reply