Title: Putting it plainly: seven steps toward a clear design brief

Pages: 45 - 52


Author: Michael Farr

Text: Putting it plainly: seven steps toward a clear design brief
by Michael Farr
All designing begins with the brief. This is a crucial point that is overlooked far too often. Michael Farr, himself a consultant design manager, lists under their main headings the many factors involved. Designers and manufacturers alike will find plenty of evidence of the vital importance of a thorough brief in this chapter from the author's book on design management, to be published this month by Hodder & Stoughton.
"...it is the collective work of a team..."
The designer needs a brief for every job. He is designing not for his own purposes but for his client's, and it is therefore the responsibility of the latter to ensure that his purposes have been made plain to the designer. The best way to do this is to express the basic requirements in writing which is simple and direct. This draft brief (and the time-table which it incorporates) should be discussed with the designer and amended where necessary before it becomes the final, agreed document - the working brief.
If a freelance designer is involved, the final brief should be given to him, together with a contract or formal letter of agreement. In most cases this can be quite short, because it will refer to the designer's working document-the brief itself -and make its conditions binding on the designer. However, the contractual arrangement between client and designer should specify the following:
1 fees - what they are to be paid for, and at what stages;
2 fees for an amended brief;
3 expenses that will be reimbursed;
4 break-off points and penalty clauses;
5 copyright, patents, ownership of designs;
6 secrecy: embargo (if any) on designer's work for a competitor during the run of the contract, and possibly for a period afterwards;
7 intention (or otherwise) to link the designer's name with the finished product.
Designers have a well grounded fear of vague briefs and of even vaguer understandings to pay their fees, and hence the trouble taken to list the terms of the assignment at the outset will be appreciated, and will help to get the job off to a good start. Any but the most abstruse difficulties that may arise in drafting a contract can be resolved by referring to Dorothy Goslett's Professional Practice for Designers*.
*Batsford 1961
The headings and commentaries on the following pages give the outlines of a typical brief. In practice, it would be based on a company's project brief (see DESIGN 204/54 - 60). The list of requirements could apply to any work to be undertaken by a designer, from a medicine bottle label to a locomotive. The aim here is to indicate the types of question that should be asked and answered, both by the client and his advisers and by the designer. For the sake of allowing the commentary to read coherently, 'a product' is referred to. The specific work done by any one designer for any one firm is an individual matter. Although each designer's brief is different, could take account of the following points:
1 Title page
This would include:
name of designer receiving the brief;
name or short description of the subject covered;
list of sections in the brief;
name and address of the person issuing the brief, and his position (eg, design manager);
list of others who may be receiving copies;
confidential marking (probably);
2 Introduction
In this section, a summary is made of the occasion for issuing the brief and of the results that are to be expected from its fulfilment. This not only provides the designer and his assistants with a statement of the project's raison d'etre, but serves as a reminder to others such as the managing director and the sales and works managers, who will see in it the logical sequel to the project brief issued earlier. Such internal liaison is useful, not simply to keep others informed, but to ensure that they note dates (the first design presentation, for example) when action from them will be required.
With this select audience in mind, the design manager must stick to fundamental facts in the introduction. Remarks like "Unless the new product is successful in achieving a 15 per cent increase in sales over the existing model within 12 months of its introduction, we are likely to face some redundancies on No 4 line" are likely to be useful stimulants to attentiveness, and should help to dispel the illusion that now the designer has been hired the firm's problems are over.
Designing is not the skill of one man pitted against his client's commercial difficulties; it is the collective work of a team consisting of the designer, the design manager, and key executives and their staff in the client company. A project brief covering all fundamental points should have been issued, but any opportunity to stress this sense of involvement to other executives should be taken by the design manager. Not only will it help to establish the relative importance of the step about to be taken, but it will - if they read the brief itself - tend to fix in their minds the actual requirements the designer has been asked to meet, and leave no room for wishful expectations at a later date about what they are then to receive.
3 Goal
This should be specific and short; it should obviate future arguments about strategy from each conceivable source. This goal, the reason for design activity may in fact be a complex of inter - related goals, and so the statement in this part of the brief should convey priorities unambiguously.
