Getting a clear design brief

'A design brief is a written document for a design project developed in concert by a person representing the business need for design and the designer. The document is focused on the desired results of design – not aesthetics. Design briefs are commonly used in consulting engagements.' Wikipedia

'I'm going to get a clear, formal brief', someone told me this week. She's been asked to re-organize the function that she's also a member of – not such an easy task. I'm also involved in a function re-organization, and am at the same stage as she is: aiming to get a clear brief. So we've decided to mirror our approaches, sharing tools, info, etc. as we go. And that includes our process for getting a clear brief. It takes time, and involves thought and discussion.

I agree with the person who said 'a design can only be as good as the brief you worked from. The best projects are borne from creative briefs that are open enough to inspire ideas, while being specific enough to feel workable'. She goes on to say: 'Picture the scene. You've just landed a new client, who hurries a brief to you. There are a few holes in the brief, but instead of asking for constant clarification, you get to work. Later you're told the design "isn't quite right" … Ambiguous design briefs are infuriating. What's worse, clients who set you up to fail often go away thinking you stuffed up.'

Generally speaking product or brand designers are fully aware of the value of pre-brief work. For example, Patricia van den Akker, Director of The Design Trust, makes the following point:

'It really is worthwhile to spending some time to get the design brief right. Work closely together with your client to co-create a design brief. Time spent … working out what the client wants and doesn't want will ensure that you will be able to create the right design solution and have a satisfied client at the end! … Don't assume anything, write down and describe the requirements into great detail.'

She follows this by saying that when she worked for a product design consultancy as much time was spent on finding out exactly what the client wanted as was spent on working on the design itself, the value in this lead up to the brief being to a) ensure clear communication b) develop/improve the working relationship with clients c) manage expectations on both sides.

While the value of clearly defining the brief is well understood in some design circles in my experience it isn't understood or discussed much in relation to organization design work. This suggests an opportunity for organization designers to learn from the experience of designers in other fields. It's good to see this work burgeoning. For example the UK's Design Council offers coaching and workshops to public and private sector organizations that 'introduce you and your team to key design methods, including customer journey mapping, low-cost prototyping, and visual techniques for articulating problems and potential solutions.'

And Ideo, an international design firm, is a well-known player in the field of meshing visual/product design with business design claiming that by 'shifting focus from linear practices to iterative design processes, we can shed light on new options and explore the various alternatives.'

In order to get to a clear brief I've been working with my client and varying numbers of his team over the last few weeks to develop some basic building blocks: a statement of strategy intent (the vision), design principles, definitions of organizational words and phrases that we throw around without knowing if we mean the same thing by them, values, business unit 'tone of voice', the elements of the end to end value chain, the business model (using the business model canvas), a list of things that people are developing independently that could be shared – leading to streamlining and efficiency gains, and another list of all the activities that contribute to the value chain.

So, at this point we have an unassembled kit of parts and I'm detecting certain impatience at points from the client who just wants to announce his new organization chart. So pressure is mounting to assemble the kit and with a couple more discussions around activities/value chain we'll be ready to construct and agree the brief which will then at some point in the near enough future lead to the organization chart.

The point of all this pre-brief work – which I think the client understands – is to help him and his team think through what they want the organization design to achieve in terms of performance outcome, and how they would like this to happen – for example by command and control, by 'everyone a leader', by formal or informal means, by existing (legacy) systems or new systems … Also it has revealed all kinds of questions that need to be answered in the design. Where are the interdependencies? How much synergy between product lines can we aim for? What are the real constraints we are designing within? What are the opportunities for making a transformational difference? Does the work we are charged with require new capability/skills? How can we think about scaling up/down? None of these types of questions are tackled by just shuffling the people around the organization chart but all are important to designing something that is a well-functioning, high performing business unit and one that interfaces effectively with the rest of the organization.

There is a lot of information around on what the specific elements of a design brief should be. Search on 'writing a design brief' and you'll get literally millions of hits. Some directed at the client who writes the brief in order to select consultants, and others directed at the consultant who is going to do the work and is essentially checking with the client that the project scope and outcome is clearly understood. It is this latter that is what I am usually doing. That is, I write the brief, the client then adds, amends, comments, and generally give feedback on it. The net result is an agreement on the brief. Often I use the project charter. (See the September 2012 tool on my website). It is concise but comprehensive enough to keep referring back to as the project proceeds to check progress. If the situation changes it can be amended as needed (and agreed). A longer, more formal brief template is available from The National Archives of the Department for Business Innovation & Skills – in fact they have two templates a programme brief and a project brief.

For examples of a more visual brief look at Design from a Creative Brief or some of the Google images on the searching under the same phrase (design for a creative brief). And for a collaborative development of a project brief you could use the project brief canvas available from the UK's Arts Council (a 15 page guide)

How do you tackle getting a good organization design brief? Let me know.