Friday, 3 January 2014

The Brief.

The technocratic, managerial educational culture we have to endure reflects our technocratic, managerial political culture. There is a growing feeling of distrust for a society that constantly seeks to find out more about us. The desire for statistical information is supposed to be for our own good. Students’ complaints are supposed to highlight weaknesses in their educational provision, whilst a focus group reports back that immigration is an issue that needs tackling if the Government is to ensure they remain popular in the polls. Personnel departments become human resource departments and make decisions based on what is legal rather than what is right and bureaucracy stultifies the individual and takes away the power to make personal choices.  
The longer this situation endures the less individual decision-making based on a moral framework will be acceptable. Commodification, commercialisation and the profit motive appear to have replaced moral judgment, individual responsibility and a sense of duty. When I started teaching I was aware that what I was doing was embarking on a difficult moral path, one that would involve my full being. It was my duty to educate, “If it moves, teach it,” as Patrick Oliver often used to say. The job of an educator was to help draw out that which lies within. My job was clearly to develop the potential of anyone who wanted to be educated and the resources at my disposal were anything that I could come up with that would do the job. I had to therefore be constantly inventive and responsive to individual needs. However at some point during the 1980s/90s there was a sea shift. It was decided that there ought to be national standards and that these standards could be facilitated by clarifying what it was that students were meant to learn. The idea of learning outcomes was therefore introduced and these were embedded into what we now know as the brief structure. The educational process became predictable and totally controlled, as if life was something totally separate. Nature, its serendipity and its unpredictability had been ironed out of the equation. What was meant to alleviate the problems of bad teaching became a rod for all backs, in particular those who worked intuitively and in response to each changing moment. The art college took these things on board and the brief now lies at the centre of our whole educational process. Perhaps it’s time to therefore have a much closer look at how this works.

However it’s also worth reminding any reader that regardless of the way they are presented, facts are always grounded in a story, which communicates a viewpoint, which is attached to a set of values.  This understanding necessitates certain questions:  Whose story is this?  Who benefits from this story?  Who loses in the story? In the case of the brief it was the student who was supposed to benefit and so of course was the design profession as a whole, because it was believed at the time that the brief lay central to the design business. Therefore if students were used to responding to a brief they would be better able to respond to briefs as professional designers. In reality I would suggest that the only people who actually benefit from this situation are the statistics people, the quality controllers and those who’s vested interests are getting people to conform to certain ways of doing things.  

My initial thoughts on looking at the brief are twofold. The first is that this is a series of boxes and boxes are designed to contain things, to hold them in place and that one of the things we are supposed to be doing is encouraging students to ‘think outside of the box. The second is that in terms of the text hierarchy by far the most important headline is MODULE ASSESSMENT BRIEF. This brief’s purpose is therefore to enable you to be assessed on your ability to learn from this particular module. Everything is clearly defined and presented as if there are clear boundaries between each element.
You are also given information about the numerical value of this particular brief and its outcomes in terms of weightings and how many credits the module as a whole is worth. Each outcome has a code and the dates are to be identified as to when everything takes place. All is clearly measurable and contained within a determined timeframe. What is clear is that everything is fixed and nailed down. The day of the briefing is fixed and the deadline decided upon. Failure to meet the deadline will result in a penalty of 5 marks being deducted for each day a student is late handing in the work.
I’ve worked as both a fine artist and as a designer. I’ve never had to work within these types of constraints. Usually my experience has been that a brief is negotiated between the designer and a client, sometimes a client manager being the person who will continue the ongoing negotiations between the designer and the client. The client is often unsure as to what they actually want, usually coming to the designer because they have seen something else similar to what they think they want. The process being one of gradual awareness that either the client is very fixed as to what they want and the designer is gradually getting a clearer and clearer picture of what that is, or the designer is able to ‘educate’ the client as to what is really needed. In both cases it is ‘people skills’ that will facilitate this process, these being far more important than ‘design skills’.

In order to try and be a little more objective about these things I decided to see what the design industry itself felt about briefs. This is verbatim from the industry guidelines on the best brief design:

“…it’s worth noting that while many examples of briefing formats were considered and their contents used as valuable inputs to this guide, it was decided by the participating trade bodies not to produce a standard briefing template for the industry in the shape of a standard pre-printed form.
There were three main reasons for this. First, because each individual client company has its own culture and ‘way of doing things around here’ and we did not think it appropriate to try and impose a ‘one size fits all’ format on them.
Second, there are many who believe that the pre-printed form, with predetermined allocation of space to particular elements of the brief, can lead to a form-filling mentality that militates against real thinking about the issues.
Third, while it’s strongly recommended that there should be both a written and verbal brief for every agency assignment, it’s clear that a leaflet, a website, a tactical press ad, an event or a TV commercial will all have very different emphases and information content. Therefore the completion of the individual sections of the client briefs for them will take up widely varying numbers of words, rendering a standard template impractical.
Thus we hope that clients structure their briefs by using them as a framework rather than a straightjacket.
In summary, the client brief should define the two ends of a bridge: “Where are we now”, and “Where do we want to be?”

