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Why understanding outcomes is the key to challenging briefs

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In this blog, Will Arnold explains how understanding a client’s desired outcomes can help you to challenge the brief and meet Net Zero.

We are about to kick off the fourth cohort of our popular course Net Zero Structural Design later this month. In this course, Oli Broadbent (ex-Structural Engineer, regenerative researcher, facilitator and creative design trainer) and I try to impart everything we understand about designing structures for Net Zero emissions.

As you’d expect, the IStructE’s Hierarchy of Net Zero Design pictured above (adapted from PAS 2080 and explored further in this article) is a central aspect of the course, and something that we regularly return to as we discuss big-picture sustainability concepts, debate low carbon construction materials, and practice techniques that enable the attendees to arrive at low-impact creations that satisfy their clients’ needs.

Outputs – our comfort zone

In case you missed it, “that satisfy their client’s needs” are the key words above, and this is an important topic of discussion in the course. In particular, this leads us to explore the difference between outcomes and outputs.

The briefs that we are used to being given are communicated using outputs. This is true of both the ‘briefs’ that come in the form of a set of formal instructions from a client, and the informal ‘briefs’ that occur when our line managers ask us to do something on a project. Examples of output-based briefs include:

  • A cycle bridge over a road connecting the park to the shops
  • A 300m2 extension to an existing office
  • A butterfly viewing platform in a forest

The Institution’s famous Exam is also written in such terms – and we pride ourselves on being able to enable such outputs to exist within seven hours.

However, the Hierarchy of Net Zero Design highlights that the most impactful approach to using less stuff (and thus reducing emissions) is to build nothing, or build less. This is why we gave a 2022 Structural Award to Buro Happold for building nothing.

As Victoria Martin discusses in this excellent presentation, if we want to have the biggest impact on our projects, we need to challenge the brief.

Realising that the brief is imperfect

We are used to assuming that a brief (and particularly ‘a Brief’) has been written by an omniscient being who fully understands what they want. But as Steve Jobs famously highlighted, the client only knows what they think they want – and the job of designers is to figure out what they’re really looking for.

“Some people say give the customers what they want, but that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, "If I'd ask customers what they wanted, they would've told me a faster horse." People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
Steve Jobs

Chris Wise terms this as The Engineer’s Design Paradox , and paraphrases Jobs’s sentiment as:

“You don't know what you want until you know what you can have”
the Engineer’s Design Paradox

This is why we must learn to challenge the brief. We must present the client with options for things that they didn’t know they could have. These options should enable us to build nothing or build less. And these options need to be aligned with the client’s needs.

To do all of this, we need to understand the client’s desired outcomes.

Using outcomes to challenge the brief

Let’s reframe my earlier examples of briefs in terms of their outcomes:

  • A safe route for people to cycle from the park to the shops
  • Allowing more people to work at an existing office
  • Enabling people to view the butterflies in the forest

Now we can start to think creatively about solutions, as these outcomes start to prompt multiple questions that need answering. Why do the cyclists have to be above the road to be safe? What else already links the park to the shops? How is the current office space utilised? Do people need to be elevated off the ground to view butterflies?

Thinking in terms of outcomes helps us to improve our understanding of competition briefs, our discussions about structural options, and our responses to the institution’s Exam. It unlocks creative thinking and curious questioning – and enables us to give our clients something unexpectedly delightful.

Is it about time that you started thinking in terms of outcomes?


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