How to Write A Compelling Design Brief Using Narrative

Telling stories can help designers do better work.

It’s all too easy, for both designers and their clients, to get lost in an over-abundance of facts, while presenting a design brief. We feel we have come up with a better way. Our way, we think, is more rewarding, for everyone involved in the process.

Writing a design brief is an essential part of the design process. But writing a good brief seems an elusive goal to most. Traditional briefs make dry reading. These voluminous reports usually bristle with tables, texts, and bullet points concerning square meters, temperature levels, and so on. Surely, all this information is vital. But it’s not enough. A good brief needs to instruct the design team as well as inspire them, giving them an in-depth understanding of the client’s needs.

Unfortunately, these intangibles often drown in the overload of specifications, or they dissolve into meaningless verbiage like  “user friendly,” “efficient,”  “optimal, “ and so on. We believe that this problem can be solved, by making use of story telling. These narratives can be short descriptions of the daily lives of users, anecdotes, metaphors, mood boards, quotes from interviews, scenarios for future use, and other “telling” formats. Using such narrative formats is a powerful means of communication. Better than voluminous reports or excel sheets, stories can get people interested and explain a vision.

A simple example of how a narrative can replace existing design briefs that say, for instance, that the new building will be “inviting”: What does this mean? How inviting is inviting and to whom? To answer these questions, how about writing a short narrative, like a quote from a grumpy old man who lives in the neighborhood? “I live around the corner; I think what you’re proposing is a stupid building! It is too big. It brings too many cars to our otherwise quiet neighborhood! But I like the nice restaurant. Every now and then I go there for a coffee and to read a newspaper. Quite pleasant, and you can just walk in. The hostess is nice. She greets me when I come in. I think her name Charlene …” A silly story?  Yes, but it says a lot. It explains the design challenge of fitting a large building into an existing neighborhood, who the building’s future users might be, and how the locals might respond to it; and it describes the functions of some of the building’s main spaces like a restaurant and the reception. This silly little story has high information value–it can be understood by professionals, clients, and laymen alike. As such, it’s a natural starter for a pre-design dialogue about quality (“No, no. We can’t have idling pensioners in our building” or “Indeed! We should be connected to the local community”).

When creating narratives, the first thing to consider is the message the story needs to tell. What are the ambitions or the values that you are trying to clarify?  Is it an invented story? Or is it a ‘true’ story? While an invented story gives you full control of the content, ‘found’ stories tend to be more powerful because they’re authentic. Besides, real stories can be used to involve users in the briefing process. In one of our projects, we asked users to create small stories about how they would use their future office. Here’s what one said: “As I enter the office floor, I see my colleagues, wave to them, and find myself a desk. I overhear some guys talking about an old client of mine. I give them some tips on how I used to handle this client, but I really don’t have time to chitchat. My new client will arrive in an hour; a key account and we cannot afford to lose him. I’m damn nervous and I need to prepare. So, I pick up my laptop and move into one of the available quiet rooms. I close the door and start working.” This straightforward story explains the advantages of the open office, as well as the users’ fears of not being able to concentrate, and the potential business implications of distracted workers. And the story provides a possible design solution (creating ‘quiet rooms’), which proved to be valuable input in the design process (they got their quiet rooms). Such narratives are good at putting all the details of a design project into context. They can bring the facts to life, increasing the likelihood that the brief will actually be read and understood, thereby increasing the chance that the design will meet the user’s needs. So, when you next you write your next brief, don’t get stuck in long lists, though of course you need to have this information somewhere in your presentation. Write a compelling story that can carry the project. “Once upon a time there was a building ….”

Juriaan van Meel is lecturer at the Center for Facilities Management at the Danish Technical University and partner at the Dutch consultancy firm ICOP.

Mikkel Thomassen is partner at the Danish consultancy firm Smith Innovation.

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