Unfixing the design brief

/ Mar 9, 2017

by Mike Bond - Strategy Director


Getting the most out of designers can often come down to the success of the original brief. It's a subject that always sparks a debate and is exactly what our Strategy Director Mike Bond spoke about today at the Overseas Development Institute.

Creating a design brief is not always easy, but it is certainly an activity worth getting right. 

Through my experience as lecturer in design, I know that you can't teach people how to have good ideas; all minds and thought processes are of course different.You can however help people to gather the right elements together to increase the odds of good ideas forming.

This assembly of elements forms the foundation of good teaching - but it is also the basis of collating a successful design brief. It should be seen as the assembly of the information necessary to make the most of an opportunity. 

Typical aspects of a brief are no surprise; budget, timings, format, content, audience, to name but a few. A key question however centres on to what extent each of these elements is fixed or unfixed...

The brief's end goal is most likely fixed, but the route to it may be unfixed. 'Unfixing' requirements allow designers to balance creativity with delivery of fit-for-purpose. Indeed it can provide the opportunity to over-deliver. Good designers should always interrogate a brief and ask the questions that help change it from simply being an 'instruction document', but clients can help through first unpicking what may have been a historical decision or an assumption as opposed to a fixed requirement.

Quite often the main barrier to a successful brief is an attempt (whether a direct aim or not) to solve the problem before handing the task over to a designer. This can come through a person's desire to be as helpful as possible or it can be done through the unwitting inclusion of assumptions within the brief.

The talk led to some interesting debate, but what surfaced was a general agreement that designers shouldn't simply take instruction and deliver without question. Good designers work jointly with a client to understand exactly what is fixed - and crucially, what is unfixed - before exploring the potential for truly creative, fit-for-purpose design solutions.