03/20/2012 02:37 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

Design Briefs Advance Performance

Rising to the top of industrial design is a lifelong quest full of ambiguity and iterations. Maintaining an open perspective while staying focused on a goal can cause any aspiring design star to run in circles, wasting much of their valuable time and energy. Can a couple of hours spent composing an Inspirational Design Brief significantly improve their performance?

Shelley Takahashi and Soren Petersen followed twenty-two students in their second year of their industrial design education at California State University Long Beach, Department of Design. For decades, Cal State Long Beach has been known for its solid practical production-oriented industrial design education and its students are sought after by industry for this reason. On a mission to improve design student long-term performance, we examined how effective design briefs are for novice designers.

The most profitable opportunities and toughest nuts to crack in design are challenges with a high degree of detail and dynamic complexity so often clients will default to "copy-cat" products in order to reduce the risk of market failure. International design competitions represent an excellent opportunity to pursue breakthrough design in a semi-commercial setting and we invited students to apply the state-of the-art Inspirational Design Brief approach on an open exploratory consumer product design competition. The Inspirational Design Brief format, applies industry accepted and commonly used action oriented criteria. The comprehensive Design Quality Criteria addresses a business opportunity's Strategy, Context and Execution aspects and are linked with superior profitability.

To determine individual student performance change, we established an initial baseline using the grades the students had received in the term's earlier assignments. These projects had provided experience in improving product ergonomic and developing a new user interface of existing products. Of the participating students, 60 percent opted to write a design brief and the findings were encouraging.

As expected, we found that writing and following a design brief focused the students' thought process, increasing performance and decreasing the risk of failure. Briefs were especially important for performance when a challenge was complex and ambiguous. Not surprisingly the more mature students, the top 15 percent, were more likely to invest time in a brief and reaped the most from their investment. Their performance was 25 percent higher than that of the average students who did not select to invest in a design brief. The 20 percent poorest performing students, who opted for not using a design brief, experienced severe problems. Towards the end of the project, they still continued to have difficulties even committing to a design direction.

As with life, without a direction and a compass windy dead-end country roads are indistinguishable from freeways. Which one is right for you is a question of taste. The findings from the study of novice designers suggest that learning to plan early can provide a competitive advantage if you hope to become a star designer within your lifetime.

Special thanks to Shelley Takahashi for researching and co-writing this article.