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5 qualities of a truly effective design brief

Providing clear direction, reasoning and motivation, a good brief can guide creatives through the process of executing a project.

Illustration by Shai Samana.

Profile picture of Lillian Xiao


7 min read

Great work happens when we’re inspired to create.

That’s because as organic and free-flowing as creative work can be, we’re ultimately motivated by a clear vision and focused objectives. The work that we do needs a raison d’être, which is exactly what a well-written brief can provide.

Designing without a brief is like walking in the dark. At times, whether it’s due to tight deadlines or an eagerness to start working, we tend to skip over this crucial step and dive right into the work. But without a brief to guide our way, we can end up making uninformed guesses that lead to unnecessary revisions and uncomfortable conversations, which could be avoided altogether.

So what exactly does a well-written brief look like?

We can look to related fields, such as advertising, for inspiration. In a privately published book from 1998 called What's a Good Brief? The Leo Burnett Way, "A good creative brief…is brief and single minded…is logical and rooted in a compelling truth…incorporates a powerful human insight…is compatible with the overall brand strategy…is the result of hard work and team work."

These characteristics can ring true for any type of creative work, whether it’s design, architecture, marketing, editorial, or public relations.

And while no two briefs are the same, they typically aim to provide direction and motivation for the creatives who are tasked with bringing an idea to reality. Briefs strive to promote alignment on the most important details, so that great outcomes and strong working relationships can follow.

For design briefs, let’s take a look at some qualities that contribute to a truly effective brief.

1. An effective design brief is single-minded

Whether it’s expressed in a phrase, a question, or an insight, an effective design brief gives us something to grasp onto that provides direction and design inspiration. It might appear in the form of a creative challenge, which concentrates on solving a pressing problem, or on pursuing a new and exciting market opportunity. Whatever it may be, that one idea can feel like a mantra that guides our work in a singular and purposeful way.

Without a single-minded focus, design briefs can end up going in too many directions and trying to say too many things at once. It might end up being overly packed with facts and observations, but lacking in actionable insights. When receiving a brief that’s too broad, you may need to guide the client by helping them shape the project around a single, committed idea, with insights that can be leveraged to make that idea a reality.

Whether it comes from the client or from close collaboration between yourself and the client, a concise, focused, and unambiguous brief is the first step towards a truly successful project.

A design brief provides focus

2. An effective design brief states the outcome, but never the means

Every designer, team, or agency has their own creative process. That’s why an effective design brief never dictates how the work should be done, but only what is expected of the outcome. In other words, a truly effective design brief outlines the what and the why with clarity, but never the how.

The what allows us to envision what a successful project might look like. It can range from how our work will be quantified and assessed by the client, to whether it creates an intended effect for the ideal customer. When we meet or surpass these outcomes, all parties involved will be able to consider the project a success. When we fall short, we can work with the client to figure out what we can do to achieve better results.

The why reveals the driving force behind a project. Whether it’s the overall business strategy or a mission statement that inspires the organization, when we know why we are doing what we’re doing, we tend to be more motivated to produce better results.

A design brief explains the desired outcomes, or goals

A truly effective design brief lays out profound bits of knowledge that you can use to create a solution specifically tailored for the customers.

3. An effective brief incorporates a powerful human insight

A truly motivating insight can propel your client to create something new. It comes from a genuine understanding of the ideal customer, and an honest and realistic view of the world. A truly effective design brief lays out profound bits of knowledge that you can use to create a solution specifically tailored for the customers.

Insights are the product of skillful research, typically distilled from the facts and data points revealing what a customer believes, feels, values, or needs. The most compelling insights reveal something unique about the ideal customer, which can be leveraged to guide the design decisions made throughout the project.

Before arriving at these understandings, clients have to commit to who their target audience is. In a 2017 study by the World Federation of Advertisers, 73% of clients believed that they had a single, distinct view of their customer, while 82% of agencies disagreed. Without a clear idea of who the customer is, we end up designing and making decisions based on our own instinctive preferences.

A design brief offers a powerful insight and shares knowledge

4. An effective design brief facilitates alignment

Arguably, the most important part of a brief is the briefing itself. It’s the thoughtful exchange of information between you and your client, facilitated by a truly effective design brief. It gives you the chance to raise questions, seek clarification, and provide guidance in an open and collaborative way.

