A Guide to Writing and Receiving Design Briefs

How to write a design brief in a way that will ultimately benefit your creative process


March 12, 2019

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little guardian angel pointing us in the right direction every time we have to make a tough decision? Luckily for us designers, when working on a project, that guardian angel comes in the form of a little doc, widely known as a “design brief.” Although you may not be on the best of terms with your previous design briefs, when done right, this little gem can be highly useful in providing all the foundations that a designer needs in order to work on a project. A good design brief will clarify the concept and objective, and make sure that everyone on board is aligned. Although we may like the idea of freedom, too much of it in a creative project can end up with us getting lost in the void. Having constraints and limitations is often what helps us eventually think outside the box, break boundaries and come up with truly innovative designs. So whenever you feel unsure, remember that your brief is there to be referred back to and help you get back on the right path.

Even if you’re not actually the one writing the brief, knowing what a good design brief entails is highly important. It will save time and avoid any potential misunderstandings in the future, ensuring a smooth process when working with clients. As a designer, it’s up to you to ensure you have all the information you need to carry out the project in the best way possible. To do so, you can use this guide as a pointer to explain to your client what a good brief looks like, or to remind yourself which questions you need to ask in order to approach the project more informed, well-researched and prepared. Some of this information doesn’t necessarily have to presented in the form of a lengthy elaborate document – it can be stated verbally or in any other way, but it does detail everything you should know before starting a project. Here’s a general guide on what to include when writing a design brief:

1. Project overview

First things first: what is the actual project? This should be a clear, in-depth description of the project, stating what it is that needs to be done, what the scope of the project is and which assets need to be created. Is it a full rebrand, a redesign of their website, or are you working on a particular element that needs to be aligned with the brand’s other visual materials? The brief should also mention the motivation behind the project and which issue it is aiming to solve or address.

2. Main goals

This goes a little more in-depth into the client’s vision for the project. What is their number one aim, and what secondary goals do they want to achieve through the project? The brief should explain these specific objectives, and optimally, state how they can be measured and how the design can play a part in achieving them. Does the client want to bring more traffic to their website, encourage people to sign up to an event, increase sales, build trust or change the way their brand is portrayed? All of these details will help the designer define the final outcome and also understand the client’s mindset better, leading to a more productive relationship and more positive work environment.

3. Basic details on the brand

Whether the client is a music production company, a high school or a large corporation, having some background info and context is always useful. The brief should describe in a few sentences who the brand is and what they do. This is the place to explain what products or services they have, what differentiates them from their competitors, who their competitors are and what their mission and values are. Through these details, the designer can get familiar with the brand and ensure that the final design will be in line with their vibe and messaging.

4. Target audience

Understanding who you’re designing for can help inform you to make the right design decisions. Is the client looking to appeal to individual customers or to businesses? Let’s say they have a photography-related product – is their target market amateurs, professionals or specifically event photographers? Although there are no tricks or shortcuts to come up with a design that will magically appeal to a particular audience, having these details in mind can help steer towards the desired effect. That’s why the brief should describe the client’s usual customer or target audience, and include any information or previous experience they’ve had with this group in the past. This could also include any feedback the client may have received from customers on their product, if relevant to the design.

5. Visual guidelines

Other than the research the designer will inevitably do into the brand’s visual identity and previous marketing materials (including their logo, website, posters and more), the brief should convey the general tone and image that the brand wants to give off. This can come in the form of visual references, as well as a written description. Any existing visual assets that the client wants to be included in the project, such as a logo, should be stated. Additionally, any brand guidelines or big no-nos should be clearly mentioned in the design brief. This will help clarify to the designer which fonts, color palettes and general styling they can use, making sure their final design will be cohesive with the brand’s other visual assets and messaging.

6. Specific requirements and applications

This includes a clear list of all the deliverables required by the client. Having this info straight from the get-go can help avoid misunderstandings and will ensure that the designers know exactly which assets are expected of them. In turn, this can save them the potential hassle of having to go back into old files and adapting them for additional assets. The details that should be stated here are the dimensions and resolutions of the files, the file formats, and the various applications needed. For example, if designing a landing page for a specific event, should the designer also create visual assets to share on social media, a poster that will be printed or branded elements for the event itself? These details are crucial, so as to enable the designer to consider the whole scope of the project, rather than individual, disconnected elements.

7. Schedule

Knowing the timescale of a project is also vital, so make sure that a clearly defined schedule is included in the brief. It should detail not only the final date for all the deliverables, but also milestones along the way, in which the client and designer will meet to give and receive feedback, share progress and bring up any issues they’ve faced. If the client has any important dates for which they require certain design elements to be ready, such as the opening of an online store or a product launch, that should be stated. Make sure that the timelines are realistic and work for both sides, ensuring that work can be delivered on time, in the best way possible.

8. Budget

Last, but not least – budget. If you’re a freelance designer working with a client, it’s important to set expectations when it comes to budget right from the start. Being open and honest about how much the client can pay you, as well as how much they can allocate to the various design assets, can help form a healthy, trusting relationship. Plus, it can help the designer understand how best to adapt their work to give the client the most for their money, ensuring they don’t work more hours than the client can pay them for or purchase new fonts or icon packs for a project with a small budget.

To sum up – when done correctly, a design brief can pretty much be your best friend. It will always be there for you to lean on when you’re not strong, gently nudging you in the right direction and giving you the confidence you need to spread your wings and fly. So whether you write your own design briefs, or receive them from managers or clients, remember to use them wisely.

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