The Anatomy of a Design Brief
Promotes the discussion about design briefs and provides one perspective of the anatomy of a design brief.
By Todd R. Kelley, DTE
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The hallmark of engineering/technology education should continue to be to promote technological literacy through engineering design, and a design brief is an important part of this heritage.
Teaching students the design process and providing opportunities for design is at the core of engineering/technology education. The design process is a key feature of technological literacy, and design is the most represented element within Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEA/ITEEA 2000, 2002/2007; Lewis, 2005; Wicklein, 2006). Technology educators have access to a large collection of design process models from which to choose to introduce students to design. There remains a long-standing debate over which design-cycle process model is best to use in the technology classroom, and the recent increase in the variety of these choices has not lessened the debate. However, Lawson and Dorst (2009) indicated that no existing design process model fully represents the authentic process taken by designers. It is clear that the actual process taken by designers regardless of expertise is a messy and often unpredictable process. Although the debate for the “right” design model continues, technology/engineering teachers have options to choose from, and design process models are well documented. However, a complex process like design requires much more than just presenting students with a design-cycle model. There is so much more to design than a 8-, 10-, or 12-step process. Whichever design-cycle model teachers choose, the first steps of introducing the process are critical to students’ success. The early steps in the design process can provide students with the necessary directions for how to proceed. One possible teaching tool that can provide students with direction is the design brief. A design brief can help guide students through the problem-scoping phase of design. A design brief is one approach to introducing a design activity. Unlike the well-documented design process models, the design brief has not been clearly defined, and the key elements of a design brief are not clearly identified in technology education literature. This article will seek to identify, define, and describe key elements of the design brief and provide perspectives from an author with over 20 years of experience using the design brief in K-12 classrooms and as a research and design assessment instrument.
Integrated STEM education provides engineering/technology education teachers a chance to share their common practices with math and science teachers. Over the years, I have enjoyed these exchanges with my colleagues from science and mathematics education. Several of my science education colleagues have been able to provide many resources to help me better understand how to introduce students to science inquiry. Equally, I was provided the opportunity to introduce them to some various design models, and together we created a design-process model for elementary teachers to use in their classrooms. Teaching at a university with a large engineering program, my colleagues have been well educated about the design process and had several years of successfully teaching design to elementary teachers before I joined the faculty in 2008. However, when I arrived at Purdue and began collaborating with STEM colleagues to create the curriculum materials for K-12 classrooms, I suggested creating design briefs to add to our STEM lesson plans. One science colleague asked: “What is a design brief?” so I quickly began to look for articles about design briefs to share and was shocked to find a void in the K-12 STEM literature about design briefs. Although I was able to locate some examples of design briefs, an explanation of the key elements of a design brief were missing. In an article from 1997, the authors suggested the use of design briefs to introduce elementary teachers and principals to design technology and project-based learning approaches to teaching during a summer professional development program (Ackerman, Etchison, Lydic, & Spiro, 1997). After discovering this void in the literature regarding design briefs, I initially wondered if I was making up this term. I believe a design brief is a key design tool and a very important pedagogical approach to teaching design, especially to young learners. Throughout this article, I will seek to define a design brief and provide a detailed description of this design pedagogical tool.
The Design Brief Defined
A design brief is an outcome of an initial meeting between a designer and a client. The initial meeting often results in the designer crafting a design brief, a common approach used by designers in architecture, graphic design, industrial design, and engineering. This allows the designer and the client to set the expectations of the design job and define the necessary outcomes. However, for the purpose of K-12 STEM education, I define a design brief as:
A design brief is a one-page document that provides a designer with a basic description of a design problem. A design brief usually contains a list of constraints and criteria of the problem.
The design brief can also provide additional information to the designer about the needs of the client or end user. The amount of information contained in the design brief often is based on the level of the learners’ experience with design. More information may be provided to the designer if the students are novices to design and need additional information to begin creating a design solution. The teacher may choose to create a list of materials or tools available for use when creating a prototype solution. Although a design brief may contain more than one page, ideally the writer should seek to keep the document to one page; after all it is a “brief.”
Purpose of a Design Brief
The purpose of a design brief is to provide students with some key background and description of the design problem. It begins to frame a problem in such a way that students can begin to explore the problem. A well-constructed design brief allows students to have necessary details about the problem and the needs of the client without too much information to restrict the designer. Consider how Dym, Agogino, Eris, Frey, and Leifer (2005) define engineering design. They state:
Engineering design is a systematic, intelligent process in which designers generate, evaluate, and specify concepts for devices, systems, or processes whose form and function achieve clients’ objectives or users’ needs while satisfying a specified set of constraints” (p. 104).
