A brief guide to success

Taking the time to define a solid brief is in the best interests of client and consultancy alike, argues John Mathers

The brief’s the thing. It is not the sexiest aspect of the business and nothing like as much fun as actually designing, but the preparation that goes into a good brief is fundamental to getting a great creative result.

A well-thought-through, clearly expressed brief with a clearly defined goal will enable you to produce accurate, focused work. A woolly brief or one that keeps changing is a nightmare to work with. If clients don’t know exactly what they are looking for, how will they be able to judge what they end up with?

Clients and consultancies frequently blame time pressures as the main reason for inadequate briefs. But working without a formal written brief to save time is a false economy that can lead to too much reworking and readjusting of work. Ultimately, it takes longer and costs clients more, which no one wants in this economy.

A good brief is not the longest or most detailed. It is the one with clarity and focus. Good briefs leave you with a clear understanding of what everyone is trying to achieve. Bad briefs contain contradictory information. The more misleading the brief, the longer it will take to work out what really needs to be done. To produce your best work you need to understand your client’s business, commercial objectives, brands, consumers and motivations. A good brief can and should explain all that. The scale of the project will dictate the depth and complexity of the brief, but whatever the task, a written brief that includes objectives and success criteria is essential.

All briefs should include:

  • Background information – is the brand losing market share? Has the category dynamic changed? Has the market changed? What is the brand’s history and heritage? How has the brand’s design evolved over time?
  • Audience demographics and insight – we need to know who we are designing for. Pen portraits are helpful because knowing what other brands the target consumers buy can inform the early stages of concept work, and, at the later stages, you can look back and assess designs against the consumer’s existing purchases.
  • Proposition and positioning – it is vital to understand what the brand offer is and what a client wants the brand to stand for. How do they want consumers to view the product offer and what do they want their takeout to be?
  • Creative stretch – explain the degree of stretch within the brief. How far along the scale of evolution to revolution is the client willing and able to go?
  • Timelines – understanding your client’s long-term ambitions for the brand or brand portfolio is as important as knowing how quickly a new look needs to be on the shelf. It is also important to know the commercial imperatives and the retail trade’s expectations.
  • Budget – don’t be afraid to challenge the amount of money allotted to a project, particularly if the client has asked for a lot of routes across a large number of executions.
  • Sacred cows – what must and must not change: colour, logo, positioning and anything else the brand is wedded to or violently against.

Be assertive when you get a brief. Analyse it, investigate it, challenge it and debate it with your client. If it doesn’t leave you with that feeling of clarity, say so. If it doesn’t contain the above information, rework it.

We send our clients a detailed questionnaire. As a rule of thumb we suggest they spend a day researching and writing the brief. We also suggest they get key people in their organisations to read it; getting buy-in from all interested parties at the start adds value and sets the agenda for the work ahead.

Sometimes thoughtful and well-researched briefs are issued, but further investigation reveals that they are attempting to address the wrong thing. We’ve had instances of brands being included in a range redesign that just don’t sit comfortably in the portfolio where the issue is one of portfolio architecture.

Sometimes things happen because that’s the way they have always been done, so that’s the way they continue to be done, until an outsider is bold enough to challenge it. Clients often say that they want six potential routes. Why? Three or four routes allow us to concentrate on doing our very best work.

Things change. Research runs late. Commercial considerations change, the scope of the brief alters and sometimes it becomes apparent during the course of a project that other brands in the portfolio need attention. The environment changes and projects get put on hold or need to be rushed through. All good design groups live in the real world and are prepared for such eventualities. We recap at the end of each stage to make sure that we are on track, on time and on budget.

Effective design isn’t cheap, but it delivers real value. To be really effective, trust and transparency are essential, and that starts with a solid brief.

In Brief:

  • Insist on a proper brief
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge it
  • Time spent on the brief will repay itself handsomely in the design phase
  • Be bold
Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Hass November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Please let me know if there is a guidline, web publication or book regarding a proper design brief.
    Thank you.

  • Andy Penaluna November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Adrian Shaunessy’s book discusses this. As an educator I question who teaches the owner manager etc. to brief a creative? It certainly doesn’t appear to be covered well in business schools for example.

    A good brief has all of the above, but must leave space for the designers own innovative interpretation. Maybe that is the challenging aspect?

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