The design manager is unlikely to formulate the goal himself, but once he has got the managing director to do so he will express it in terms that are clear to all parties. There are a number of reasons which can make a company embark on a design programme, but profitability lies at the root of all of them. The problem, therefore, is to state as concretely as possible what, in the company's mind, is likely to constitute a profitable result.
Is it maintenance of turnover at the present level ? It could be, if the company has sufficiently amortised a section of its plant to be utilised for the new product and, in addition, does not want to increase its sales promotion and marketing commitments. Or is the profitable result more likely to be obtained by marketing an avant garde product? Or simply by achieving a "one step ahead of the next man" type of product ?
All these, and countless more, are legitimate strategies for companies to adopt. It is uniquely the role of the design manager to express the strategy, not to invent it. He is neither designer nor, in most cases, managing director, and so in an unbiased manner he can, when describing the strategy, lay the stress realistically, and so give the goal a better chance of being realised.
". . . profitability lies at the root of all of them . . ."
". . . managing director, Henry Carruthers, extension 30 (PA Miss Smith) . . . not available Wednesdays . . ."
4 Information
This section is the 'pantechnicon' in any design brief. It is therefore best organised under headings which could include the following:
4.1 People
A list would be made of names and telephone numbers of the people to whom the designer may have to refer during his assignment. A brief description of their status and specialist roles is helpful. For example: "managing director, Henry Carruthers, extension 30 (PA Miss Smith); additional responsibilities: plant layout, research; not available Wednesdays."
The same would follow for other key people including, when relevant, advertising agency account executive, PRO, and so on. In addition, the design manager's own home telephone number is probably worth parting with.
4.2 Facilities
Under this heading, the design manager can list and briefly describe the facilities which the company, at various stages of the project, is prepared to offer the designer. For example, help with the study of human factors ergonomics - may be forthcoming. Particularly important for some projects are workshops, away from the production line, equipped with craftsmen and tools and time to experiment. While the freelance designer may produce his own small-scale or full-size models for the first stage of the project, he is unlikely to undertake the construction of prototypes. These are best built within the factory and under his supervision.
Other facilities could include access to the technical staff of some of the company's chief suppliers in order to acquire up to date research results on materials and finishes. It may seem obvious, but in some companies the fact that the freelance designer will need to consult with the chief draughtsman and be allowed to enter the production drawing office needs to be agreed and stated. His early contact with the works director may pre - suppose that he is persona grate in the PDO, but where internal empires are concerned it is wiser to foresee friction. And a mere phrase in a brief, such as "the designer will receive all the help he needs", will not do the trick alone.
4.3 Precursors and current products
Here the designer is told about the context to which his work should relate. Recent product history is often useful to indicate a sense of continuity which the company may wish to preserve. An assessment of the chief characteristics which made these products either succeed or fail in the then prevailing market conditions can often give the designer valuable clues. Information about the current product range can be either stimulating or inhibiting, and should be given with reserve. The designer is being called upon to do something different; and to dwell too long on what - to many eyes in the company - are proved and profitable products, can unwittingly drive the designer too far ahead when formulating his first, vital conclusions on what he should propose.
Plain facts about the total works cost of the present range and its retail price, coupled with brief comment on its advantages and disadvantages in production and distribution, are likely to be of value. So, too, is some account of the weight and direction of advertising and related aids to promotion which are currently employed. Such information helps to complete the designer's picture of what is actually happening.
4.4 Competition
The designer can be guided by facts supported by moving-total charts - which express the competition likely to be encountered by the new product during, say, the first year of its market life. Such predictions must be cautiously handled, but an alert sales intelligence service in a company can usually produce a sketch of the future which is more usefully given to the designer than withheld from him. Bearing in mind the type and temperament of the designer involved, the design manager can best decide how to express such information. If, for example, the strategy is to keep the character of the company's products close to that of its competitors, then data on market trends and sales patterns are more useful than when given in conjunction with a strategy that calls for the exploitation of, say, an invention.
Most firms have a collection of competitive products, variously disembowelled, and the designer will naturally learn from them. He will also be aware of the market leaders in the group - but none but he can take the first, basic step which indicates the character of the product his client should produce. And so information given to him must, according to each individual circumstance, be carefully considered. The sales director will know what caveats to apply to a moving-total chart; the designer almost certainly will not.
"...the strategy is to keep the character of the company's products close to that of its competitors . . ."
