​How to write the perfect design brief

Colourful Design Strategy’s Emily Penny on how clients can write the perfect design brief and how designers can make sense of them. 

Chloe Robertson

Source: Chloe Robertson

A creative agency gets all kinds of enquiries, from the formal tender document that resembles a tax return to a phone call that starts with “I think I need some help.” Having run my own consultancy and spent years in business development at other design agencies too, I’m used to being first in line to see any new briefs. I’ve seen lots. And it’s my job to make sense of them and respond.

On first sight of a brief, an agency wants to get to grips with the design problem and the kind of brainpower and deliverables needed. They want to get a feel for the overall scale of the task and a sense of the kind of journey it will entail. They need to determine their fit and enthusiasm for the job, and all of this will help them to gauge how to respond.

The brief should engage the creative team in the challenge and get their brains whirring, but at the same time clearly lay out the requirements so that the job can be priced. As with any communication, you want your audience to understand and connect with the issues, so there’s an element of storytelling at play.

Here are a few thoughts on how best to do it:

Talk it through

First of all, there is no substitute for a face-to-face briefing. A client’s body language, tone and anecdotes all communicate volumes about the real issues and insights over and above any written document. You’re aiming to be creative partners, and the commissioning process is as much about the chemistry as it is about the fees, so for both sides it’s worth laying the foundations of this relationship as soon as possible.

Write it down

Yes, you do have to write it down. Even if you’ve talked it through, a written brief is essential. It might sound obvious and easy, but I know it’s not. Many clients avoiding putting pen to paper, I would guess in a bid to save time. But of course it doesn’t save anything in the long run. Agencies will write their own brief if it’s absent, but it’s never the same. A brief provides a level playing field for competitive tenders, and clarity for all parties going forward, not only for the agency team but for the broader client team too.

The good news is that a brief doesn’t have to be long. It’s much more important to be relevant and precise. Depending on the job, an email with a couple of bullet points might even be enough. A brief can always be revised and amended, but it’s better to start with something tangible. After all, it’s essentially the basis of a contract.

There are three parts to a brief: the context, the problem, and the deliverables. If you can describe the headlines to each of those out loud as if you’re telling a friend, you’ll have the overall thrust of the brief right there, so channel this focus into your written document. If you can’t commit to those three things in writing, it could signal that bigger decisions need to be resolved first.

Cover the context

The diligent will put huge amounts of detail into this section; a full history of the company, an audit of all the competitors, and a numerous appendices of customer research. The important thing is to make the information relevant to the project and appropriate in its detail. Work towards a digestible summary, which might include:

  • The story so far: your product, the background, the strategy going forwards
  • Your competitors: who’s doing what and how it’s relevant right now
  • Learnings: past successes or failures and what you’ve learnt from these
  • The people: who is the decision-maker, who is managing the project, and who needs to be involved in the journey

Dramatise the problem

This is the really important bit. Ultimately everything hinges on your definition of your objectives. What’s the problem you’re looking to fix? What’s the opportunity? It’s well worth asking yourself exactly what you’re expecting the project to achieve, and how you’ll know if it’s been successful. Without this, you’re in danger of simply getting a nice smart design that might not achieve anything of value for your business.

Be enthusiastic. This is where you express your ambition. Convey how important it is in the big picture to the business. Be honest about how you’re currently failing, and who’s doing it well. If you already know the best way to get there, share your insights and cite some benchmarks.

  • What is the project aiming to change: awareness, perception, behaviour?
  • Is there a defined direction of travel, from X to Y?
  • Who is really your target market and what’s the key thing you know about them?
  • Complete this sentence: “The big issue is…X”
  • What are your thoughts so far on how design might help?

Detail the deliverables

Finally, you’ll need to be clear about exactly what you are asking from the agency. Do you need copywriting? Do you need photography as part of the project? What are the technical or practical constraints? The agency will need some way of quantifying the task in order to supply a cost for it and compete against other proposals. The precise scope can, and in fact most cases will, change further down the line. That’s fine, it’s in everybody’s interests to remain flexible, but in the first instance try to: 

  • Describe the disciplines you’re looking for
  • Itemise and quantify the deliverables along with any specifications
  • Outline the timeline for delivery

In conclusion, you get out what you put in

A clear brief is the same as strong leadership. It’s inspiring, but also precise. It will mean that the agency’s energy is put into the creativity. False starts will be avoided, and the client will be in a strong position to demand solutions that really work.

Many briefs are ineffective because they’re simply vague. Target audiences should never be described as “everyone”. Your differentiator should never just be “quality”. If you don’t clearly know what the problem is or exactly who you’re targeting, it could be that you need some further research or strategy first – a stage frequently overlooked. If there are complex dynamics at play, a strategist can help to make sense of the pieces and translate them into a coherent design brief.

It’s worth putting the effort in. Design can be powerful, and a good brief will make sure you get the most you possibly can out of your investment.


Hide Comments (3)Show Comments (3)
  • Hishamfahmi November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I think it’s a great opinion and arranged and logic and also guidance really it’s a talk of experience

  • Mark Roberts November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Some good advice, but on the 3rd point, ‘detail the deliverables’, in my experience the client often doesn’t have much idea but the specifics of the requirements, eg. they wouldn’t know if new photography was required and how much etc, it’s for the agency to recommend what’s needed for the job.

  • Stephanie Brown November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Good piece, but I would add a fourth section: “client objectives for the work”. That enables the agency to discuss the client’s business objectives from the outset (and hopefully benchmark before the work and measure afterwards).

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