Why Design Briefs Are Crucial to a Professional Creative Process
A complete guide to the document that makes designers and their clients get along well
Having worked in advertising for the past 18 years, I came to realise that the best thing about the industry is the people you can work with. Writers, art directors, UX and UI designers with brilliant creative brains, exceptional talents, different mindsets.
They thrived when they had clear guidance and enough freedom to come up with ideas and solutions. And they suffered whenever the lack of guidance, contradictory instructions, and too-tight deadlines made their lives hell.
I watched from the sidelines for years, not knowing how to help. When I was starting out, I had a hard time consolidating client needs with creative outputs. However, as the years went by, I realised it all boils down to crafting the perfect brief, starting from a viable client brief, working it into a generic creative brief, and specifying it further to design briefs, UX briefs, even typography briefs.
Nothing can replace a proper and well-written brief.
No amount of emails, phone calls, or personal meetings can substitute for the creative brief.
You can’t start any work, you can’t estimate resources, and you can’t promise to keep deadlines if the basic information to start from is missing.
The creative brief is the alpha and omega of any creative job if taken seriously enough. The main problem is that it is underrated, both by clients and in some cases by the designers as well. The design industry has become so large and dilated that anyone can call themselves designers, and anyone can charge anything. Thus the real craft, which requires a certain process, is put on a back burner and is getting replaced by $5 logos and $50 full corporate identities. And while I am truly pro-competition and completely understand that not every company or person has access to the same kind of budget, it still is detrimental to the industry as a whole.
The design brief is a specialised document that should be received before the actual work starts. But it’s usually missing, which is usually considered OK. That’s wrong.
What Is a Brief?
The term brief comes from military jargon, where briefing is defined as “the act of giving in advance specific instructions or information.” It has a specific structure, is short and concise, contains all the necessary information but not more, and consists of a given task and result to achieve but gives enough liberty to adapt to the situation (a mission brief).
When briefing a troop to take over a hostile position, a general might give directions about how and what factors to consider but will not say put your right foot in front of your left, repeat that for 100 meters, turn right, etc. The military briefing gives a task only, leaving room for individual decisions. Similarly, the creative briefing is not a step-by-step user manual that describes the creative process as such. It’s not a description of the desired outcome either. A creative brief is a framework that can help the creative process by providing enough guidance to stay on track and allowing enough freedom for creativity.
Why Do We Need Briefs in the Creative Process?
We need creative briefs and creative briefing if we have a problem that we want someone else to solve. It is that simple. We write briefs when we have a problem to solve—meaning the creative output will be a solution to an already-existing issue. And we only write briefs if someone else does the creative execution. Any other case is not a brief, but a memo.
“When solving a problem or creating a new solution, one should strive to use only those resources that exist in the product or system itself or in its immediate vicinity.” The Closed World Principle—Dr. Roni Horowitz
What Is the Design Brief?
A design brief is a written document outlining a design project’s aims, objectives, and milestones. It a crucial part of the design process, as it helps develop trust and understanding between the client and the designer. It is as important as a contract and serves as an essential point of reference for both parties. It ensures that important design questions are considered and discussed before the designer starts work.
Depending on the scope of work and the experts involved, the brief can consist of a multitude of elements, each detailing and describing a specific part of the scope.
But to keep it short and simple, there are five main elements that cannot be left out:
1. Project description
A short description of what we need to do: What do we know about the task? What is expected? A new design? A new idea? An existing site to redesign? What problem do we need to solve with it? This has to be one sentence at maximum.
2. Project scope
Here’s where you need to provide a bit more detail, depending on the project’s size. What is expected, how many pages, what functionalities and features it will have. You’ll need more details for a new corporate identity than for a one-page website. The quote will be based mainly on this section. It’s crucial to be as specific as possible.
Also, in the digital universe, clients believe that a designer will be able to solve every problem, from UI through UX and ending up at developing a full site and solving SEO rankings too, not to mention all the social media presence. It is of high importance to spell out very early on what is and is not included in the scope.
More often than not, your clients will have no idea about their objectives and how a design job can influence them. There are three different types of objectives.
- Business objective: a measurable target given by the client, e.g. a KPI of increasing sales, market share, penetration, reducing churn by X%, etc.
- Marketing objective: everything related to marketing that helps the client achieve the business objective. Activity that helps move customers up the customer engagement scale: awareness—consideration—preference—trial—purchase—loyalty—advocacy.
- Communication objective: The objective that we need to act on! What is the expected outcome, what consumer behaviour or what change in behaviour is expected from the designed item? It has to be phrased in a tangible form, e.g. 1500 people to register, 5000 extra likes, coupon download, product trial, reviews written, usage of the app, incoming leads, share.
While the business and marketing objectives are important to know, it is crucial to understand and make our clients understand that UI and UX have their limitations and have absolutely no influence on poor distribution or bad pricing. It can be an immense help, but it’s not the holy grail.
4. Target audience
Who’s this product for? Who’s going to use it, when and why? It has to be as specific as possible, as designers usually work with personas in mind, especially when it comes to UX, where the user flow is mostly defined by the user persona and their specific stage in the customer journey.
5. The overall style and look
This is where it gets subjective. The brief needs to include some personal preferences: some likes and dislikes, if possible, to offer guidance. Give a few examples of what sort of look and feel you like, including the relevant links. This will save time and money, making the number of iterations smaller.
(6. Budget and timing)
Some would argue about including a budget in a brief, but defining a ballpark at least is crucial. It might mean that the designer or agency won’t even take the project, or will think about an alternative lower-cost solution if the client cannot afford to pay for their services. Defining the timing and the expected milestones are again to avoid those points of conflict that clear communication can prevent. It can also influence the budget; in any urgent case, pulling in extra resources can be possible but not cheap.
In my experience, the really big issue is twofold:
1. Clients aren’t educated enough to provide the necessary information that can facilitate a project’s smooth flow.
2. Designers start work without proper instructions and briefs, confirming the client’s belief that work can start before written guidelines.
If you are a client, a good design brief will save you time spent with pointless emails, calls, and meetings. It will also help you get more precise and comparable quotes from different designers and agencies.
If you are a designer, if you insist on having a brief to start any job, you will get the concise vision and expectations from the client that can keep you motivated about. Your time and efforts are expensive. Fishing for some kind of information from a potential client might be pointless. It is wise to prioritise clients who already have some vision and are willing to do their part of the work.
A good brief should be concise, clear and comprehensive. If the vision is clear enough, it’s not more than two pages.
So that the final output will be the best possible, we need to encourage and educate both clients and designers to work on better briefs to make our lives easier and to focus on what’s important.