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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Does your project need a creative boost?

Here’s four things you can do straight away to give your project a creative boost.

  1. Write down the brief. What are you trying to do? Who are you serving?
  2. Write as many things as you can about the project in a big piece of paper. I recommend using the following three headings as prompts: Information, Questions, Ideas. Stick it on the wall near where you work.
  3. Talk through your ideas with someone. Ask them just to listen and not say anything until you are done.
  4. Try to ignore the project for a day (I bet you can’t), and then the next day, write down five new ideas that will inevitably have emerged.
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Proust, constructivism and listening to clients

This week I underlined this sentence from Proust’s Finding Time Again. 

“Even at the moments when we are the most disinterested onlookers of nature, of society, of love, or art itself, since every impression comes in two parts, half of it contained within the object, and the other half, which we alone will understand, extending into us, we are quick to disregard this latter half, which ought to be the sole object of our attention, and take notice only of the first, which being external and therefore impossible to study in any depth, will not impose any strain on us: we find it too demanding a task to try to perceive the little furrow that the sight of a hawthorn or a church has made on us.”

Proust, M. (1927). Le Temps Retrouvé (Finding Time Again) (C. Prendergast (ed.); Ian Patterson tranlation). Penguin Classics.

This sentence comes in the middle of Proust’s revelation about what his work as a writer should be: to translate his inner world to the outside. He finds much greater richness in understanding the impression that the world makes on individuals than understanding the surface, objective qualities of what is being observed.

Things I take away:

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Brief explosion – starting a creative project

My starting point for gathering inputs to a creative project is the working brief. The technique that I use with participants in my workshops is what I call the ‘brief explosion’, the first stage in the process of ‘Filling the Kalideacope’. It’s an explosion because from just a few brief words you can generate so many inputs.

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Training course – Introduction to Conceptual Design for Structural Engineers

Diagram showing a kaleidoscope that I use to represent the Kalideascope concept

This course, which I deliver at Constructivist for the Institution of Structural Engineers is my longest running conceptual design training course. It is an introductory course, which splits conceptual design up into three phases: establishing the brief, creative thinking and convergent thinking and provides simple models for understanding each of these phases.

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Working notes on feedback as a design tool

This week I ran a workshop with undergraduate students at Imperial College working in design teams at imperial. the aim was to show that it is much easier to give feedback when you a working from a common set of expectations. But this feedback approach can go much further than supporting good team dynamics – itself very important – it can be used as a tool for creative thinking and exploring new ground. Here is a summary of the ten most common points that came up during my conversations with students.

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It’s the invisible ingredients in the design dough that makes it rise

There used to be a sign outside a bakery in London that said something along the lines of, ‘it’s the invisible ingredients – love, care and attention – that make our bread taste so good. This aphorism often comes to mind when I am running sessions on how to interpret a design brief. Understanding the ingredients can really help the design rise.

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