Anatomy of a Great Creative Brief

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“Every project starts with a creative brief. But very few projects end up with exceptional results. Why?” So begins the new 25min documentary Briefly, just released online.

It’s the brainchild of producer/director Tom Bassett, who also produced the films Connecting (about the “Internet of things”) and Makers (about the maker movement). As an outgrowth of those projects, he says, Bassett wanted to examine the kernel that starts nearly all design projects: the brief.

To get some answers, Bassett sat down with some design heavies spanning various disciplines: architects Frank Gehry and David Rockwell, illustrator Maira Kalman, product designer Yves Béhar and advertising-graphic design execs John Boiler of 72andSunny and John C. Jay of Wieden + Kennedy.

briefly interviewees

The film is beautifully produced and full of smart thoughts, even though occasionally unaware that design luminaries can afford to operate according to different rules. Long, wordy, restrictive and cluelessly detailed as they may seem, creative briefs are easily hate-able. Briefly rewards watching while alternately doffing two hats, that of the creative and the client. As a creative, the film prompts you to consider how can you nurture your clients along to the point where they don’t pour needlessly effort into writing briefs. If you’re a client or brand, you might find the film instructive for different reasons: it reveals what creatives consider the true nuggets of gold in a brief.

David Rockwell defines briefs succinctly as “thought starters”. Illustrator Maira Kalman thinks of briefs in these terms: “I put the duality in the brief: a deadline, and a dream,” describing the document as both “extremely pragmatic…but also romantic: what are you going to put of yourself in this work?”

Illustration by Maira Kalman

Illustration by Maira Kalman

All the interviewees extol actual brevity, but Yves Béhar and John C. Jay ask for it explicitly. Says Béhar: “If we were to get a brief, it should actually be brief.” John Boiler of 72andSunny probably defines the creative brief best: it should be an “open statement of ambition for a brand…[and] communicate the passion and conviction of your aim.”

John Boiler during Briefly filming, from

John Boiler during Briefly filming, from

As you watch, the brief starts to seem like a kind of MacGuffin. Creating it gives client and designer an excuse – and loose parameters – to facilitate an active discussion. Even a straw-man document, or an outright provocation, could serve the brief’s function just as ably. “I don’t believe in briefs; I believe in relationships,” says Yves Béhar. “The difference between a brief and a relationship, is that briefs tend to be anonymous.” Just like any relationship, even moments of frustration can illuminate problems. When clients blurt out, “Why can’t we just do X?” Boiler contends, that goal, X, is what the creative brief should’ve stated originally but pussyfooted around.

Sketches for Jawbone by fuseproject

Sketches for Jawbone by fuseproject

The most interesting bits of the film revolve around the backstories to breakout products. For instance, fuseproject’s Jawbone arose out of a noise-canceling technology not yet product-ized. Similarly, the brief for Samsung’s GSII was remarkably blunt: “We want to be a credible number two” to the smartphone leader. Wieden + Kennedy’s creative brief for the 1996 Olympics morphed into the slogan: “Sport is war, minus the killing.” Bluntness and briefs seem to go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

Sort is war minus the killing

Frank Gehry describes his ongoing project, an Eisenhower memorial in D.C., as “painful…an endless Yom Kippur.” His beef arises from the extensive research he and his team have done about Eisenhower’s own words about himself – “a boy from Abilene, Kansas” – which adamantly didn’t square with how the client envisioned Eisenhower’s legacy. (They’ve kissed and made up, at least temporarily: A revised Gehry design was just approved.)

Can creative briefs become contractual straitjackets? Apparently so. Here the film takes a self-indulgent turn. Almost certainly Gehry’s design is more interesting than any bureaucratic consensus, but we only hear Gehry’s side of the story. Perhaps superstar creatives can dream of eliminating clients and their pesky briefs altogether, but that’s not broadly prescriptive for the design community.

Frank Gehry, video still from Briefly

Frank Gehry, video still from Briefly

Even with its occasional dubious moments, Briefly is worth watching over your next coffee break. Watch it here:


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