"Most firms have a collection of competitive products, variously disembowelled..."
4.5 Market research
If market research has been carried out, it may be presumed that, in part, the brief stems from its findings. It is nearly always valuable to discuss a market research report with a designer before writing his brief. His reaction to the sources in the survey and to its conclusions - which all too often attempt to tell the designer what he should do rather than what problem he has to solve - are worth noting in order to prevent the project from being rocked later should the designer have derived some erroneous pre - conceptions.
More positively, market research can clearly give any firm unique information which, for that firm, suggests a unique course of action. In addition to providing background information on the market, the research can indicate the types of people who are likely to use the product and the ways in which they can be expected to use it. If the research is primarily undertaken to guide designing, then the design manager should draw up its main terms of reference. It is unlikely that he would be qualified to formulate the questions (this is a job for a specialist in market research), but he can at least ensure that the answers will give maximum help to the designer.
In this section of the brief, the survey's findings can be recapitulated and the designer referred to the main report.
4.6 Supporting activities
Under this head, the designer can be given some indication of the tactics likely to be adopted by the company when launching the new product.
Depending on the product, the type of physical packaging and point of sale opportunities envisaged can have an important bearing on how he designs the product. If he, or another designer, is likely to create the packaging, then this should be stated. The company's normal methods of warehousing and distribution should also be outlined, together with an assessment of the relative strength of the outer cartons and any significant recent cases where a product has required an unusually complicated and expensive pack.
By giving such information, the design manager will not be in danger of putting the pack before the product; he will simply be warning the designer to bear these last minute annoyances in mind and so, if practicable, save the company a vital penny or two on the basic production costs.
If the product is to attract potential customers mainly through advertising, then again the fact should be stated. The same applies to products destined mainly for selling from the colour-printed page of a mail order catalogue.
The designer should know that some types of design are withheld from such media solely because they fail - in the opinion of the mail order managers - to attract attention in print. The designer will habitually assume that the product will first be seen and handled by customers in a shop, but this is only rarely the case.
Again, the design manager is not trying to suggest that a fetching advertising layout is more important than the design of the product itself; instead, he is pointing out that the primary sales pitch is on the printed page, and as sales are the sole objective the designer should recognise this fact from the start.
5 Timetable
The timetable is indicated in this position in the brief - after general information, and before the designer's task is described - so that the latter can be studied in the correct perspective. Obviously, the design timetable is best set out as a list of dates with annotations. For example:
October 18 Stage 1. Project begins. Designer briefed.
November 15 Designer discusses progress with design manager.
December 13 Presentation of design to managing director, sales manager, works manager.
And so on.
The timetable not only controls the progress of the project until the launching date is reached, it also serves as a reminder to otherwise-occupied executives who, at various stages, are going to have to give their time to the project. In a real sense, the timetable is the contractual basis on which the client and the designer agree to work. If the client amends the brief and causes delays, the contract must be revised; if the designer fails to keep to the dates prescribed, the same applies.
". . . the timetable is the contractual basis on which the client and the designer agree to work . . ."
6 Work required
This section of the brief should set out concisely the demands that are to be made on the designer. The short sentences and well spaced paragraphs that are best adopted here not only enable the designer to use the section as a quick check list during the project, but also invite him to refer to other parts of the brief where matters are set out in greater detail.
Again, this section is best organised under headings, probably as follows:
6.1 Stage 1
The design work during this stage should be aimed to achieve acceptance at a presentation meeting. Knowing what is expected at such a meeting, the design manager should precisely indicate the extent of design development that should be realised. Is the meeting to be offered more than solution to the problem ? Or, quite diferently, should the designer indicate a serise of related solutions to be introduced in succeeding years but each stemming from one basic concept ?
Should the designer present his ideas in the shape of sketches only ? Should he produce general arrangement drawings, and should these be supported by models ? If so, should the models be quarter-scale or full - size ?
Or is it better to have models only, and not ask the designer to commit himself to dimensional tolerances that would be more advantageously worked out by him later in collaboration with the works manager ?
If models are to be presented, then should they be working mock-ups ? Again, where models are concerned, the design manager must know if the designer is going to make them himself. If the designer sub-contracts the work, he would supervise it and be responsible for it. On the other hand, it may be more practicable to have the models made in the factory and, if that is the case, the designer's sphere of responsibility should a carefully defined.