Core elements of the design brief are embedded within this engineering design definition, including (a) end users’ needs; (b) client objectives (criteria); and (c) identified constraints. Some suggest that all technology education students should create their own design brief, thus providing opportunity for them to define ill-defined problems and remain open-ended in order to lead to multiple design approaches. I believe there are some flaws in this approach to teaching K-12 students. I agree with other technology educators who suggest that, as educators, we should seek to prepare students to have the ability to define design problems as well as foster their ability to identify their own design problems. However, these skills may not be fully developed until after multiple years as students of design. I would propose that engineering/technology educators seek to help students possess the ability to create their own design problem statements and create their own open-ended challenges during students’ final capstone experiences. Until then, I suggest that teachers continue using a design brief.
Teachers can scaffold student learning by progressively providing fewer constraints and/or allow students more choices of prototyping materials. For example, for very young children or early novice designers, the teacher may need to restrict the prototyping materials available based upon students’ limited modeling skills. This approach may simplify the process of making a prototype. As students become more and more experienced with design and prototype production, the design brief becomes more ambiguous, with fewer details about the problem, requiring the designer to identify key details about the problem as well as the approach to design a solution. Additionally, the teacher can provide structure to the process by setting key constraints about a design problem, not to limit design ideas but to help frame the scope of the problem. Students new to design often need structure and the establishment of key guidelines and constraints for a design problem in order to remain focused on the problem. Constraints can also help eliminate potential problems that can arise when students have complete, unrestricted freedom in the design task. Locating the ideal number of constraints usually only comes with years of experience teaching design.
Most design briefs have the following key features: (a) a picture or graphic to set the context; (b) a short problem statement or scenario; (c) a list of identified constraints and criteria; (d) a list of prototyping materials; and (e) a final statement telling students how to begin the design process (Figure 1). Although not every feature is necessary or used by design brief writers, most of these features are present. The following are suggestions from years of experience creating design briefs.
Setting the Context With a Picture
When setting the context for a design brief it is helpful to provide an image at the beginning of the document. An image provides a visual for the reader to quickly orient themselves to the context. However, the writer of the design brief should carefully consider the type of image to use. An image selected should never imply a design solution or uncover details about a design problem that will cause fixation by the designer. Design fixation is a real phenomenon, and students are very sensitive to impulses that might lead them toward a design idea. Design fixation should be avoided at all costs, as it has been proven to be a restriction to creativity (Kelley & Sung, 2017; Jansson & Smith, 1991). Additionally, we have discovered several examples of design fixation while conducting design research studies with K-12 students (Kelley, Brenner, & Pieper, 2010). Providing a simple graphic or image that provides a context but has no design implications is best. For example, a teacher created a design brief for elementary students with a design problem of designing a better candy bag. This design problem provided an excellent introductory design task that used simple materials and was an object familiar to students. The image in the design brief was of a pile of candy; this provided a nice visual context for the design brief without containing any reference to a possible solution. For this design brief, it would not be helpful to provide any images of bags, as they might influence students’ final bag designs (see candy bag lesson, https://stemedhub.org/resources/363).
An additional suggestion is for design brief writers to consider utilizing a local context to help students see the design assignment as a real-world problem. Often this authentic approach to describing a design problem can bring additional motivation for students who can identify with the client or the local problem. For the candy bag design brief, the author used the name of a local candy store and expressed that the store owner needed a new line of candy bags because the current ones did not meet customers’ needs. This detail to the design problem statement set the context for the design brief without causing design fixation.
Scenario or Problem Statement
The problem statement or design scenario provides the designer with a basic description of the design problem. The statement should be brief. Too often design scenarios provide too much detail that can overload students. The problem statement should include an identifiable client and end user, who are typically different people. For example, many of the design briefs I have created have a client from manufacturing or from a design firm who is seeking help to create a product for an identified end user. For example, consider a possible design brief that contained a scenario for creating a new line of camping tents. The camper in this case is not the client. A camper rarely has a custom tent made for him or her; they purchase the tent from a camping-supply store. The stores get retail equipment from camping manufacturers. The client in this case is the camping supply manufacturer who is seeking a new tent design. Young designers should learn how to identify the client and the end user within the scenario. This is important information because the designer must meet the needs of both the client and the end user. Each individual will have different needs, and these should be considered while in the midst of design. When students present their final design solutions, they should be encouraged to identify how their design meets the needs of both the client and the end user.
