Keeping it Brief

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In the first part of two brilliant insights, Nigel Tresise, Director and Co-founder at align, reveals the importance of a great brief in creating a great workspace.

When the contractor rolls up the dust-sheets and tip-toes off site, there’s a brief moment when a new workspace scheme gleams with all the appeal of unreal perfection: untested, full of promise and ready for its close-up. But it’s only as the new inhabitants move in, when lover-or-baby photos flicker over desktops and coffee cups pile up in the sink, that the great looking surface gets put to the test and we all discover if a scheme has the depth, robustness and tenacity to match up to the sheen.

How do staff navigate the space? Are there any bottlenecks in the flow? Is the storage provision up to scratch? What do the employees think of it? What impression does the space give to visitors? How does the environment express the client’s brand? Does it add to and advance the business mission? Do the toilets flush properly? So many questions to be answered, large and small – and, if every stage of the process has been managed to perfection, the answers should all be glowingly positive.

Of course, clients and designers alike would love to be able to pin down the magic formula that ensures good theory ends up married to great practice. In our experience, chances are that the best place to establish it is right at the beginning of a project – with the brief. Get it right and the incoming business should feel re-born, via the new workspace, into a new and exciting sense of its future. Get it wrong and everyone will soon find out exactly what was assumed in all those spaces between the lines. And, even if the design team did exactly what the client asked for, to the very letter, there may still be a sense of anti-climax, because the creative team failed to add to or amplify the sense of the possible.

As workspace designers, the onus is on us to investigate thoroughly what our clients’ true vision is right from the outset and to create the necessary platform of trust to help realise that ambition – and more. The information we need to achieve this is always a balance between the analytical and the operational, aimed at finding out what drives the success of the client’s business and what the current and future mission is, as well as considering functional needs and likely growth scenarios. Questions to ask at the beginning might include ‘how agile do you want to be?’ and ‘what do your staff need to do their jobs well?’ Most clients are rightly aware these days of the value of their staff as a commodity, beyond the products or services the business actually trades in.

A good brief needs to nail the core mechanism of a business, as well as its more intangible elements: the emotional values of the workplace culture, for example, and the messages the new environment needs to give out, both to staff internally and externally to clients, suppliers and partners.

A workshop – or series of workshops – is often the best way to go about finding out all you need to know, but some clients are initially averse to the time and budgetary implications of this step. It’s the design team’s job to convince clients of the value of this.

The next priority is to ensure that the brief is comprehensive enough. Some briefs are initially very prosaic, with the workspace only considered as an envelope for a certain number of desks and chairs.

A design team needs to unlock all the values that are hidden – because those values are always there – by asking the right questions about office culture. In some industries these questions might prove surprising. ‘How would you like your new workspace to feel?’ can sound like a strange enquiry for a stockbroker or accountancy firm.

Designers also need to remember that certain clients do not come armed with a particularly strong visual frame of reference, simply because they don’t work in a visual world day-to-day.

Understanding a client’s starting position is vital and sometimes, only by providing high-quality CGIs from the outset, with colours that are properly indicative of the final appearance, can certain clients really judge if the design is exactly what they want.