Writing a Project Rationale: A guide for students

Tips on how to write the who, what, where and why for your design solution.

When designers present their work, they don’t just put it in front of the client and wait for a reaction; they provide a rationale that explains how the design solution answers the brief. The rationale can take different forms, from a simple verbal explanation to an interactive on-screen presentation that leads the client through the thinking and the development process to the solution.

A well-written design rationale can be invaluable in explaining how your design solution satisfies the brief. Choices that you have made, even those not immediately obvious to the client, can be explained, helping to show the clarity of your thinking, the benefits of your solution, and ultimately to help sell your idea.

For students, written rationales are often required as project deliverables, but they can also be useful for organizing your thoughts before classroom presentations or putting together case histories of projects for print or online portfolios. When writing your rationale it’s always helpful to have access to some visual documentation of your design process – from your initial sketches onwards – especially for case histories. Keep those sketchbooks!

Some things to keep in mind when writing your rationale are:

  1. At the top of the page, at the very minimum state the name of the client and the name of the project. It’s sometimes also helpful to provide a short summary of the brief.
  2. Keep your writing to the point – one page is usually long enough. 
  3. Start by explaining the overall concept of your design – what is it, who is it for (audience) and in what context will it be used? Then go into details, giving reasons for the design decisions that you’ve made.
  4. Remember – it’s a rationale (requiring the reasons or logic behind your decisions), not a description. Don’t just say what you’ve done – explain why you’ve done it, referring back to the creative brief, the audience, your research, and the information that is to be communicated.
  5. Don’t admit to arbitrary decision-making or say that you used a particular colour/font/technique just because you like it. Every choice you’ve made should be relevant to the brief. What effect does the colour/font/technique have? What does it communicate? If it’s not relevant, don’t mention it.
  6. Keep your reasoning honest. It’s easy to spot convoluted after-the-fact rationalizations that sometimes stretch believability.
  7. Don’t focus on your process or on approaches you rejected unless they provide an explanation for the final work – and don’t mention what you would have done if you’d had two more weeks to work on it. It’s time to present your work, and you should do so with as much confidence as possible.
  8. Don’t pass judgment on your own work, whether positive or negative. It’s necessary to say why and how it satisfies the brief, but nobody wants to read: “this solution is amazing” (we’ll make up our own minds, thanks) or: “this isn’t my best work” (this will not get you far in the real world).
  9. Aim for clarity and readability in the design and typography. Use headings (and sub-headings if necessary) and split your writing into paragraphs. Don’t over-design the page!
  10. This should go without saying, but use good grammar and spell check before you print. It can be helpful to enable dynamic spelling in InDesign (InDesign > Preferences > Spelling). And don’t forget the “e” on the end of the word “rationale”!

A useful guide for writing the rationales for submissions for DesCan Scholarships

Carol Aitken MPub CDP, Co-Coordinator IDEA Program, Capilano University, North Vancouver

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