When Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s characters meet for the first time at Milford Station, they have no idea how their relationship might develop. In David Lean’s romantic film the Brief Encounter of the title leads to an intense relationship, with an outcome that neither of them could have imagined.

As tempting as it might seem to allow chance encounters and opportunities to dictate how our work should end up, in the real world not having a clear plan can lead to frustrations and misunderstandings. It is all to easy to assume you have understood what the other person is expecting only to discover that your expectations were poles apart.

A clear, simple project brief ought to be agreed at an early stage in any project but I’m often amazed at how often clients are reluctant to spend time creating and agreeing a brief. I imagine that they are impatient to get on with the work and don’t necessarily see the value in taking the time at the outset to explore what the end result should be. I have had clients suggest that I write my own brief, which is a tempting option, but doesn’t really bring out the client’s expectations or set out the standard of work to be achieved.

The best analogy I have come up with for creating a brief is that of a recipe. Let me explain.

The Recipe = Final Result– if the recipe states that you are making a 20cm round chocolate cake with a butter cream icing, and especially if it has a photograph, then you have a good idea of what you are trying to achieve. Your brief might be for a report summarising a particular topic or to develop an idea and this is much harder to define so the brief may be to complete a set number of hours work and then review progress. You also need to agree a final format, such as double sided colour or a specific digital format.

Temperature = Budget – with creativity a tight budget can still achieve a good result, but if you have no idea of your client’s maximum budget there could be some awkward moments if their dream project costs twice their budget.

Cooking time = Timescale– Realistic time-scales can be hard to pin down, but they need to be discussed and agreed. There is no point attempting to make an elaborate chocolate torte when you only have time to make muffins.

Ingredients = components of the project– this could be the site or a piece of work you are being appointed to complete. It will also include the information that the client can provide you with, such as plan, reports and photographs.

The Method = your professional skill – this is the area that should not be tightly dictated in the brief, and where my recipe analogy isn’t quite so apt. Exactly how you achieve the result is up to you and your way of working. Unlike a chocolate cake, where the ingredients usually have to be put together in a very specific way, it is up to you to decide how you produce the work you have been appointed to do. If your client wants to dictate your working method that may be a warning sign that they don’t value your skills. There may be a variety of ways of completing the project and it may be useful to discuss the options with your client, especially if they have had experience of similar work.

With a clear, simple brief that states exactly what the client wants to achieve and the standard that the work should meet the project should run more smoothly.   However, the project brief shouldn’t be so rigid that you are unable to adapt to your own Brief Encounter!

Further information about appointing a Chartered Landscape Architect, including defining a brief, can be found here

And for the highly suggestible amongst you here is a chocolate cake recipe for you to try!