Sod the greenwash, just stick to the brief

When it comes to designing stuff better, it all starts with the right brief. Companies need to first question their sense of purpose then apply value to it, argues Mark Shayler

As I said in my last blog, if you want a better answer then you need to ask a better question. This sounds like something from the University of the Bleeding Obvious, but very few companies set their designers effective briefs.

We produce some of the world’s best design brains, but then don’t give them the freedom to create. I have worked with product designers for years and they’re creative to the core. But they also stick to the brief. Don’t get me wrong – some of them question the brief, but others treat it like a gospel.

Some of the design briefs that I’ve seen have been astonishing. One brief for a car heater (for a major car manufacturer) simply stated that the unit must be less than certain size and less than a certain cost. That’s it.

No heat output criteria, no controllability criteria, no expected life criteria, no aesthetic guidelines. Nothing. Strangely when the car was launched the heater was crap, looked awful and was unreliable. How does this happen? We let accountants control design.

Even worse, we let marketing control design and set briefs. This is a true story from one of the UK’s largest design companies. They had a brief for an international deodorant brand. The brief said “increase sales by 20%”. That was it.

What did they do, I hear you think. Did they increase brand awareness through an invigorating and faintly sexist advertising campaign? No. Did they refresh the product to give it a new lease of life? No. Did they partner with a retailer to offer a promotion? Nope.

They increased the size of the hole in the spray-head so that it sprayed 20% more product. As we are creatures of habit we carried on administering the same number of length of sprays. Hey presto. We emptied our cans 20% quicker and therefore needed to buy 20% more in a year.

How is this good? It isn’t. The problem started right at the beginning. The brief said “increase sales by 20%”. Imagine if that brief said “increase profitability by 20%”. Imagine if the design agency’s response was to reduce the hole size by 20%.

Reducing the amount sprayed, but realistically not reducing performance (we all tend to over spray). Then the can could be 20% smaller for the same number of applications and price. Bingo – 20% increase in profit.

So it starts with the brief. We need to be clear what the desired outcome is and create the brief around that. This may result in the brief being very tight, it may result in the brief being very loose. But at least it will result in the right brief.

It all goes wrong when we forget to apply purpose to what we do. I ask my clients what their purpose is. I ask this a lot. I hate it when they say “to make profit”. I’m not a communist by the way, and I don’t think profit is a dirty word. But a company should have a purpose outside of a desire to make a profit.

Create and sell great products or services and profit will follow you. If the purpose is right then everything else should follow. Applying environmental thinking to a business or product with a poor purpose is tantamount to trying to polish a turd. We all know you can’t do this – even those that insist you can roll one in glitter.

Its time we focused on creating businesses with a purpose, businesses that make great things well, that make profits, that delight consumers and that don’t need to apply a layer of greenwash to make things look better.

If you want a better answer (and my goodness we need one), then we need to ask a better question. Designers can do that if we turn their switch from ‘auto’ to ‘manual’.

Mark Shayler is managing director of Tickety Boo

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