Chris Sherwin puts sustainability at the heart of design briefs

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In a new bi-monthly feature, Chris Sherwin will be discussing some of the big issues and challenges in sustainable design – with the first of these tackling sustainability and the design brief
Anyone working in design understands the sanctity of the design brief. It’s the rules to work to and the set of client requirements to check your designs against. You can exceed the brief, but certainly never under deliver. To get this right from the outset, one of Seymourpowell’s client’s even runs detailed ‘briefing the brief’ sessions at the start of every project.

So, if the brief represents the all-powerful blueprint for a successful project, it seems logical to get sustainability properly represented within design briefs, as an essential step to making it more systematic.

Sustainability in brief

Though relatively new to Seymourpowell, a couple of things have immediately struck me about the design briefs I’ve been exposed to. The good news is that clients are now including sustainability in design briefs. That’s a really encouraging step that shows increasing business commitment to the issues, demonstrating that corporate targets are filtering down effectively to the product-level.

The less-good news is that sustainability is not in all briefs, which it definitely needs to be. There are also stories of clients dropping sustainability goals, previously written into the brief, half way through a project, when faced with a hard business decision of paying more for a more sustainable option.

That’s hard to condone, but it’s unhelpful to finger wag at clients or designers on this as, in the end, it’s about where we go from here. This then begs the question of what a design consultancy is to do about all this. Sustainability is a non-negotiable imperative requiring us to consider the environmental and social impacts of everything we design from now onwards. At the same time, design provides a service in which we have no direct control over clients’ decisions, so cannot strictly dictate what clients put in the brief.

Four tips for sustainability and design briefs

What you do is get going on this and recognise that sustainability is a journey, which is exactly how we are tackling it at Seymourpowell. Whilst it’s early days, here are four tips for integrating sustainability into design briefs based on our experiences and plans:

1. Demystify sustainability – Just writing the word ‘sustainability’ into design briefs probably won’t cut it, as the term is not detailed enough to work to when designing. Clients need to be clear on what they mean by sustainability in design briefs. Is it less waste, lower carbon, renewable material use, designing for the poor or disabled? Also try to be specific about targets, like a 20 per cent weight reduction in packaging. This will give you a far clearer set of sustainability requirements in your design process.


That’s hard to condone, but it’s unhelpful to finger wag at clients or designers on this as, in the end, it’s about where we go from here

2. Join up the sustainability dots – Linked to the above, make sure your clients align any sustainable design requirements to their corporate sustainability goals in the brief. They often have waste, manufacturing or carbon targets for their business, and these need to be reflected in their design and their product work too. Joining up your clients corporate/product story will be more convincing to external stakeholders too.

3. Define value from sustainability – CO2 reductions; lower toxicity; less waste; renewable materials; can be often abstract to clients, not linked to traditional business drivers. But less energy consumption, better health and safety, less landfill tax, lower costs or a more secure material supply – now that’s business speak! Sustainability goals often transfer directly into business and monetary goals i.e. using less can cost less; ecology = economy, which certainly motivates clients if you do it.

4. Sustainability through stealth – A final approach is to ‘do sustainability and don’t tell’. This effectively means not getting formal agreement with clients via the design brief, but designing to a ‘virtual’ set of sustainability requirements anyway. Obviously it’s smart to focus on the business benefits identified in 3., but clients may be thankful for you over delivering afterwards. Slightly risky admittedly, but worth considering if all else fails.

In truth, I don’t think we, or the broader industry, will get sustainability into every design brief overnight; it’s a longer-term goal. But it is the sort of systematic step that is crucial for the design community to ‘up-its-game’ on sustainability, to match some of the progressive work businesses are doing at the moment. In the end though, this may take a bit of design leadership.

Clients come to designers to ‘add value’, to bring different, external perspectives, to challenge their thinking, to make them better through and beyond the design briefs they write. Why not on sustainability?

Joining up the sustainablitiy dots

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