What makes a bad brief? Oh, let us count the ways. Actually, let architects Frank Gehry and David Rockwell, industrial designer Yves Béhar, illustrator and author Maira Kalman, creative executive John Boiler, and marketing executive John C. Jay count the ways. That’s the creative pool Tom Bassett, CEO of brand and design strategy firm Bassett & Partners, tapped for “Briefly,” his new short doc (26 min) about the many-headed beast known as the brief. Clients, take note.
It’s only too easy to describe a bad brief. Among other things, they’re restrictive, prescriptive, and too long. But what makes a good brief? And what can those on both sides of the table do to start off on the right foot, or head in the right direction once a project is already underway?
It’s almost impossible to write a perfect brief the first time around. There are some exceptions, of course, like the one Boiler received from Samsung for the Galaxy S4: “We want to be a reliable #2 for the smartphone leader.” This simple statement meets most of the requirements for a perfect brief as outlined in the doc. It’s inspirational, conveys the passion and ambition of the client, and gives you a deeper sense of where the client wants to go.
Every brief will change over time, of course, so it should leave plenty of room for the designer (or filmmaker, marketing team, brand strategist, etc.) to run with it. As Kalman puts it, “I want a deadline and a dream.”
For Yves Béhar, it’s not even about the brief. “I don’t believe in briefs,” he says. “I believe in relationships.” That sentiment was echoed by nearly every other subject Bassett interviewed. Instead of starting with a defined target and a clear sense of how to get there, start with a conversation. Build the designer/client relationship first by discussing what excites you about the project and worry about specifics later. So many good ideas come out of an open conversation about the idea that you’ll probably end up writing the brief together after those initial talks.
But what about the times when a client delivers a brief before you have a chance to get to know one another? “When you’re a student the brief is God,” Rockwell says. “But I’ve learned that it’s our job to challenge it.” Younger designers will no doubt feel pressured to accept the client’s terms, no questions asked, but “one of the responsibilities of creative people is to reject the brief if it doesn’t feel right or inspiring,” says Jay. “Cut the marketing bullshit and just get to the truth.”