A Brief Explanation of A Design Brief

As stated in my previous post, I have just recently had the opportunity to complete my very first design brief. If this term is unfamiliar to you, well no worries! Having just started my second year of innovation diploma, I was excited to begin working on design briefs, the mysterious ‘projects’ that the older, more experienced cohort would work on, while we, the younger cohort, would complete design challenges. At the time, I thought a design brief was merely a more complex design challenge. This is not the case at all. It is real world work for students, completed by students. Essentially, it is a client coming to iD with a need and a deadline, which we (the students) then solve through various means, using our design thinking skills as well as other tools.

Design briefs are real world work for students, completed by students. Essentially, it is a client coming to iD with a need and a deadline, which we (the students) then solve through various means, using our design thinking skills as well as other tools. The clients can be anyone: from parents to huge, big name companies like the City of Sandy Springs or the CDC.

One recent example would be the outdoor classroom design brief. Our client was the four facilitators, the need/want was to increase traffic and awareness for the outdoor classroom, and the timeline was two weeks. To read the full story, click here.

Outdoor Classroom Design Brief

After a few weeks of prepping, planning, researching, constructing, and then presenting, we finally finished our first design brief of the year – and for some of us (myself included), the very first one ever. If the words “design brief” and “innovation diploma” sound like foreign words, it might be worth checking out some of my previous posts, such as the About Me page, my relaxation space design challenge reflection or my design thinking challenge explanation post. It is worth it to note, however, that a design brief is different from a design thinking challenge – see more here.

Our design brief: increase traffic and awareness for our school’s outdoor classroom (picture below).

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Our client: the four facilitators. (,, , and ).

Time limit: two weeks.

Fast forward two weeks, and we are sitting in the outdoor classroom discussing our process and showing off our work. A couple more days pass, and we see traffic and awareness increase. People sit there for lunch, use it for study hall, and we all smile proudly, thrilled we were able to accomplish such a daunting task. We reminisce on our learning, our growth in communication, interaction, planning, organizing, researching, and so much more. It has been an invaluable experience and one that has consistently shown us the impact of our work.

But it was not always like that. And this is the reflection and story about how that learning and growth transpired. This is the tale of the outdoor classroom design brief.

School started about a week ago, but no one is truly awake. Everyone longs for summer, wanting to go back to sleep, and not caring about math problems, who conquered what empire three thousand years ago, or design briefs from our energetic facilitators. So, it is no surprise that we all kinda sat around going “Well, what now?” And that attitude lasted well into the first week of the brief, even though we tried to accomplish tasks. We observed and asked questions, interviewed people, and reluctantly trudged outside to view our new pet project. But most of all, people kept asking why. And not in a good “You’re -asking-questions-and-sharing-your-insights” kind of why. It was a  “Why are we doing this? Why am I forced to participate? What is the point?” kind of why. In essence, we were trying but lacked proper motivation – internally as well as externally. After some more observation, we finally got the good sense to multi-task; after all, individual groups can accomplish more than the whole, as each member seems to be more valued to the whole. We shuffled around, getting into a cleaning crew, interview group, and research team, which had a sub-category of the branding group. We all chose our group, and I quickly joined the branding team, which ended up having three members, myself, Josh, and Kaylyn. The three of us quickly decided that we should research outdoor classrooms to discover insights. In theory, this was a good idea, but I think the three of us were stuck on the notion that we would do some light reading on the internet, design a logo using last years’ technique, (read more about that process here – part 1 & part 2), then come up with some awesome name and be done. Needless to say, it did not work like that. Instead, we had a conversation with Mr. Boden, who promptly struck down our idea, flipped our mindsets, and left us realizing how much bigger the task we set out to accomplish really is. Suddenly, over the next few days, we began to generate tons of ideas, realizing the truth of our new quest: we were not creating a logo to get people to use the space, we were changing the entire perception of the space. We were not just coming up with some fancy name; we were fighting social norms to convince people to use a valuable, underutilized area. It was like a spark: all of a sudden, people began to understand why. They started to not only care but want to complete the project to the best of their ability starting to work together more cohesively. We (i.e. the branding group) began to come up with great ideas, slogans, and ways to promote the outdoor classroom (slogans and ads in slide deck at the bottom). We tailored our ads to students and teachers alike, increasing the chance that our promotion would stick in their brain. Even though all the groups were churning out work, it was around this time that we realized our biggest problem: given the diversity of the groups, there was not a lot of intercommunication, creating a disconnect, as well as “all group meetings” without all the groups. Time passed, and soon the deadline for the project began to loom. Suddenly, we slid right into the prototyping stage, starting to realize how important it was to have a project. Our groups begin to become more fluid, adapting and changing based on new goals and new members. I suddenly became a part of a design pair, and Emmy and I started using spare whiteboards and chalkboards to write slogans and mottos, using visual text to endorse the classroom even further. As the deadline drew closer, Emmy and I joined other crews, everyone blending together to accomplish unfinished tasks. I helped a painting crew paint spare pieces of wood, turning them into hanging inspirational pieces of artwork, then ran errands for the presentation people – who were working on the presentation right up until the last minute before it was actually time to present – to not only the four facilitators but the new iD crew – the Gates cohort – as well. The first half of our presentation, showing our work and process, went pretty well. I came up, spoke for a bit about what my groups did, then turned it over to Anya and Megan. 

After we finished our slide deck (above), we then led everyone outside to the outdoor classroom for a tour and final discussion. We gathered in the circular arena, showcasing a few of our other ideas, such as the camp chairs now sprinkled around the stone steps, and the homemade lap desks, courtesy of Colton and Mitch. We then opened it up to questions and comments, from both the Gates cohort and the facilitators, our client. Fortunately, our client was impressed with our work, impressed by how fast we had managed we had managed to pull this together, the numerous ideas we generated, as well as the numerous prototypes we had created. The prototypes included the whiteboard/chalkboard quotes, posters, custom water bottles, stickers, a slide deck, and our own experiment outside with the chairs and different types of lap desks. In terms of criticism, they wished we had been able to find purpose in the experiment sooner, and wondered if any of us would continue the project.

Looking back, I find that I really enjoyed the project, even if it was not something I would normally be interested in. I was able to experience a real design brief in-house, alleviating some of the stress, and I got to interact with the new members of my cohort, people I did not know as well. Everyone learned how to work under pressure, from not only a deadline but from an enormous task as well. I learned the importance of communication, as well as how to interact with others as both an individual and a group. I was able to hone my analyzation and logical thinking skills, and better learn to generate ideas. Finally, it taught me how to tackle a design brief in the future, preparing me for real-world clients and real-world work.

In essence, remember this: Perception is based on many different things, and with the right influence and proper motivation, it can be changed.