From Uninspiring Brief To Awesome Portfolio Project

Banner ads. Lengthy corporate brochures. Sound exciting? We’ve all been there—a project or client which on the surface, seems like the most boring assignment on the fucking planet. You want the project, and possibly your own existence, to end immediately. Now don’t get me wrong, there are times when creative assignments truly suck. But with a bit of re-thinking, most “boring” assignments can become something great.

1. Re-write the brief.

The majority of the time our clients are not masters of design, copywriting or photography. That’s our job. By commissioning an agency they have explicity stated, “I know that I can’t do this and I need to hire a professional”. What your clients do know better than you is their business. Instead of asking them what they think the creative solution should be, you should be asking them what business problem they need you need to solve.

Instead of asking them what they think the creative solution should be, you should be asking them what business problem they need you need to solve.

A lot of the time, a client brief prescribes the output (“design me a 300×250 banner ad”) and ignores the actual business problem. This why re-writing the brief is critical to create great work. A good brief frames the real business problem for the creative team to solve in the best way. Perhaps the client doesn’t actually need a banner. Instead, maybe they need a longform advertorial content campaign. Of course, there are times where the cerative output is pre-determined (perhaps a fixed media buy, etc.), but that doesn’t mean to say you can’t provided an opinion on what should be done in the future. Re-writing the brief with your strategy team to identify the real business need is the first and most important step towards great work.

2. Research the best-in-class

It doesn’t matter what the assignment is, chances are someone smarter has already done it really well. A brief for a lowly banner ad? You can still create something amazing. How? It’s not magic: Research. Research and more research.

Last year a brief came in for a series of static banner ads for a big coprorate institution. Banners and large corporate client: Not exactly the most exciting combination. Our first instinct was “A boring week awaits”. However, we dug deeper in our research. It turns out there are some pretty fucking cool banner ad creative executions, even within a corporate sector, an industry usually considered ‘dry’.

How did the client react? They loved it. They loved the fact that we came back with possibilities they didn’t even know existed in this format. From what was an original ask for static banner ads, we ended up creating some pretty fucking cool interactive content and video. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about up-selling. It is about delivering great work. You owe this to yourself and to your client.

3. Grounding every design decision in the business problem means that you can do anything

You are not a fucking artist. Design is a service industry. No matter how great the design is, if it doesn’t solve the business problem, it has failed. On the flip side, if your design solves the business problem, you can do just about anything. And actually sell it through.

4. The “Is this cool?” test

This may seem at odds with point 1 (solving the business need), but it is not. Gut check your work with the “Is this cool?” test. Is this something you would put in your book? If you don’t think so, chances are the end user will not either. No one wants to interact with something boring or that simply sucks.

Trust me, every project can be cool. In fact, clients or industries that are traditionally percieved as “boring” are where you have the most opportunity to do great work. Sorry to tell you, but brands like Nike has been doing “cool” for so long that it’s boring. A bank doing something cool; now that is different.

5. Constraints are your friend

Resources are limited, and they should be. Constraints such as budgets and timelines help to produce great work by giving the creative team a box within which to focus their efforts and a box to break out of. Unlimited possibilities often ends in self-serving solutions laden with embellishments.

Unlimited possibilities often ends in self-serving solutions laden with embellishments.

6. Extra credit

If all else fails, include an awesome idea in your presentation as ‘extra credit’ (for non-ad people, ‘extra credit’ is a bonus section of a presentation that comes after showing the assigned work). However, there are two key factors to consider for successful extra credit ideas:

  1. Even though it’s extra credit, it must still solve a real business problem: it can’t just be cool or self-serving.
  2. Your idea must be accompanied by a cost and plan to make it happen. Otherwise, it’s just creative wank and you’ve wasted yours and the clients time.

In summary

It’s easy to do great work for a killer sports or booze brand who already have great branding and sexy image assets to work with. Finding opportunities to do great projects in less-than-sexy clients or briefs is a much more admirable skill. Just make a little effort.


Edited from mindless jibber-jaber to understandable English by Nora Stout.