Of course, freelance designers have their own preferred working methods that would largely govern the choice of actions given above. The design manager's function is to ensure that the presentation meeting is provided with enough evidence to enable its members to reach a decision without calling for further information. Only in cases where this result appears to be jeopardised should the designer be expected to modify his normal working method.
If the case for the presented design is likely to need further support, such as samples of different types of finish on one or more materials, the designer should be expected to provide them. On some occasions it is desirable to accompany the designs with a written report.
The design manager is probably the best person to prepare this, basing it on the discussions he has had with the designer, the works manager, and possibly others during Stage 1. Various, vital information can be contained in it for example, approximate production costs (carefully worded caveats are to be recommended when giving costs at this early stage); reasons why the design, if unconventional, is to be recommended (some people can better appreciate an argument in words than comprehend visual evidence that says the same thing); and numerous other factors relevant to the job on hand and helpful when reaching decisions. 6.2 Stage 2 With the design accepted and any suggested modifications noted, the designer will aim, in this stage, to realise the product in working prototype form. Facilities which can assist him have been noted earlier in the brief (eg, 4.2) and the design manager is only concerned to see that, where appropriate, the designer does in fact make use of them.
During this stage, the designer will probably earn his fee more by talking than by drawing and constructing with his own hands. Generally, it may be said that the more the physical handling of the design is done by the company's own staff, the more easily and speedily will it eventually fit into the production system. The statement is made cautiously: it is all too common to find cases where a designer's work has been taken 'into the works' never to be seen by him again until it is on the market. No matter how detailed the drawings or the models at the end of Stage 1, there is no substitute for the presence of the designer during their development.
Some companies fail to see this point. They reckon that the designer has done his job - "After all, he's given us a shape to work on" - and that to keep him around longer will only slow up the system and cost more in fees.
Such companies can be persuaded otherwise - but only by offering them proof. It is the design manager's job to provide this, and he can nearly always instance a product from the company's own collection or from one of its rivals to pillory the makeshift detailing, the coarsened features, the unmatching colours, the last-minute attachments and fittings that demonstrably mar what was once a designer's solution to a problem. The design manager's ability as an analytical critic is frequently an indispensable part of his function.
Stage 2, therefore, should allow for frequent collaboration between the works pre - production staff and the designer. Very significant improvements to the design are often made at this stage, in the directions both of paring down costs and of providing the ultimate user with more value for money -two factors which, in many companies, are surprisingly synonymous. Such improvements can arise not only from development in the works; if the project programme allows time and facilities for prototypes to be validated, then the results of the studies can be transmitted to the designer so that he can consider any suggested improvements.
". . . putting the pack before the product . . ."
". . . should the models be quarter - scale or full - size?"
Apart from co - operating in this manner, the designer would be expected to produce detailed general arrangement drawings that take account of the developments achieved at the end of this stage. Normally these would be converted by the company's own staff into working drawings and, perhaps by a sub-contractor, into tool drawings.
Some designers prefer to do their own working drawings, though few would wish to commit themselves to a statement that their final specification for the product accurately determines all the characteristics of tools, materials and manufacturing methods that will impinge on the design when it goes into production in a particular company. Responsibility here rightly rests on the works director and his colleagues.
6.3 Stage 3
The product designer's work is virtually over at this stage; his design will have been released for tooling, and any further changes made to it can cost a lot of money and time. The brief should normally allow for the designer to be called in if any problems crop up, not only in tool making, but at the trial production stage.
The latter will quickly show up any disadvantages in handling the product on the line, and the presence of the designer while these are being ironed out can, in certain products, effect a more intelligent compromise. In any case, if something does happen to go wrong at this stage it is reasonable to suppose that the designer will at least hear about it.
6.4 Appearance
In this section of the brief, the design manager should try to convey the company's wishes concerning the visual character of the design. These may be derived, for example, from joint discussions of existing products in the same field with the managing director and designer present.
The design manager should avoid pre - designing the product in any sense. Such information stated in the brief should be confined to the line of the company's thought: guides to - but not restrictions on the designer. This should be made clear to the managing director, and the designer's function in designing left intact. In sections 4.3, 4.4 and 4.5 a sufficient indication of the design manager's and the company's current conception of appearance will have been given in concrete form. The next move is the designer's. He can be helped by remarks like:
"The design should be ahead of any model currently in the company's range, and be a market leader from 1970 - 72. It is intended that it should replace the Zoomglow, and hence be in advance of it. There must be a continuity of buying between the Zoomglow and the new design, hence the departure must not be too radical." And so on.
