Best way to approach a brief is to always make it better

Brief briefs don't come much shorter, or indeed more ambitious, than the one delivered in the BBC2 show Design for Life, in which 12 British students are competing for a placement with Philippe Starck.

Sue Unerman is chief strategy officer at MediaCom
Sue Unerman is chief strategy officer at MediaCom

In episode two, which is still available on the BBC iPlayer and well worth a look, the famous designer set the students the brief to design something that will be of benefit to the world, although it took them a while to interpret this from his fabulous but heavily accented three-word phrase: "Help the Earth".

It's fair to say the initial response to this brief was one of increasing panic. Candidates wandered aimlessly around Paris, trying their best to find a way to impress Starck.

The answers to the brief ranged from a good and potentially practical alternative sanitary protection product to a plan for living on the ocean and using the land to produce food - this candidate was on the Eurostar back to England fairly fast.
Legendary creative director Dave Trott dissects Starck's approach in his excellent blog,
Trott claims watching the show is like watching any advertising course he's ever participated in.

Every creative director teaching students or conducting an interview wants to be surprised and impressed. So, the advice to the candidates from Trott was to interpret the brief as: "Beat the other students".

That wouldn't be my advice, because second-guessing the competition and worrying about scoring points against your competitors is often a waste of time and energy.

If you followed the same logic, you could rephrase every brief that goes out for new business to the three words: "Beat the competition". But that isn't enough to help guide the best answer or get you to a winning solution.

If you had to simplify a new business brief into three words, a more useful re-expression would be "Make it better" as, statutory pitches aside, most have an element of restlessness or desire to change within them somewhere.

However long or short the brief, the advice is the same. Listen, ask relevant questions, listen to the answers and work out how the response can make things better against your own interpretation of the problem. Be ambitious if you like. Be narrow in perspective - but always make things better.

The best way to approach any brief is to listen hard and then ask yourself how you would add to the brief, challenge it - then use that as a framework for the response.

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