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What is design brief, and why it is so important?

Gabriela Kanik

Dentist appointment, writing a thesis paper, heavy workout or doing taxes. All of us have that one specific burden. We put off things that put us off – everything cumbersome, painful or dull. Some of us postpone obligations for the next day, others just rise above without blinking an eye.

For many business owners the brief is a difficult part of building a brand. They see it as an unwanted duty forced upon them by the „evil creatives” – marketing agency managers who plan advertising campaigns, photography assistants who organize sessions for different businesses, and us, brand designers. We are the most tiresome because we always feel the urge to find out as much as we can. 😉

You probably think that it’s easier said than done. Sure, it gets worse but as of this moment no evil genius came up with a solution for direct information transfer between two brains. Until we get to do it, try to be as open as you can during this stage of our collaboration. It’s really worth it – let me tell you why.

Brief… what is it exactly?

I would gladly give up the loanword but since it’s really difficult to find a better word, let’s make an exception and accept this blatant buzzword. In an agency jargon, a brief is a compilation of questions and answers that organize information about a certain project. It contains all the details on the subject – so called deliverables which are the products that will be handed over to the client after a project is completed. In reality brief helps describe current market situation of a brand, assess threats and opportunities, set goals, and convey preferences and aesthetics requirements. In some cases it also indicates ways of measuring effects and progress.

Brief is not a pointless document invented to extend the design process but a necessary fundament that guarantees a good start and increases chances of success. While creative professionals need it to organize their work in an effective way, contractors can use the brief to asseverate successful outcome and protect their investment. The issue is that clients tend to forget that.

Usual questions from a creative brief can be divided into a few sections and narrowed down to:

  • the project’s essence – who/what the project is for, what does it concern, what needs does it meet, what is its role and what kind of work it demands,
    description of previous solutions,
  • market situation – position against the competition, alternative solutions, assessment of the market leader’s operations,
  • the project’s audience – the most important point of reference is the final client, the recipient; we want to learn as much as we can about the audience,
  • style preferences, aesthetics – preferred directions, unwanted notions, forbidden cues; this is where the examples and feature lists come in play,
    technical information – literally what, when and in what form should be delivered, what is the scope, what tools and technologies should be used in the project,
  • budget – this question helps us compare the scope of the project with the client’s affordability and at the very beginning end negotiations that are deemed to fail.

Brief changes depending of project’s type (a photographer will put together a different brief than a branding specialist), brand’s character (questions for a new brand will be different form the one wants to go through a rebranding process), and scope (we ask different questions about a website, online store and logo).

Formal value

Brief – just like a contract – is a formal document that protects both parties. Answers to questions it contains are formal requirements for the project that visualize the client’s expectations and indicate specific visual directions (or communication styles) that should be followed or not. If you understand that filling out this document means to you as much as signing a contract, you’ll be half way to success. As long as you don’t really mean it, never say to a designer that you „don’t know, come up with something” or, even worse, that you let him do what he wants – because he will and you can’t hold that against him.

(…) if you want something, you must learn to clearly communicate your intentions.

It’s in your best interest – more than you know

We all at least once in our lives left the hairdresser with a sour face. There are many ways to interpret „hair trimming”, „daring cut”, „bigger volume”, and „switch to blonde”. After all there are tens of shades of blonde and the hair can be trimmed by 2 and 20 cm. Where does the „soft cut” end and „crazy scissors” begin?

Such interpretation differences are often the subject of dispute also between creative professionals and their clients. „Fun” can be mean My Little Pony as much as Coca-Cola. A word „colorful” can translate into a combination of two bold colors but also the whole rainbow of hues. We can Airbnb’s logo simple but the same thing can be said about Arial, the font. Some understand „small website” as a one-page site, while others see it as a 10-page web platform.

It’s up to you to make sure that the designer understands you correctly. You can influence the mood for the entire project, set conditions for the partnership, and help the designer understand your brand and its needs. The designer will offer you professional support and all the knowledge and experience he has but he will never be able to tell everything by the flow of the blow. In a similar way you will never have to wonder about the idea behind his work – the designer has to explain it to you, help you understand, and use solid arguments to help you make the call. It works like any other relationship – if you want something, you must learn to clearly communicate your intentions.

Not just a database but a great tool for your brand’s growth

We’ve already discussed the most important features of the brief. They come with a number of less obvious but equally valuable benefits. Here are some of them:

  • Brief works like a litmus paper – there’s no room for falsifications and misinterpretations. In plain words you will describe your company’s situation, inside and out.
  • It will help you set your priorities straight – it’s really important. Not all tasks have equal impact on your brand’s growth. Some mix and interlace, allowing you to fit them within tight schedule without additional costs and time investment. Others, when put off for later, may help you save money or lose money – in their future their implementation may cost you way more than today. A well-structured brief should point out all dependencies.
  • It can be a growth strategy – or lack thereof. It concerns everything that you have in front of you right now as well as all the goals and achievements of the past few years.
  • Brief will broaden your horizons – not every client had worked with a branding studio before. You will have to ask yourself unexpected questions and that may help you explore an uncharted territory and increase your knowledge.
  • It will lay ground for marketing – branding first, marketing second. Brief will show what elements of your brand you already have, what can be improved, and what is missing to help meet your sales goals.
  • It’s an opportunity to catch up on your competition – it’s easy to fixate on one’s own business and lose objectivity about everything else. Questions from the brief will allow you to take a close look at your market situations, evaluate the growth of your old competition, meet the new one, and analyze alternative solutions.
  • It will help you make sure you made the right choice – brief is like a business card for a designer. Structure and scope of the questionnaire are the proof of his professional maturity and ability to predict and solve problems as well as plan different operations for the clients. You do want to work with people who know what they’re doing, right?

