How to write a design brief and why it’s important to get right

One of the biggest aspects that can make or break a design project is the briefing process. The best design work comes when designers are confident, as with many walks of life. If designers are given great briefs, that they’re confident in understanding, then they can spend the full amount of time designing instead of querying what is meant by confusing and sometimes conflicting information in the brief.

Poor briefing impacts us hugely as a design agency, a bad brief will send us round in circles wasting precious time, effort, resources and the clients money in a lot of situations. So getting it right at the beginning and being clear can save hours of wasted time and costs on developing and designing concepts which are off brief.

As designers, our role is to bring all of the ideas from the client together to create the final product. However, we can only do this if we have been provided with enough context to be able to make those visual decisions and interpretations. It will contain clear, defined instructions, which are as specific as possible without being too restrictive. The more contextual detail the better.

So how do you write the perfect brief and why is it so important? Well firstly it’s useful to understand what we do when we’re first given the brief.

What do we do when we first receive a brief?

  • Read, re-read and then read it again.
  • We highlight the key things that we believe have the most importance.
  • From this we’ll brainstorm and do our own visual research (often using Pinterest to capture ideas and snippets of themes we find) and then we will start working on initial concepts.
  • We’re essentially trying to get to the meat of what the client is asking for as quickly as possible so that we can spend as much time creatively working on the concept. And that’s where we add the most value.
  • Depending on how concise the brief is, in some circumstances we may share our initial research with the client to try and elicit a defined route if the brief is too open.
  • It’s also at this stage that we find a face to face meeting to discuss the brief really valuable.
  • Depending on the budget we may get a few designers to work independently on the brief to see the different ideas we come up with initially before we start refining them to devise the final concepts.
  • With anything creative there are usually a number of different outputs that will meet the same brief – so we will often work on a couple of concepts that all meet the brief but that gives the client some options for developing ideas further.

What should be included in a brief?

  • The use of the product/title – without this it can have a big impact on a cohesive brand being established.
  • Key Markets (preferably some of the pertinent market research is included and focus group reports from the end user are also really helpful).
  • Who is it aimed at? (sector, ages, end user profiles).
  • Information on how the end-user is going to use the suite of products? Your vision for the overall outcomes and reasoning for creating the product.
  • Trends in the key markets it will be used within, for example design, fashion, magazines, crazes etc.
  • Also any trends the authors have identified can be really helpful too.
  • Identify what you believe to be the competing titles and products and what you deem to see as the main good and bad points of these – particularly with reference to the look and feel not necessarily the content.
  • Provide examples of other designs and visual stimuli that you like or sometimes more helpfully what you don’t like the look and style of. Avoid personal preferences and try to focus on the end user as much as possible – use focus groups to help with this if you have the resources.
  • It’s also useful to know what financial parameters you have. For example is this going to be a very prestigious, new flagship product that has received a high level of investment and therefore the design needs to reflect this? Or is it a fairly bright and breezy, quick reaction to a market that’s opened up that doesn’t require as heavy an input on the design?
  • Sometimes it can be money really well spent doing several iterations at this concept stage – but that’s only really if there is money in the budget to accommodate this. And to a certain extent if there is a limitless budget then the brief can have a bit more of a life of its own and organically develop.
  • In a nutshell for us the brief shouldn’t ask questions. It should provide the answers that will enable us as designers to creatively interpret what you are asking for.
  • Ultimately though we are flexible and if we don’t feel the brief has enough detail for us to provide a solution we will of course get back to the client to help refine that before we start designing.

Three common problems we often see with a brief

  1. Vagueness – we’re not sure what we want, just have a go and see what you come up with.
  2. Open briefs are the hardest for us as because we then have to spend a lot of time doing our own market research to try to second guess what the client wants. And this eats up into the budget.
    We always feel that most clients have a good idea of what they want up front, but sometimes aren’t willing to share these ideas through fear of stifling the designer. In actual fact, the more detail the better. And as designers we should be able to suggest without fear of hurting people’s feelings if we don’t think something will work. And equally as designers we would respect someone who isn’t a designer telling us it’s hard to read or it’s not working for them, after all, they are the end user – or are at least representing the end-user.
    When a brief is really open it’s often good to have a call or a meeting to discuss as that’s where some of the best ideas come from – a collaborative approach is always a stronger way of getting a great end result fast.
  3.  The end user gets forgotten about – we often find that personal preferences can hinder the briefing process especially where there are many stake-holders needing and wanting a say in defining that brief. The end-user can sometimes be forgotten about in these situations if no one-person takes the ultimate responsibility for pulling it together and re-focusing on who that end-user is. Personal preferences are important, but not to the expense of the target user – after all in most cases the target user is often from a completely different mindset than the person doing the briefing.

In many ways, as with most parts of a publishing project, the process is and needs to be a collaborative one. And external designers working on concepts from an initial brief should have the opportunity to ask questions about the brief if elements are un-clear. The most important reason though for honing down this brief and getting it right (or nearly right) at the beginning is to ensure that everyone on the team is clear on what the end goal is and who they are developing this new product for. If that’s not tied down (through the process of creating a brief) at the beginning everyone can end up going round in circles wasting valuable time and resources and sadly missing the market opportunity that was spotted in the first place.

This post was originally published on the emc design blog.

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