Author: Ricardo Sosa, PhD
A couple of hours to a few days
Studio learning is a “signature pedagogy” of contemporary design education with origins in fine arts schools. These days there is a wide range of flavours and practices that characterise design studios, from basic foundation courses to student-led and capstone projects with industry. A critical component of all studio experiences is the “design brief” conveying to students the information and instructions at the starting point of a studio project. In fact, there are limited sources available to inform design educators how to prepare design briefs that work well. Great design briefs are aligned with the learning outcomes in the syllabus, they set the stage for students to showcase their skills, they offer dimensions for individual and team assessment, and in addition to that, they are attractive, engaging, and memorable (Heller and Talarico 2009).
This recipe is aimed at design educators to support their creative and informed process of (re)defining their studio briefs in a range of situations, including remote learning in these times of physical distancing and lockdowns. The recipe is structured along twelve lenses to prepare design briefs: Stage, Interpretation, Authenticity, Learning, Affectivity, Orientation, Prescription, Information, Representation, Outcomes, Assessment, and Execution -Figure 1.
- Studio learning outcomes
- Information about students including skills and interests
- Assessment criteria and rubrics
- First-hand design experience
- External partnership (optional)
- Start by analysing your previous briefs, and if possible, the briefs of others. You can form your own collection of briefs used in education, or from industry or design competitions. Do analyse what makes these briefs interesting or appropriate, and avoid directly copying a brief just because you liked it or it worked well before. Instead, develop an analytical eye for briefs and try to extract principles that make briefs more or less appropriate for a given learning scenario.
- Use the twelve lenses (Figure 1) to examine existing briefs. Not all dimensions will be relevant for every brief, so work with those that feel more applicable. These 12 lenses are also used to tweak or transform a brief, and to create a new brief from scratch. Use the following questions to analyse and synthesise a brief through each lens:
- Stage: What are the aspects of this brief that make it more/less restricted? Is this brief staged to prioritise creative and imaginative thinking, or a specific set of tools or skills? Does the brief have precedent solutions that will influence how the students’ outcomes are assessed? What aspects of the brief are students allowed/encouraged to change? Is the brief staged in a single or multiple phases?
- Interpretation: How does this brief allow/restrict interpretability of its intended problem formulation, constraints, requirements, and outcomes? What level of skills, knowledge and experience does this brief require? What is the degree of vagueness and ambiguity conveyed by this brief?
- Authenticity: How realistic does this brief need to be for its target audience and the learning outcomes of this course? What aspects of this brief are likely to be meaningful and engage students? What are the expectations set by this brief in terms of resources, time, and student interest? Is this brief relevant today and for this generation of students, or how well has it aged? Is the brief connected to current events?
- Learning: What are the instructional qualities of this brief? What aspects of this brief support student-led learning and which ones require more directed instruction? Where does this brief place the emphasis between the design process and the design outcome? How does the brief accommodate for formative and summative assessment, peer feedback and design crit sessions including with external stakeholders?
- Affective: What aspects of this brief make it interesting, challenging, thought-provoking? What emotions is this brief likely to trigger in students? Is it a culturally appropriate brief? May privacy or other sensitive issues merit ethics review?
- Orientation: How is this brief likely to shape the relationships in the learning environment? Does the brief promote collaboration or competition between individual learners and/or teams? How is this brief shaping what students can do outside the classroom? Do they need to conduct field visits, engage with external experts, is this brief safe for students?
- Prescription: What aspects of this brief are nomological and what aspects are negotiable? To what extent does the brief set the student to success or failure? What are the variations expected or encouraged across individual or team outcomes in the classroom? Does the brief make a clear distinction between the means and the ends of this project? May the brief prime students or bias their responses inadvertently?
- Information: How much and what information does the brief contain? How much and what information are students expected to research from primary and from secondary sources? Will required or optional information be made available in stages? May the learning outcomes allow for instructors to make changes to the brief mid-way through the semester?
- Representation: What formats are used to present the brief to students? Oral, written, visual, physical samples, etc? How does the format of the brief affect its qualities as viewed through the other lenses? Does the brief need to be refreshed?
- Outcomes: What are the design outcomes and the learning outcomes required by this brief? Are these two types of deliverables well aligned, or are there intentional or unintentional discrepancies?
- Assessment: How are the criteria of success conveyed in the brief? Is it clear to students how the assessment may incorporate effort and results? How does the brief allow for responses that meet and even exceed expectations?
- Execution dependency: How original is the brief? What aspects may make this brief deceptive or misleading, such as “Trojan horse briefs” as noted by Heller & Talarico 2009, p. 13? Where does this brief put the burden in the design process: briefs that require more initial conceptual exploration vs. briefs that require more careful crafting and polished final outcomes.
- Continually iterate and test different versions of a brief by sharing them with colleagues in academia and industry, former students, or friends. Learn from their feedback and be open to change your briefs when necessary. Test your briefs yourself by using them to design possible solutions and to anticipate problems and opportunities.
- As you feel more confident and narrow down a few options, recruit a small group of volunteers to conduct a “dry-run” where you can test your briefs by noticing the design ideas created. It may be the case that changes in some of the twelve characteristics noted here do not have a noticeable impact, but do expect small changes to have potentially major effects on how students understand, accept, interpret, engage with, and respond to a design brief in studio.
- When you are ready to deploy the brief in a studio project, be mindful of how it works the first few times. Gather feedback from students specifically about the brief, including during a project and in post-mortem sessions with all or a segment of the class. Take notes and register new possibilities for the next time you use this brief.
- When grading student work in studio, pay attention to how the brief may have influenced the outcomes created by students. Conduct post-moderation with colleagues and, if student evaluations are available, look for issues that may be directly related to and resolvable through how the brief is designed.
- Share your briefs. Include your colleagues in reflection sessions, share ideas and lessons learned with other studio instructors, particularly junior instructors and teaching assistants. Document your briefs and write blog posts, make your briefs and your experience using briefs publicly available. Inform your analysis and reflections with the vast literature from learning sciences and learning philosophy.
Notes on ingredients
Here are a few briefs available online to get you started:
- The Marshmallow Challenge is a 18-minute activity with a highly constrained brief as presented by Tom Wujec: https://www.tomwujec.com/marshmallowchallenge
- The Dyson Award has a minimal brief: https://www.jamesdysonaward.org/
- The Braun Prize looks for conceptual designs: https://www.braunprize.org/
- The Index project breaks the conventional design categories and focuses on impact: https://theindexproject.org/award
- A portal of student design competitions: https://studentcompetitions.com/
Some design schools (unfortunately not enough to my knowledge) use student-led briefs in studio projects. In that case, the transitioning from earlier studios needs to include students in the reflection process about what makes a great brief, so that by the time they are in charge of their own briefs, they can analyse and prepare good quality briefs.
Recipes are meant to have an end product, but this recipe invites you to keep evolving your briefs in a continuous journey of testing new ideas and sharing with the wider community. A major challenge in studio pedagogies is always assessment, a separate recipe will look at assessments including self and peer, as well as individual vs group contributions in a team project.
Heller, S., & Talarico, L. (2009). Design School Confidential: Extraordinary class projects from international design schools. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers.
Shulman, L. S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus, 134(3), 52-59.
Sosa Medina, R. (2019, 2019/11/21/). Qualities of Design Briefs for Studio Learning. In N. A. G. Z. Börekçi, D. Ö. Koçyıldırım, F. Korkut, & D. Jones (Chair), Symposium conducted at the meeting of the International Conference for Design Education Researchers, Ankara. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.21606/learnxdesign.2019.09005