Lesson # 8: Design Briefs

Objectives: By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe how design briefs can be effectively used and misused in Technology Education, noting their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Compose an appropriate design brief for Technology Education students.
  • Plan instruction in Technology Education centered on a design brief.

Instructions: Please read through this page. Some of the highlighted areas are activated just by holding your mouse cursor over them for a while. Others are external hyperlinks. When you are done with this page, please complete the assignment at the end, and attach it to an email message to the instructor.

Designer BriefsDesigner Briefs? No, design briefs are not designer briefs. The guy at the right is wearing designer briefs, and ugly ones at that. Design briefs are concise descriptions of a needed design task. For example, if you wish to remodel your home to accommodate a growing family, then you are mentally forming a statement of a needed design task: "Redesign the current home so that ..."

Why Use Design Briefs? If you want your students to engage in creative problem solving activities, you may wish to use design briefs as an aid to provide structure. They let you clearly craft a design problem. However, because the teacher selects the problem, students do not get practice in looking for, finding, and defining problems on their own.

Industrial Design Briefs: In industry, design briefs come in many forms. Many are simple design problem statements, but others include a host of parameters . For example, in redesigning a house, it may not be possible to build an addition if the current house already has the maximum footprint allowed by zoning laws.

When is a Design Brief not a Design Brief? Technology teachers have increasingly used design briefs, because the movement to teach technology students to design technological artifacts has been growing. Some teachers are so sold on the practice of using design briefs, that they use them for every lesson, even when it is inappropriate. A true design brief must outline some design problem. A teacher might appropriately use a design brief to have students design a new flashlight, for example. But it would be inappropriate to create a worksheet for students where they solve problems dealing with Ohm's Law, and to call that a design brief.

Activity: Which of these task statements is appropriate to include as the main task of a design brief in secondary school Technology Education? Opinions may vary, but you should decide whether each of the following is appropriate for a technology education design brief. Then hold your mouse cursor over each one to read the instructor's opinion.

Draw a new floorplan of your house so that it has wheelchair access.

Build the wooden stool on page 153 of your text book.

Determine which of the samples of metals is the best electrical conductor.

Build your own appearance model for a wrist-watch / Internet access.

Come up with a plan for your community to maximize recycling of all recyclable materials.

Design and build a throwing knife.

Write a song about how the telephone was invented.

Visit 5 Internet sites that explain how products are designed.

The Format(s) of Design Briefs: There are many formats that may be used for design briefs. All of them should include a clear statement of the design task, and a description of parameters. For technology education students, other information is particularly helpful. See what Drs. John Ritz and Walter Deal of Old Dominion University have written about the format of design briefs in technology education. Pay special attention to the names of each section of the design brief, and to the wording of the challenge statement.

Examples of Design Briefs: Look at the design brief on wind vehicles following the format described above. Compare it to Get Off the Deserted Island, a design brief for elementary school students. Finally, look at a few of the design briefs tackled by technology students in Hermosa Beach, California.

Too Much or Too Little Structure? castle.jpg (7460 bytes)One of the trickiest parts in writing design briefs, and in using them with students, is determining just the right amount of structure. If you give too much structure, you can stifle creativity and inappropriately limit students' options. There are three ways that unwanted structure is too often included in design and problem solving activities. These involve the challenge statement, the materials available, and previous examples.

For example, consider a teacher who uses an "Egg Drop" activity. Consider the following challenge statements:

1. Build a parachute to keep an egg from breaking when it is dropped from 20' onto a concrete floor.

2. Design and build a cushioning device to keep a raw egg from breaking when dropped from 20' onto a concrete floor.

3. A raw egg will be dropped from 20' onto a concrete floor. Design a way to prevent it from breaking.

The first statement more narrowly limits the activity than the second statement, and the second more narrowly limits it than the third. For example, students solving the third statement might try to design a hot air balloon, and actually raise the egg if they were tackling the second statement.

Materials also provide structure. A teacher who only supplies string and plastic squares may get little more than 20 parachutes. How creative is that? So in order to craft a powerful design problem, it is best if the teacher can visualize at least five completely different approaches to solving the problem, and the supplies enough materials so that all of these could be tried.

Finally, by showing students an example of the problem solution, a teacher may find that many students copy the essence of the example, even if they vary minor elements. To get around this problem, you can either refuse to supply an example, or you can provide one or more examples, but then declare them illegal.

Using Design Briefs with Students:

desk.jpg (4414 bytes)Grouping: Although design briefs can be assigned as individual work for students, they are especially well-suited for small-group cooperative learning. With small groups of two or three, the synergy among students can lead each group member to greater heights of creativity.

Introduction and Lesson Planning: Students should be introduced to the format of a design brief. Therefore, a lesson plan should be used to enable you to plan your introduction, the execution of the design brief activity, other activities in the class, and closure to the lesson. Unfortunately, some teachers attempt to use a design brief as a lesson plan. It should be obvious that the plan for a lesson is very different from a lesson using the setting of a design problem.

Timing: Design briefs are usually short, and their execution is usually quick. Work on a design brief often lasts no more than two days, but may be as quick as 2 minutes. Where the curriculum is flexible, some teachers have successfully used a single design brief that spans an entire semester. This is especially useful if the students are working on a national technological competition.

What Work Should Students Submit? There are different approaches as to what would be submitted by students. Usually, teachers ask students to submit a model of their solution, and to verbally describe to their fellow students the design and development process they followed. Previous sketches are usually used to illustrate this process.

Evaluating Student Learning: Failure is good. So is success. Design and problem solving are processes that often encounter failures on the road to success. Unfortunately, the limitations of a typical classroom do not always permit students the time to turn failures into successes. It is therefore critical that teachers appreciate the value of a trial-and-error approach. So while students should aim for success and should be rewarded for success, students should also be rewarded for creativity, resourcefulness, and for pursuing a solution. Other criteria may well be used by a teacher (e.g., aesthetics, cost, utility, ergonomics.) Evaluating design activities is more problematic if a teacher expects each student to learn the same content by the same method; some teachers find the use of a checklist helpful. Instead, a more flexible approach is suggested.

Assignment: Your assignment is to write an original design brief to accompany the topic you selected in Lesson 7. Upload the design brief (in html format) to your web site, and send the instructor an Email message containing the URL. The subject of the message should be "Lesson 8 Assignment". Before you begin, please read through the following tips, using them as a checklist as you compose and upload your design brief:

  • Make sure your topic is clearly appropriate to technology education.walk.jpg (4548 bytes)
  • Be sure the topic asks students to come up with their own, creative designs.
  • Write the design brief for the reading and interest level of your selected group of students.
  • Indicate the grade, class, school, and your name on the design brief.
  • Include a catchy title.
  • Set the stage in a Background or Context area.
  • Make sure your Problem Statement or Challenge is very clear and concise. If you expect them to draw, build, model, test, or make, then use those action verbs.
  • Do not give them a complete, step-by-step procedure. Let them move through their own design processes at their own rates.
  • Include other sections of the design brief at your discretion.
  • Use good graphic layout. Try to fit the entire design brief on a single page, without clutter. Use eye-catching graphics.
  • Proofread your work. Make sure there are no errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, or content.
  • Have a friend read your design brief, without any explanation from you. Ask the friend their impressions, and what solutions they might try.
  • Upload your work.
  • Visit your uploaded work to make sure it appears as you intend it to.
  • Send the instructor an Email.

All information is subject to change without notification.
© Jim Flowers
Department of Technology, Ball State University