Constraints and Criteria
A teacher can help guide and support students’ development in design by establishing some guidelines for a design task. Every design task contains constraints; in fact, some have defined engineering as an approach to improve the current conditions of a design problem under defined constraints. Constraints are the limitations usually embedded within the design problem. A teacher can add their own constraints on the design due to costs or material limits. Teachers often limit the time students have for the design task as a constraint. Cost is another real-world constraint. Some teachers set fictitious costs for the materials so that students learn to establish a budget for their final prototype design. This is an effective approach to educating students to carefully manage resources, since no engineering project is completed without costs.
Most teachers understand constraints of a design problem, but often struggle to understand the difference between constraints and criteria. Despite searching for literature on the difference between constraints and criteria, there do not seem to be strong definitions on criteria. For the purposes of this article, criteria can be defined as the identified features desired by the client. A client may set some design standards for the design, such as a specific size limit, or designate an overall final retail price, so the designer reaches for these criteria while designing. Sometimes criteria can also be considered constraints, but again, I believe it becomes criteria when it is set by the client to ensure that the designer seeks to address these desires through their final design.
Design Brief Closing Statement – Next Steps Task
For young learners, the design brief author may want to add a closing statement to give students direction on what to do next. Often this statement is short, but the teacher might want to cue students to prior lessons or resources that have been provided to guide the design process. The closing statement might suggest the students begin brainstorming ideas individually and then share these ideas with a design team. Sharing ideas should preferably be done using design sketches. One science inquiry tool that is helpful to guide students to plan their next steps is called a KWHLAQ (Barell, 2007, p. 86). Some engineering/technology educators might be familiar with a KWL (What do you already Know? What do you Want/need to know? What do you expect to Learn?). The modified KWL includes: H – How and where will you search for the information? A - How will you Apply what you have learned? And Q - What new Questions do you have following your inquiry? When collaborating with science teachers, this is a tool often used for inquiry tasks, and this approach prompts students to ask themselves key questions about how they need to gather and use information. Information gathering is a necessary skill in design and yet an area of struggle for many secondary students (Mentzer, 2014; Mentzer & Fosmire, 2015). As students get more experience in design, a closing statement is not necessary, and students will create their own approach to the first steps they will take during the design task.
Simple tools of design such as the design brief should be foundational elements of a technology education classroom, and although technology educators have used design briefs for years, a void does exist in design education and technology education literature that clearly defines and provides a detailed description of the design brief document. The purpose of this article is to promote the discussion about design briefs and provide one perspective of the anatomy of a design brief. It is the author’s hope that readers will use this article in the future when creating their own design briefs and helping their students read and respond to a design brief. The hallmark of engineering/technology education should continue to be to promote technological literacy through engineering design, and a design brief is an important part of this heritage.
Ackerman, S., Etchison, C. H., Lydic, C. L., & Spiro, L. S. (1997). Designing sizzling summer school. The Technology Teacher 56(5) 6-9.
Barell, J. F. (2007). Problem-based learning: An inquiry approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Dym, C., Agogino, A., Eris, O., Frey, D., & Leifer, L. (2005). Engineering design thinking, teaching, and learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(1), 103-120.
International Technology Education Association (ITEA/ITEEA). (2000/2002/2007). Standards for technological literacy: Content for the study of technology. Reston, VA: Author.
Jansson, D. G. & Smith, S. M. (1991). Design fixation. Design Studies, 12(1), 3-11.
Kelley, T. R. & Sung, E. (2017). Design fixation. Technology and Engineering Teacher, 77(3), 15-19.
Kelley, T., Brenner, D., & Pieper, J. (2010). Two Approaches to Engineering Design: Observations in sTEm Education. Journal of sTEm Teacher Education, 47(2), 5-40.
Lawson, B. & Dorst, K. (2009). Design expertise, (Vol 31). Oxford: Architectural Press.
Lewis, T. (2005). Coming to terms with engineering design as content. Journal of Technology Education, 16(2), 37-54.
Mentzer, N. (2014). High school student information access and engineering design performance. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research, 4(1), Article 4. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.7771/2157-9288.1074
Mentzer, N. & Fosmire, M. (2015). Quantifying the information habits of high school students engaged in engineering design. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 5(2), 22-34. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.7771/2157-9288.1108
Merwade, V., Harriger, B., Eichinger, D., & Doherty, E. (2013). Designing a door alarm lesson plan. Science Learning Through Engineering Design (SLED). NSF-MSP project #0962840 p. 16. Retrieved from https://stemedhub.org/resources/1772
Wicklein, R. C. (2006). Five good reasons for engineering design as the focus for technology education. The Technology Teacher, 65(7), 25-29.
Todd R. Kelley, Ph.D., DTE is an associate professor in Technology Leadership and Innovation at Purdue Polytechnic University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This is a refereed article.
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