A design brief is a compact design problem definition, carefully designed to inspire designers to produce effective solutions to a real-world problem.
I’ve been thinking about and collecting briefs for years, and I have noticed that the very best briefs do three things well: define the problem, inspire solutions and provide guidance for evaluating solutions.
1) An ideal brief should be informed by an understanding of a real-world problem.
…which means the brief focuses on the right problem, addresses the full problem, and gets the details of the problem right. This way a design team will work on solving the right problem, will consider the most important factors, will incorporate the most important elements and will strike the smartest balances and tradeoffs when designing a solution, and the team’s efforts won’t be won’t be guided by assumptions or errors. The elements of a design problem definition will always include who the design is for, why the design will be useful and desirable for them, and all factors from the use context that might affect the solution. It will also include all requirements and constraints from the client organization.
2) An ideal brief should convey the problem powerfully.
…which means the brief communicates its problem clearly, memorably and inspiringly. Clear communication means the problem is crisply and unambiguously defined for the design team. Memorable means each designer can hold the whole problem in their minds, so that the parts of the problem all hang together as a whole, while remaining distinct. Inspiring is the most difficult part: this means that the brief can help produce surprising ideas not specified or implied by the brief, but which still satisfy it. The brief stimulates ingenuity that surpasses anything the brief anticipates. (* Note: A tight, effective brief is likely to require supplemental materials to educate the team and get them aligned with the people and contexts of the design problem. Ideally, the designers will participate in the research and gain a tacit feel for the situation they are designing into. The brief does not have to carry the entire team educational load, only the interpretation of the situation into a design problem.)
3) An ideal brief should provide an explicit evaluative standard.
…which means the brief outlines criteria by which a member of the design team can assess the quality of the solution, and determine where it is and is not successful. This removes arbitrariness from the process and fully empowers designers to try bold, radically novel approaches to solve the problem.
I have never created nor have I seen a design brief that fully lives up to the ideal sketched above. I believe what I’ve written may be a design brief for a designing a design brief.