Without close alignment from the beginning, briefs can end up being something that the client simply hands over to you. It can result from a process that’s too formalized, which leads to frustrated creatives who end up dismissing the brief in favor of close collaboration with their clients.

In fact, the act of structuring a brief can help clients ensure that their organization’s researchers, marketers, and senior stakeholders are all in sync. Putting ideas on paper can allow clients to identify and package the most impactful insights and opportunities into the brief, so that creative teams have a strong foundation to work from.

Aligning with clients on the details of a brief can help set the stage for great outcomes and strong working relationships. It creates mutual confidence that the project is heading in the right direction.

An effective design brief facilitates alignment and invites collaboration

5. An effective design brief motivates and inspires

A truly effective design brief inspires action. When we come across a thoughtful and impactful brief, it gets the creative juices flowing, and motivates us to see the project through to the end.

An effective brief connects us emotionally to a project, and brings people together toward a single, compelling vision. It’s more than just answering questions on a form, as creative director Howard Margulies writes. Rather, it’s about crafting the story behind a project, and why it matters. As Margulies notes, “This is the first, and arguably the most important creative act of the entire process.”

A design brief inspires motivation and instills meaning

Aligning with clients on the details of a brief can help set the stage for great outcomes and strong working relationships. It creates mutual confidence that the project is heading in the right direction.

The building blocks of an effective brief

To achieve the qualities of an effective brief, it helps to keep in mind some of the core building blocks:

1. Project summary. This section provides a complete description of the project. What is the project about? Why is it being commissioned? It helps to dig deeper into the story behind the work, as you might be able to frame the project in a way that the client may not have considered.

2. Background context. This section helps you understand what the client is all about. What products and services do they offer to their customers? What are their core values? Who are their competitors? When working with in-house clients, however, you might already be familiar with the answers to these questions. In that case, focus on the background of the particular project at hand.

3. Design problem. What is the single, most pressing challenge that the design work will answer? If possible, try to understand the conflict and emotion that exists behind the design challenge, as it will help you make more informed decisions throughout the project.

4. Target audience. Who is this for? What are the key benefits that an ideal customer will enjoy as a result of the new design? A focused design brief will provide you with honest insights about where the customer is today, and what will move them to where the client wants them to go, tomorrow. A mix of emotional and rational insights can be a powerful combination for understanding who the target customer is and what it is that motivates them.

5. Objective. What ambitious goals does the project aim to achieve? What does a successful project look like? Objectives tend to be concrete and quantifiable, whether it’s about achieving a business metric, or getting the audience to believe or feel a certain way about the end result.

6. Guidelines. What are the rules and requirements for the project? Whether they’re style guidelines, technical requirements, pre-existing samples of creative work, or examples from competitors, you’ll need to determine the requirements - or mandatory parts - of the project. You might learn about what’s important to include, or alternatively what’s crucial to avoid.

7. Timeline. How much time do we have to create this design? What is the turnaround time for reviews and changes? Timelines, milestones, and review periods reflect realistic expectations for how long the project might take. Sometimes there are more people involved than it initially appears, so it’s typically wise to factor in additional time to accommodate the collaboration process.

Milestones, or critical points in the design work, can also give clients a look at how you structure your creative process.

8. Deliverables. This section details exactly what you need to accomplish in a given project. Find out what formats are needed for all of the deliverables, so that you don’t end up sizing something incorrectly or delivering the wrong type of asset to your client.

9. Budget. What parts will the budget cover? What will be charged separately? Whenever possible, finding out what the approximate budget prior to diving into the details of a project, can help determine what type of work can be done. If a client’s budget isn’t feasible for the work requested, you can work with them on finding alternative or scaled-down solutions.

10. Key stakeholders. Who are the main contacts? Who gives the sign-off on all materials? Having one or two designated client contacts can help facilitate communication between you and your client’s organization. You’ll know exactly who to reach out to with any questions, updates, or approvals. And you’ll have a consistent voice through which the organization or team can request any modifications or clarification.

Final Thoughts

Design briefs come in all shapes and sizes. However, the most effective design briefs provide us with clear direction and strong motivation. They connect the dots for us, helping us understand why a project exists, what insights inspire the work, and what objectives it strives to achieve.

It’s also important to keep in mind that even the best briefs don’t always guarantee success. A brief is there to reinforce the collaboration between yourself and your client, so that together, you can nurture a project from idea to reality.


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