Thinking inside the box

While the suits continue to organise the world, designers will keep trying to change it – but creative discipline must be maintained

In his recent article on client/ design consultancy relations (Design Business, DW 10 June) Jim Surguy proposes a client oath, a list of ten promises.

Number four: ‘I promise to keep my cool when the consultancy shows me work that is “imaginative”, but completely off-brief, as I know creative freedom is important’.

If Surguy himself lives by this creed then he has great self-control. I would go ballistic. Creative freedom is an intoxicating concept: it suggests total irresponsibility. Designers are encouraged to make ‘creative leaps’ – but surely not all over the place. A long jumper has to hit the board and land in the sand. Even brainstorming, that apparently wildest of creativity exercises, requires the constraint of rules and the presence of a person in charge.

Creative freedom is not a form of anarchy. It is a freedom of the imagination acting within limits and being inspired by them. And that is true not simply of the applied arts of design and advertising, but of the pure arts.

Discipline is not just a business necessity, an administrative necessity, but a creative necessity. It should be regarded not as a prison, but as a stimulus, as a limitation, of course, but not a handicap. American poet Robert Frost was asked why he never wrote in ‘free verse’. ‘Writing poetry without rhyme’, he replied, ‘is like playing tennis with the net down.’ What rhyme or the sonnet form is to the poet, the frame to the painter, the two-dimensional screen to the film director… the brief should be to the designer whose task is not to succumb to limitations but to exploit them.

The brief is not an optional extra, a formality which can be paid lip service or ignored, but an essential part of the creative process. ‘The creative brief is the single most important piece of paper in the building,’ says ad agency Lowe Lintas in its Creative Principles, under the sub-head ‘Great Solutions need Great Problems’.

Great problems are not easy to articulate. A brief has to get a lot into a little space (brief means brief): essential background, justification for any claim, target audience, target response. The emphasis must be not on what is put in, but on what is taken out of the communication. The more insightful the brief, therefore, the more useful to the creative team.

To ignore such a brief is perverse – and an expensive waste of time. To produce ‘imaginative’ work off-brief is to provide a solution to the wrong problem. Why should creatives do this?

If a consultancy disagrees with the brief then it should discuss its reservations with the client before it begins working. It could even rewrite the brief. Some ad agencies’ procedures allow for two stages, turning the client brief into a creative brief, a more focused version for the creative team and one which the client approves.

Admittedly, creatives and suits inhabit different worlds. Creatives want to change the world: suits want to organise it. But both – the sensible ones at least – recognise the need to work together and appreciate the contribution of the other.

Paul Rand defined the designer as a professional who tempers the instinct of the artist with the functional requirements of the advertiser. Charles Hiatt, an art critic and author, wrote in 1895 of the disciplines imposed on the poster artist. ‘His first business is not to achieve a decoration, but to call the attention of the man in the street to the merits of an article… the closest limits are set to his invention. It is not for him to do what he will, but rather to do what he must.’

The best solutions are those which bend no rule, ignore no constraint. ‘To the ingenious designer,’ said Hiatt, ‘there is a certain fascination in the strictures of these limits. The complexity of the problem always lures him, and gives him the appetite for experiment.’ Almost a century later, poster artist Savignac declared, ‘I love the constraints. I love the difficulty.’

The professional designer’s relationship with the problem is not adversarial. The problem is not an enemy. Milt Glaser teaches young designers to make love to the problem. If the problem is well defined it will, with love, yield the solution.

Surguy’s article was titled ‘Clients would do better if they play by the rules’. Change the first word to ‘creatives’ and I agree entirely.

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