The importance of a design brief

The design brief is one of the essential parts of the design process. Starting a project without one would be a bit like proceeding to build a house without a blueprint. Although it may be possible to do, you may finish the house and then realize that you should have put your door elsewhere. Or you might have to spend valuable time and resources to tear up the newly-finished hardwood floor to run the water lines to the downstairs bathroom which you had not been informed about earlier.

What is it?

A design brief is a document outlining the business objectives and corresponding design strategies for a project. It gets the design wheels rolling and helps the designer think strategically about design solutions. It also encourages the client (you) to process and clarify what they need from the project, who it is being done for (target audience), and who the key stake-holders are. The design brief must also address the competition, current industry trends, time-line, budget and measurement of success.

A design brief should primarily focus on the outcomes and the business objectives and should not attempt to deal with the aesthetic details of design… That is the responsibility of the designer. You are paying for the designer’s ideas, so the brief should not be used to tell the designer what to do. Instead, it should clarify what the project needs to achieve, so the designer can explore ideas.

How does a design brief relate to a marketing plan or strategy?

You could think of your marketing strategy as the set of rules that direct your marketing activities. Then, based on these rules, you will develop a marketing plan. The marketing plan is simply a way to focus on one or more marketing objectives.

A successful design brief, then, will inevitably be informed by your marketing plan. For example, if one of the objectives in your marketing plan is to target a specific age-group (say, teenagers), this should be clearly stated in your design brief. The designer will then use this information to propose design ideas that are coherent with your marketing plan.

If you do not have a marketing strategy, get one! There are plenty of marketing groups that would love to help you out. I know, I know… the price tag is usually pretty high – but it’s worth the investment. If you are running a new business and are not at that point yet, maybe you know someone who has experience in marketing who would be able to help you set some short-term goals. Sometimes it takes a considerable amount of time to conduct good marketing research, conduct focus groups, do SWOT analysis, develop a marketing strategy, etc., so don’t let that keep you from moving ahead with your short-term goals. In the mean time, as you conduct the necessary marketing work, it is important that your company continues to present itself professionally to your current customers. So, sorry… not having a marketing strategy is no excuse for not filling out the design brief!

Which projects require a design brief?

Ninety percent of the time, completing a design brief is worth the time and effort. Even if the job is not complex, thinking through some of the tough questions helps bring clarity and focus to the project. There are, of course, some cases in which it may not be necessary. A few examples might be: you want to reprint your business cards or letterhead, you would like to add a plug-in or extend the functionality of your website, you need to make a very minor tweak to your brochure before reprinting. If you have any doubts about whether or not you should fill it out, don’t hesitate to ask.

Ultimately, the design brief is your responsibility (the client). Your designer can only be as good as the brief he/she works from, so it’s in your best interest to provide one that is well-crafted. Some designers may choose to proceed without one if the client is not interested, but this is certainly not the best scenario for either the designer or the client and there is high chance of wasting time and energy. So, take the time to craft a design brief whenever possible. And remember… every minute you invest in the design brief is probably equal to three minutes saved in tweaking or re-working things later.

What does a design brief look like?

Design briefs can take on various forms. Some designers provide a template to help you get started. But many clients may have their own templates that they prefer using. I provide a web-based form that can be used to as a tool for creating/submitting an initial brief. But regardless of the tool you use, here are a few qualities that all briefs have in common:

  • Brief (that’s why it’s called a brief!) – no longer than 2 or 3 pages.
  • Easy to read – Content subdivided into various sections with clearly-defined headings, use of short bullet points instead of narrative text
  • Easy to print – Standard size (for example, US Letter or European A4)
  • Easy to share – Created in a way that it can be sent electronically to others collaborating on the project (ie, not hand-written or engraved on stone tablets! :0)
  • Simple and well-organized

What content should be included?

There are many valid opinions out there about what should go in your brief and how you should organize it. Below are a few components I think are important to include in some form or other (not necessarily in that order). You may also refer to my Design Brief Form for an example of what kind of info to include and how to organize it.

  • Your name and company
  • Project name
  • Short description (summary) of project
  • Description of your business
  • Project goals and objectives
  • Target audience
  • Things you are providing the designer with (photos, website screen shots, diagrams, etc.)
  • Project specifications and format (these may change as the project develops)
  • Main messages and objectives
  • Where to look for inspiration (and where not to look)
  • Design budget
  • Production budget
  • Timeline/deadline

Some special projects may require a design brief format with slightly different elements. I’ve found that for logo design some of the above are not relevant, while other details (such a specific colors) are more important. So I create a different design brief specifically for logo design.

What happens after a design brief is presented?

When you first present your design brief, give your designer a bit of time to look over the details. He/she may have questions or suggestions for improvement. Sometimes it may be necessary to modify or hone some specific aspects of it. For example, based on your project details, the designer may suggest an alternate size or folding for your print piece. Although it is not always possible to work out all the details at this stage, it is important that both the client and the designer have a document that they feel good about. Sometimes it may take a few rounds between the designer and client to reach that point.

How can you make good use of if?

So, you’ve presented your design brief to your favorite designer… What do you do next? Fold it up and file it away to review after the job is finished? Of course not. The design brief serves as a guiding document throughout the course of the project. You should feel free to print it out and make notes in the margin. Highlight the parts that you feel are most important. Look over it again when you get the first round of proofs to make sure the design supports what is outlined there.