When we evaluate the work of architects and other designers, we often treat it as if the design was created in a vacuum. It's easy to forget that the vast majority of designs emerge from a collaboration between the designer and their client, and when it comes to the design's success the input of the client can often be as important as the work of the designer. This creative relationship can be a difficult one to navigate, yet it is usually held together by a single document: the brief.
Released today, this half-hour documentary by director Tom Bassett entitled Briefly takes a long hard look at the brief, with architects Frank Gehry and David Rockwell, industrial designer Yves Béhar, illustrator and author Maira Kalman, marketing executive John C Jay and creative executive John Boiler all pitching in their experience with creative briefs, and recounting stories where, for better or for worse, the brief had a major effect on their work.
More on the documentary after the break
The six designers were specially selected for their experience in their respective fields, having "consistently created exceptional work over a long period of time," as Bassett puts it. "I felt it was important that we captured the POV of people who had not been defined by a one-off, but by a body of outstanding work that was created over a career," He tells me.
Throughout the course of the film, one thing becomes abundantly clear: for these six designers the brief should be short (in one case to the point of non-existence). "The more concise and the sharper the point of view is as to what is the problem, the better the work will be," says John C Jay. "The fact that the word is called 'brief' is interesting, because briefs can often be very long," complains David Rockwell. "I don't believe in briefs," says Yves Béhar, adding "if we were to get a brief, the shorter the better."
In place of the rigidity of a long, prescriptive brief, each of the documentary's subjects prefers flexibility. For example, Boiler says that "It's a great starting point, and after that the brief keeps changing," and Jay says "you have to be given a lot of runway - a lot of runway so you can take off." This flexibility is enabled by engaging the client in a conversation about their goals, and getting to the heart of what they are trying to achieve with their project. Where Béhar says he does not believe in briefs, he says that he does believe in relationships, and as Gehry confirms, "the relationship with the client can be pretty exciting."
Bassett believes that this focus on relationships is related to how designers think, as conversations reward their curiosity in a way that restrictions can't. "By telling them what and how, it takes creative tools off the table for them," he says. "But when you tell them why, they get to use all of the creative tools at their disposal." This rapacious curiosity can be seen in the tremendous amounts of research that these designers do: the documentary shows John C Jay's filing cabinets dedicated to research, and Bassett told me in almost astonished tones how Gehry, in the midst of gaining approval for the Eisenhower Memorial, can recall almost any detail of Eisenhower's life.
The fact that six different designers across such a wide range of design disciplines all take the same approach to the creative brief reveals something significant about the evolving nature of creative disciplines. Bassett tells me that in recent years, "the walls that separate creative fields from one another are crumbling," with designers taking on commissions at a range of scales and in a variety of media. This is most clear with the younger generation of radically multi-disciplinary designers such as Yves Béhar, however Frank Gehry - at 85 the oldest of the six designers featured on Briefly - shows us that this interdisciplinary approach has always been characteristic of the avant-garde, with his inspiration often coming from the art world and his work enabled by his tech offshoot, Gehry Technologies.
Ultimately, Briefly is not really about creative briefs, even though it holds important lessons for potential clients who might write them. It is instead about the qualities of great designers; inquisitive personalities and wide-ranging expertise rule the day. And the job of the designer is to use these qualities to make others view the world in the same way - as Maira Kalman says, to "allow yourself to be aware of what's wonderful," and to teach others to do the same.