The Designer’s Paradox – the key to unlocking the brief

Oliver Broadbent miming weighing up different factors to illustrate the concept of the Designer's Paradox

For me the Designer’s Paradox is a key concept in helping people understand what the process of design is. The term was coined by my colleague at Think Up Ed McCann.

The Designer’s Paradox states that the client doesn’t know what they want until they know what they can have

Ed McCann – see Think Up (2018). Conceptual Design for Structural Engineers (online) – notes and resources. Available here [Accessed: January 2021].

In this post I’ll explain why I think this observation is so useful and how we can use it.

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How do you know if your idea is any good?

I regularly ask this question on my ‘How to Have Better Ideas’ workshops (the sequel to ‘How to Have Ideas’). It’s a short question that triggers a wide range of answers. But the one I am looking for is this:

‘A good idea is one that meets the brief’

My aim is marrying up the brief and the idea. I want to emphasise that the two should match. If the idea doesn’t meet the brief, then we have three consequences:

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The email that knocks out creative surplus

You are in a state of flow. The next action flows from the previous. You are in the moment. Then boom, in comes an email that sets off a chain reaction of anxiety and worry. At least that’s what just happened to me. Your creative surplus – time and attention – gets burned on managing your personal response to that email. You are back to zero. What do you do next?

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Merely create something today instead of worrying

Merely create something today - an invitation not to worry and focus instead on regular practice.

When then there’s too much going on to do your creative work then merely create something. I picked up this term ‘merely’ concept from Seth Godin in this interview with Tim Ferris.

Sometimes not doing something takes up more effort than quickly doing it. As Godin explains, there’s a voice that says what we might produce might not be good enough. We spend time and direct our attention towards worrying about not being able to do something good.

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Creative surplus and how to get some

Creative surplus is what you invest in order to create new ideas. Like operating surplus – or profit – it is what is left over when an organisation or individual’s basic operating needs are met, which is available to invest in growth of the next project. Rather than pounds and resources, creative surplus is the mental space and energy available to you to think creatively. Unlike profit, I see that creative surplus is something that most organisations spend little time thinking about.

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