Once and for good

Remember this – don’t leave any fields empty. Blanks won’t help the designers and avoiding answers to difficult questions does not lie in your brand’s best interest. Gathering information is such an important stage that sometimes it must be repeated. We call it „debriefing” – it’s an additional enquiry and completing our knowledge but also repeat analysis of those parts of the brief that haven’t been filled out by the client and oftentimes turn out to be very important issues. More time, more energy. If you’re tired by engaging in such tasks, don’t let it happen – spend an hour, two or three and fill out the brief. First and foremost for you and your company but also for the sake of the project.

Good template is good

Well-structured and filled out brief should result in the feeling of inner peace and completion. If you’re sure you did your best and gave all the information essential for the project, you probably did a good job. Congrats!

A good brief template is built not only based on experience and knowledge but also know-how that comes from working, communicating, and reacting to the client’s needs. After completing a project, my partner Piotr and I analyze its course – including the briefing stage. We compare it against the work we delivered and discuss unexpected issues that came up on the client’s side during the project. Then we see how it stacks against our previous projects. If we notice similarities, we include a change in the brief to avoid the same mistakes when approaching new clients.

Na wiele sposobów zapewniłam Cię już o wadze tego dokumentu. Nie martw się – jeśli trafisz do nas, nie będziesz w tym sam. Zwykle zadajemy pytania pomocnicze, największe trudności pokonujemy wspólnie. Bywa, że pomagamy wypełnić dokument telefonicznie lub na spotkaniu.

Remember that the designer has good intentions and asks these questions for concrete reasons. Ask if you don’t understand why.

How to make it easier?

Now that you know the theory, you can get acquainted with practice. Here’s some advice that will help you go through the briefing stage unharmed and maybe even motivate you and others.

  • Be positive – sorry, I may sound like a personal coach but this is really important. You will make much more of our partnership if you would be willing to put some energy and heart into it.
  • Don’t delegate, do it yourself – if you have associates, let one of them fill out the brief while the others add changes and sign it. Splitting responsibility has never helped anyone and delegating such an important document to an employee always causes misunderstandings and disappointments. An ordinary employee doesn’t know your business as well as you do and cannot be accountable for the project’s success.
  • Understand and remember why we ask questions – we did not make our lives’ purpose to torment you. Each and every question you will read has been written to serve a specific purpose. You may not get it yet but at the assessment stage of process these questions will help you make the right decision.
  • Have it in writing – because of the arguments I gave earlier. Besides, brief is a work tool that designers revisit in case of any doubts – especially if you’re working with a team, not a freelancer. Due to its form, you will avoid the effect of a deaf phone. Keep in mind that no text or email can replace brief. This document should contain all key arrangements and important information. Organizing information will help you avoid misunderstandings and chaos of handling the deliverables.
  • Reflect on why you can’t/don’t want to answer a question – I have to say this once again: please, don’t leave any empty fields. If you are having trouble judging your brand’s situation or describing preferences, contact your design team. Together you will find useful examples and inspiration. If you’re afraid that you might cross a line and reveal sensitive information by answering a certain question, make not of that. Remember that the designer has good intentions and asks these questions for concrete reasons. Ask if you don’t understand why.
  • Use reliable sources of information – numbers, statistics, reports. You don’t have to be an analyst to handle it. You are well aware of how much you see, who are your customers, what do they like (thanks to social media, this information is available to everyone), and what’s your website traffic. Don’t be afraid to share details.
  • Focus on facts – if you expect the logo to be modern, show us what you mean by that. Find examples and describe in details what you like and dislike.
  • Help the designer understand – did he miss your point? Is he stupid or what?! Let it go, don’t let your pride get the best of you. Don’t expect that another person will perfectly understand what you’re trying to say – after all you barely know each other. It’s a tandem, you must work together or else it all will go south.
  • Think what you expect from the brief – you know what designers use it for. How about you? Do you want to just pass the information or maybe consult your brand’s current image, get honest evaluation of your product/service, rub the belly a little bit harder? Some designers outstep branding boundaries of their profession and combine it with elements of design thinking. Find out if the designer you work with know what it is and how you can benefit from his broader skill set.
  • Let us convince you – or at least be open to arguments. If during the briefing stage designers tell you that your brand is heading in the wrong direction and your strategy may be ineffective, listen to them. Listen, analyze thoroughly, and then give feedback. Designers have knowledge that you don’t. They speak from experience gathered while working for many other clients and probably can predict certain issues. They also have a whole new perspective – they evaluate your company’s situation from the outside (just like your potential client) and are objective when it comes to spending time and money. If you’re particularly driven and sure of the direction, don’t agree but discuss using arguments.

This article was supposed to be a short definition of a brief but eventually turned into a fully-grown guide. It’s a good thing because I see sharing the brief as a sign of trust. Transparency and open communication about your company’s history – its plans, strengths, weaknesses, and finances – demands even the most basic trust in designers’ discretion, their professionalism and expertise. It’s wise to be sure about people who read this document. Not every brief leads to a complete project but if yours does, I hope it will be very fruitful. Fingers crossed!

Drop us a line!

Can we help you out? If so, speak to us. Don’t delay, expand your brand with us. Let’s talk about what we can do today.

Piotr Synowiec

Peter Synowiec

[email protected]