I've always been a big fan of collage. Robert Rauschenberg's work is a
vivid reminder of the '70s, when a new phase of this art form took
hold. He and many other fine art practitioners of collage have always
been fascinating to me; their processes, as well as their end products.
I love the depth and hand-built texture of collage. The diversity of
materials, combined with the juxtaposition of images, give me a sense
of space that goes beyond a lot of two-dimensional art.
With the best collage, the artist takes the viewer on a trip through a
given subject matter, or creates an entire world related to the
particular idea they want to convey. At its best, I feel transported to
that subject and an emotional bond is established. The emotion comes
from the story the artist tells--a story usually told without a single
I think that fewer words could be used in the practice of design, or
for that matter, any creative endeavor that is visually oriented. The
best design is verbally indescribable. You quite literally have to see
it, touch it and feel it, in order to appreciate or even understand it.
No amount of words can sell a great design idea.
I'll never forget one of our more illustrious client's reactions to
the long-winded strategic setup that a former colleague would start in
on, when we presented creative work. "SHOW ME THE FUCKING WORK!" our
client yelled, after seeing the first three or four slides filled with
words, along with the inevitable pie chart. The last thing he wanted
was to be told, in effect, how much smarter we were than he was. After
all, he knew his brand, his audience, and his business situation a hell
of a lot better than we did. Unfortunately, my colleague could never
really take the hint and would continue to rattle on, trying to
establish his brilliant contribution to the creative solution, every
time we presented work. Needless to say, we were not long for this
These days, many years later, those words ('SMTFW!') still come to
mind every time I think we're getting too long-winded in explaining why
we did what we're about to show you we did. After all, it's basic human
nature to grow impatient about seeing The Big Idea. Get on with it.
It's a picture, not a poem.
Years ago, we--namely Dan Olson, one of our creative directors--came
up with an idea of what we now refer to as our "visual brief." It is
quite literally a collage that paints a picture of the world we'd like
to design in. After we've agreed with the client on the written brief
that outlines all the goals and parameters, we start bringing it to
life, visually. Please note, this is not a so called "mood board,"
where planners tear out pictures from People magazine to try
to evoke an emotional understanding of the target audience. It's rather
a piece of art, made up of the scrap we designers collect, shoot, draw
and edit, along with our clients, to make sure of two things: 1) We're
on the same page before we start designing and 2) we've created a
filter through which design decisions on type, layout, color,
photo/illustration style, etc., can be considered and evaluated.
I suppose I could save quite a few more words by simply showing you
a couple examples. First, the final visual brief for First Reserve
beer, beer that was made from a recipe from the Civil War era, in the
Southeast U.S., when molasses replaced hops that were in short supply.
This got us started and we've continued this creative step on every
brand design project since.
Second, is a more recent visual brief for Herradura Tequila that was
created from imagery we collected on an immersion trip to the tequila
region of central Mexico.
The real advantage of developing a visual brief with our clients is
that it genuinely involves them deeply in our creative process at the
beginning of it, the place where the idea is developed. It's a way for
us to interpret the words they've provided--which are always
important--and making sure that what we think words like "innovation"
and "passion" look like for them, are re-interpreted as visual design
principles like "modern" and "bold."
The words and the pictures, together, push us all through levels of
interpretation that can bog down the process and kill great creative
ideas. Pairing words with pictures helps all involved to understand and
agree that, "we mean this (picture), when we say this (word)." Once
we're in agreement, we're then allowed to do what we're getting paid to
do--design. The collaboration upfront eliminates the element of
surprise when we eventually present our design work. Surprise is often
the kiss of death, no matter how brilliant we think our solution might
This process works for any creative endeavor. We've employed visual
briefs as a family when building or redecorating, as well as when we've
planned family trips. It gets everyone's ideas out on the table in
visual form, so that you can actually begin to see and feel the end
result. It also builds excitement and positive anticipation for what's
to come. Interior designers and architects have always done it. It
takes the guesswork out of collaboration--the key to the right design
1. Robert Rauschenberg
2. First Reserve visual brief & final packaging
3. Herradura visual brief & final packaging