Briefs such as the ones referred to above, were for the design and advertising industry, industries that believe that each brief should be designed according to the situation. The College of Art is using a fixed brief structure for all its courses in an effort to standardise the educational process. This has been done in the name of maintaining quality standards. Standards have to be measured against something, so points have to be fixed, the brief has become one of those fixed points and therefore is a powerful fulcrum that can be used to lever into the educational process certain consistencies that become expectations. These very expectations of course are what I would argue are the brief’s fundamental and deepest problem. If students come to read the brief as a crutch or loadstone that can be returned to in order to understand something, they will be involved in some sort of Pavlovian training, each time they see a brief it will initiate a particular response, but as has been pointed out the design industry doesn’t standardise briefs and some areas of art practice don’t use briefs at all. As with the dog that responds to the red light turning on, what happens if the signal changes? We are supposed to be educating not training.

Years ago I worked for a design agency. When jobs came in they were allocated to different designers and the allocation was based on experience and skill set. Every week we had a team meeting when all the jobs were evaluated as to progress and timelines. Some jobs took longer than others, some could be solved very quickly and were problem free, others had hidden problems that only came to light during the process and timescales were readjusted to reflect these various situations. The idea that briefs should be nailed down to specific days for completion and actual briefing days decided upon months in advance seems totally unrealistic and again unlike the practices as developed in ‘real-world’ situations.  What was far more important was understanding why a job was taking longer than expected and communicating this to all the stakeholders. This meant that you had to develop a high degree of self awareness, you had to be realistic as to your own limitations and working skill sets and you would have to understand when and how to involve others in the process in order to ensure jobs were completed within a reasonable timeframe.

As a fine artist I’m very aware that working processes must involve the unexpected and that once confronted it will need to be sensitively responded to. The unknown element being central to the need for constant surprise and innovation, throwing a spanner into the works is something that you need to do occasionally in order to stop yourself becoming predictable. This is an open-ended process and although there are deadlines such as exhibition dates and submission deadlines, these simply become moments for reflection, not divisions between different types of activity. I’m always working with materials and I’m always struggling with concepts, but sometimes the materials investigation is the most important element and at other times I need to undertake conceptual research. Each activity needs a proper amount of time devoted to it and when it all works together seamlessly that is wonderful but I cant predict when that will be and for how long.

When I was a teenager I used to have a recurring dream. The whole Earth was being built over, fields were covered in concrete as far as the eye could see; nature was being destroyed. Most of the dream consisted of my wondering around looking for cracks in the concrete, cracks that allowed tiny seedlings to break through and I spent my time trying to force these cracks open, but having to do this whilst hiding from the unseen oppressive powers that had decided to eliminate nature and to flatten out all argument with what was seen as progress. Every time I hear the phrase, “Once we have the systems in place, we will be able to…” I feel as if I’m trapped in that old dream. Some will accuse me of still being a Romantic and that I have never really escaped my adolescence, but I know what I feel and I feel as if the activity I love and have devoted most of my working life to has been forced into a straightjacket. The only reason for this must be that someone somewhere believes that it not only needs controlling but that it is also in some way ‘mad’ or ‘deranged’. This need for control is something society has had to confront at different times and in different guises, sometimes it’s simply a fear of ‘the other’, at other times a desire for conformity, at its worst it can lead to fascism. We live in a complex society and in order to deal with that various methods have been designed to ensure that we are not subjected to the disintegration of law and order due to the conflicting desires of those within it. However there has to be a balance and older systems of morality and duty are distrusted or felt to be outmoded, perhaps what I yearn for is some sort of more spiritual answer to the problem, a return to a set of deeper meanings that can be used as a guide to decision making. I still feel that art and its practice can be used to help find images that give us insight into what is the age-old problem of making sense of our existence. This is something artists have done from time immemorial, whether it was by making images on cave walls or the vision of music as a spiritual power, each society having to find an expression suited to its particular circumstances. At the core of the problem of the fine art brief is that it diverts attention away from far more important underlying issues, the main ones being why do artists work and what should they be doing?

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