Also the designer may be told that the shape of the design will be conditioned by standard components. For example: "The heat exchanger in the Zoomglow will be used for the new model. Its dimensions cannot be altered: a sample will be given to you."
The design manager should only mention such constraints if company policy is likely to be inflexible where they are concerned. No designer likes the loose approach which gives him an entirely free hand, but he cannot work at all with both hands tied behind his back.
The line of distinction between an inhibiting brief and one which gives too much licence will vary with each designer, but the design manager should be sufficiently experienced to know where to draw it.
6.5 User needs
Usually there is all too little evidence to assist the designer here. In briefs which include a section on market research (4.5), the designer should be able to acquire a reasonably accurate picture of the types of people that can be expected to buy his design and the types who will use it.
But how they actually use the company's current model and those of its competitors is frequently unknown. Which ? magazine may provide some information, if it has reviewed relevant products recently. If the company has a staff of service engineers, the design manager can often gain valuable information from its reports. However, service engineers are employed to service a company's products after purchase, and not to observe and report the way in which the owner uses and misuses and is inconvenienced by the product.*
* Suggestions for making more use of the opportunities available to service engineers to assist designers are made by the author in Discrimination and Popular Culture, edited by Denys Thompson, Penguin, 1965
"...the shape of the design will be conditioned by standard components . . ."
. ."
Short of such evidence, the designer's own personal, practical experience is the only alternative. It will at least give him a short cut to the more obvious mistakes that have been made in the past, and neither he nor the company will want to dwell on them.
Almost every product can be made more suited to the user if, in its designing, attention has been paid to ergonomic considerations. These would arise out of existing or new studies of human factors relevant to the product when in normal use. In this section of the brief, the design manager can ergonomically help the designer in two ways. First, he can specify the likely areas in the design where an ergonomic approach can make a product safer anres/pub/COID/or more convenient to use, and provide the designer with what documentary evidence is available. Second, he can place an ergonomist- usually an applied psychologist or an applied physiologist- at the designer's disposal. Perhaps no more than a dozen firms in Britain have such a person on the staff, so he is most likely to be called in as a consultant.
Initially, a number of designers do not welcome the idea of working with an ergonomist. Some of them are inclined to say that his information is little more than a refined common sense which, given faith and time, they would have aspired to themselves. The current ineptness of our 'designed' surroundings, not a point in the designers' favour, can be referred to with some heat if the matter ever comes to argument. It seldom does. Recently, some younger designers of all types have willingly sifted out of scientific journals the precious information they require to improve a product ergonomically. If presented with a live ergonomist to work with, they would be even more content.
One side effect of ergonomics should not be overlooked, particularly as it can help the design manager to persuade the initially sceptical company to pay for ergonomic advice. It should be used with caution - and some ergonomists will construe it cynically but it can materially help in the marketing of some products.
In the brief, the design manager might phrase the point as follows: "Market research has shown that considerable importance is attached by the consumer to the types of control incorporated in the product. You should therefore aim to achieve a visually exciting, highly functional control layout that will impress the potential user at point of sale." And in the development budget which the company sets aside for doing just that, the designer and the ergonomist can produce a system of control operation that will greatly benefit the user throughout the product's life.
6.6 Function
The intended function of the product should be listed under headings, and not elaborated if covered elsewhere in the brief. Recently in this narrative, some type of powered domestic heater has been implied. Requirements might therefore run thus: 1 conform with BS3456, sections A1 and A2;
2 output 2kW, convected;
3 free standing;
4 portable, with one hand;
5 incorporate thermostat.
And so on, in a list annotated where necessary with information that is confined to functional points alone. No - one will be pleased if the designer produces a beautiful shape which will not work when it is plugged in, and so the design manager should carefully cover all functional aspects of the desired product, no matter how obvious some of them may appear to be.
6.7 Production methods, materials and costs
The methods and materials envisaged by the company will have been indicated to the designer on his preliminary visit to the company's works. These should be recapitulated, but only briefly, because in many circumstances the designer- if not too inhibited - may propose new ways of doing things which could be more profitable to the company.
