Sol LeWitt’s Principle A, and the design brief

LeWitt Point8“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art”.

When Sol LeWitt wrote these words in Artforum in 1967, as part of his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, he was accused by many of being a lunatic. As evidence, here are his instructions, shown above, for placing the 8th point on a wall, in the work entitled “The location of 100 random specific points”, at the MASS MoCA show referred to in my previous post.

“The eighth point is located halfway between the two points where an arc with its center at the first point and with a radius equal to the distance between the first and the seventh points would cross a line from the upper right corner to a point halfway between the midpoint of the bottom side and the lower right corner.” Yikes!

These instructions are simple, unequivocal and predictive, much like a well-crafted design brief  .  .  .  right?

Well maybe not. Yet how many of us have worked with instructions from a traditional design brief that include elements like this: make it more contemporary, add copy supporting the following benefits, we have equity in the existing blue color, but we need to create a color-coding scheme for the line, the logo should not be made smaller, but can be simplified, and we should retain the serif typography, we must show a photo of the product, our consumer is  .  .  .  you get my point.

LeWitt’s Principle A, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art” suggests that his instructions set in motion a process that creates a piece of his work. Much like the role of a traditional design brief. But in his writings LeWitt claims that the outcome of his work is merely the result the process that leads to it. And the work is rigidly dictated by this process, whatever the “appearance” of the outcome.

The fundamental difference, between Sol LeWitt’s work and ours in consumer product design is that we do care about “appearance”. No one wins awards, or retains new clients, or builds market share, for simply crafting a perfect brief. The outcome is the only thing that matters, not the process.

Perhaps the problem lies in the definition. And there is beginning to be a recognition that we may have to redefine the purpose of the traditional design brief.

Peter Phillips hints at one reason for this change. In the outline for a DMI seminar he has been running for some time called, “Creating the Perfect Design Brief”, he poses a fundamental question. Should a design brief really be a ‘creative brief’?

I would argue no, and will be talking more about this in my discussion of Sol LeWitt’s next principal.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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