Fifteen years ago I co-wrote a book on briefing for better design. Recently I have been writing advocacy for one government that reiterates the same concept.
Briefing in many ways is a process of ‘thinking through design’ – both using design as a process for solving problems and establishing a coherence behind a design. It is concerned with creating a dialogue between those for whom a project has significance, particularly the users and owners but also perhaps other community interests, and those who have responsibility for designing and managing it. Participation is key, but the process of briefing should be carefully managed.
In the introduction to Managing the Brief for Better Design we wrote: “In a rapidly changing world, perhaps we no longer have the luxury to start with a white sheet of paper for each project and painstakingly build up the brief. If, as Louis Kahn [American architect 1901-1974] suggested, we only have the brief when the building is completed, why can we not begin with proposing a built prototype, evaluate its shortcomings and adapt the model to the specific requirements? Like ‘reverse engineering’ in the automotive industry. This process might be termed ‘reverse briefing’. The process would begin with a form, and through dialogue, testing, evaluating and adjusting, arrive at a statement of requirements.”
The point behind only knowing the brief when the building has been completed is that the decisions made throughout the process refine to ever greater detail the end product. While one may start with the notion that the building will be a high school following a particular kind of pedagogy, and indeed an idea of the types of spaces there need to be, the precise configuration of the areas and their interrelationships, furniture, orientation and so on, the decisions are tested and refined over the course of the project.
Who you involve in what decisions begs the question about those aspects of the requirements, or the brief, if you prefer, that have already been decided, whether because they have worked well in the past, or for another reason such as legislation or government guidelines for funding. Here consultation is as much about explaining decisions as it is about listening. Sometimes I think it is forgotten that consultation is a two way process of communication.
The buildings and spaces that we use and inhabit are more than just three dimensional objects defined as a list of rooms. They exist and function through time mediating and providing settings for human experience be it living, working, learning, recreation or playing. Our ability as humans to function individually or together is constrained or enabled by our environment. The design thinking behind that environment is crucial. And listening and communication must be key to the success.
Managing the Brief for Better Design, by Alastair Blyth and John Worthington first published by Routledge in 2001 and was followed by a second edition in 2010.
An Italian version was published in 2007 and edited by Carlotta Fontana under the title Il progetto e il committente. La pratica del briefing per la gestione del process progettuale, Sistemi Editoriali, 2007