Costs depend largely on the production run envisaged for the new product and the amortisation rate of the types of tool likely to be involved, and so estimates must be made of the quantities that should be sold over a given number of years. These, coupled with information from the works, buying, marketing and sales departments, will allow the company's cost accountant and the works end design managers to posit a target figure - usually expressed as a total works cost. This is what the designer needs to know. The extent of his experience, his self-control and the degree of co-operation he receives from the company will govern the accuracy of his aim.
"No-one will be pleased if the designer produces a beautiful shape which will not work when it is plugged in . . ."
6.8 Attendance
If it is desired that the designer should meet the design manager at certain intervals, attend the works on a minimum number of occasions, visit one or more of the company's sub-contractors, etc. then it should not be assumed that he will do so unasked.
Some freelance designers like to get away from the company and its administrators and stay away. Some imagine that they will be unwelcome if they turn up too often. Every designer has his own best working method, and once again it is for the design manager to accommodate it with the particular demands and circumstances created by the project. If the designer's attendance is required at certain stages during his assignment, then this should be stated in the brief.
In the same way, if the designer should be expected to obtain estimates or tenders from sub-contractors, then this duty should be clearly defined.
6.9 Presentation
Normally, there will be a presentation of the designer's work at the end of Stage 1; on some projects further- perhaps more detailed - presentations will be required. Here the design manager should state the exact purpose of these presentations and what will be expected of the designer during them. The latter is relatively straightforward - allowing for some form of rehearsal beforehand - but the former is frequently tricky to explain.
The obvious purpose of a presentation is to get the design through to Stage 2; the ways in which a designer can assist in doing it are many. To help him, the design manager can give his own estimate of the factors that are likely to motivate favourably the people the work is to be presented. How much of this he actually writes into the brief is a matter for his own judgment. But, 'off the record', he should at least guide the designer into the minds of the managing director and his colleagues who will be present. He should also indicate the likelihood of having the design referred to a 'third party', not at the meeting, but deeply relied upon by one of the members present.
Providing the designer is given a candid account of what is in store for him, and he listens to it, little is likely to go wrong. It may be tiresome, but in some companies presentations have to be done twice for very good reasons. For example, the marketing manager may well be the 'client' up to and beyond the presentation at Stage 1, in order to take some of the load off the managing director; but he is unlikely to proceed to the point of committing the company to adopt the design without reference to his chief. And when that meeting is held, it is most desirable that the designer and the design manager should be present.
7 Opportunities and constraints
This section should sum up the foregoing. It should also be used by the design manager to cover any points which could not be included elsewhere. For example, the company's methods of production would be sufficiently obvious to the designer's own eyes, but stress might be laid, for instance, on one particular works operation which is perhaps under - employed or over - employed.
Again, a warning concerning the company's habitual - and probably profitable - way of performing some tasks in the works can be valuable to the designer before he begins.
Factories are seldom soulless, automated systems without human idiosyncrasies. Unthought - out but efficient methods of making things are endemic in most works more than 25 years old. It is unlikely that the company's executives will see these idiosyncrasies for themselves, let alone tell a designer about them. But, when he comes fresh to the task, the design manager will be on the look-out for such 'tribal' customs and guide the designer towards an understanding of them.
To ignore them is dangerous, for nothing is more likely to wreck a design than the foreman's firm view - unsolicited, and hence given at a late stage - that "It can't be done, not in a normal manner, that is."
Other opportunities and constraints will crop up in each brief. In a sense, this section is a safety valve which the design manager can complete as he pleases. But no matter how many constraints he includes, he should maintain a ringing note of optimism throughout, or the designer will begin to wonder if it is all worthwhile.
To whom responsible ?
If the designer is to be responsible to the managing director, then this should be stated, not simply assumed. If he is to have a divided responsibility, then this should be carefully defined. He may, for instance, serve the works manager until the end of Stage 1 and then continue with the managing director as his direct client. On the other hand he may be responsible to the design manager throughout the entire project, and hence be assured that the company's instructions will be interpreted to him in a consistent manner.
Michael Farr (Design integration) Ltd
". . . the foreman's firm view that 'It can't be done, not in a normal manner, that is.'"



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