When Creative Briefs Die, What Takes Their Place?

As designers move up the UX decision-making chain, the old planning approaches don’t work (and neither does Agile).

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Creative professionals want a seat at the table. This is what I’ve heard for over a decade now, whether I’m talking to designers, creative directors, business consultants, brand managers or product owners. We’re all clamoring for more influence on project decisions, earlier in the process. We want to help determine what gets made, not just how effectively it’s delivered.

Well guess what? We got it. Years of Design Thinking articles, TED Talks, and stories about design-driven upstarts unseating old guard companies have finally shifted perceptions. Design is now valued in the C-suite. Most people know what CDO means, even if they don’t have one yet. Senior creative professionals have unprecedented influence at the corporate level, and we’re finally getting to call some of the shots.

Now that we’ve moved up the production chain, we’re getting the raw materials instead.

It would be cliché at this point to say something about being careful what you wish for, but there’s no avoiding it. This newfound at-the-table-ness has brought a whole bouquet of unexpected consequences, chief among them the decline of the tight creative brief.

The Comfortable Straightjacket

The traditional not-at-the-table model was for designers to sit in a studio and wait for a brief to land in the inbox. The brief was a self-contained entity, with a defined target user, a category, a budget, a competitive landscape, and a desired outcome. It may have been an unfashionable straightjacket, but it was a strangely comfortable one. Satisfy the brief and you’d done your job.

Now that we’ve moved up the production chain, we’re getting the raw materials instead: obtuse challenges, slippery problems, and immortal worries. More than anything, we’re faced with questions, and a need to satisfy the people asking them.

More experienced creative consultants answer these challenges with intense collaborative kick-off sessions with the client or the internal stakeholders, to get to the heart of the problem that needs solving. If they’re smart, they get paid for this work, but often it’s something tacked on out of last-minute necessity.

How to Burn Your Budget Before You Even Start

Less seasoned teams will often try to define the brief themselves first, then solve it using an Agile approach. This may sound sensible — it works so well for coders! — but in practice it’s one of the most effective ways for a creative team to burn through time and money. Teams in this situation often rack up billable hours far exceeding the original scope.

A better approach is to define the brief first (and get paid for it), then scope the project, and avoid using Agile methods to produce new concepts and ideas. Remember that Agile has its roots in software development, and that rapid iterative cycles of building, testing and learning are a great way to solve concrete problems with technical solutions. So you can use Agile sprints to refine an existing product or service by adding features and functionality, or to streamline an existing user experience. This works especially well for in-house teams that own the end product, and when the product owner knows the challenge intimately.

The trick is to iterate in the right medium.

But if the team is iterating in SCRUMS while trying to solve a multi-touchpoint user experience that they don’t own, they can easily go through multiple iterations, adding a wealth of great ideas but getting no closer to an end solution. Unlike dedicated product teams, agencies inherently iterate at an abstract and highly changeable level. That’s what they get paid for.

So as creative teams employ Agile methods to generate new ideas and concepts, they often find that it’s too constrained and the cycles are too short. The problem is compounded if the team is part of an external agency, which might not understand user and business context deeply enough to create meaningful, plausible solutions. Agency teams attempting to generate new ideas, with occasional check-ins from the client, are doomed to burn through budgets. This is frustrating for both the creative director who wants to make great work and the business director who wants to make a profit.

What’s Agile for Experiences?

The ideas underlying Agile are brilliant: quick iteration, fast results, the ability to fail faster — and hopefully to launch something that’s already been torture-tested.

But there’s another way to do that. The trick is to iterate in the right medium: one suited to high-level abstraction, that can incorporate deep knowledge, and allows the team to quickly explore different beginning-to-end user experiences. Crucially, it also needs to be low-effort enough to allow the team to throw out the ones that don’t work, without sacrificing hundreds of hours.

This is exactly what narrative does.

The more senior you become as a creative professional, the more writing you have to do. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Narrative gives any team the fundamental structure they need to articulate an existing problem, identify the key moments and features that satisfy user needs, and map every step of the new experience without investing in a prototyping platform. With a good writer and strong strategic chops, you can create and iterate a central narrative in far less time than an Agile sprint. Words (and sometimes images) give you access to the thing you need most to invent something new or fix something that’s broken.

The Best Thing to Bring to the Table

Beyond saving heaps of money and time, narrative also offers an invaluable ally at the decision-making table.

It’s a truism among designers that you don’t show clients early prototypes, like wireframes or rough sketches, unless absolutely necessary — the cognitive dissonance created by the unfamiliar medium can easily overshadow the concept being presented. But a well-crafted story, even in written or spoken form, can go into the C-suite with just a few hours of polishing. A single sheet of A4 lets you summarise a wealth of context and strategic direction, and gives you something tangible, memorable, and (if needed) disposable to bring to that meeting with key decision makers.

It’s also a truism that the more senior you become as a creative professional, the more writing you have to do. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In the right hands, narrative (written and otherwise) is at least as powerful a creative tool as Sketch, Photoshop or a good felt-tip pen. And in this brave new world where The Table is wide open, it may be just the tool you need.