eLanguages.ac.ukUniversity of Southampton

Understanding the content and language of design briefs

Pencils as tools at the pre-design stage

The pre-design stage

The formal starting point for the design of a new product is commonly referred to as 'a design brief'. This is essentially a client's statement of a design problem or opportunity to which the product designer responds. The client's instruction will usually set out the design goal, context or background information, any constraints or relevant criteria. It may be a short document.

In these activities you will analyse an example design brief in English to understand the elements it contains, and to explore the meaning of some of the key language used. You will also think about what makes a good design brief for a new building.

Activity 1: Analysing an example design brief

In this activity you are going to analyse an example design brief to identify what it comprises and then consider some questions about it.



Study this example design brief and identify all the different parts that it contains. Decide whether each is design constraints, opportunity/context, or criteria to meet. Highlight each section, and select the appropriate button below to change the colour. Then read the feedback. Open the help section first if you would like more guidance on distinguishing between 'constraints' and 'criteria'.

Activity 2: Exploring the design before the design

Writing a design brief is a creative activity that is critical to the whole design process. Jens Bernsen, of the Danish Design Centre, has described the formulation of the brief as 'the design before the design'. By that he means:

... the decisive step in the development of a new product often occurs before the project begins ... Such design before the design does not appear spontaneously nor is its realisation separate from the whole process of creation. It is part of it.
(Bernsen, 1996)

The development and elaboration of the brief proceeds through the initial exploration of concepts and ideas by the design team, with clients, managers and designers working together. In this activity you are going to explore some key points of a good design brief that Bernsen has identified.



Study these key points of a good design brief identified by Bernsen. Explore some of the points further by answering the questions that follow. Make notes in the text area provided or select the appropriate answer. Then read the feedback.

Bernsen's (1996) key points of a good design brief:
• Identify what the new product aspires to be
• Describe the basic function of the product
• See the product the way the user sees it
• Describe the personalities of user and product
• Describe the features that determine the experienced value
• Tell a good story: create a product idea that can be communicated
• Concentrate the brief on the essential things
• Revise the brief from time to time

Maggie's Centre NottinghamMaggie's Centre Nottingham

Identify what the new product aspires to be
1. Look at this building, shown from different angles, which is a specialist centre for people with cancer in hospital grounds. What do you think is the 'big idea' behind it?

See the product the way the user sees it
2. Which aspects of the cancer centre buildings are most important to the patient, medical staff, maintenance staff?

Describe the features that determine the experienced value
3. Which qualities might be important when designing (a hospital)?

Concentrate the brief on the essential things
4. Are these primary or secondary demands for a hospital?
 Easy to keep clean
 Corridors and doors wide enough to move beds and trolleys
 Large car park
 Kitchen situated to minimise time between cooking and delivery to wards
 Flexible space on wards
 Storage for linen on each ward
 Storage for medicines
 All large equipment (CAT scanner, Xray, etc) on same floor
 Building and toilet facilities accessible to wheelchair users
 Centrally placed haematology lab


Bernsen, J. (1996) 'The design before the design', Danish Design Centre Magazine, no. 2.

© Archi21 Project Consortium: Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture Paris-Malaquais, Open University, University of Ljubljana, Aalborg Universitet, University of Southampton and eLanguages, Modern Languages and Linguistics, University of Southampton, 2012. Image courtesy of Ian Freimuth (Flickr).
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