How to Write a Design Brief
Getting Your Design Project Off to a Great Start
"Design is thinking made visual." – Saul Bass, graphic designer and filmmaker
When you work with an experienced graphic designer, you have an opportunity to carve out the brand identity that you've always wanted, create a user experience that will get people excited about your company, and communicate to your customers exactly what makes your brand special.
But, if the project's objectives aren't clear, you could end up with a piece of work that is disappointing, drab and off target. You may find yourself tied up in seemingly endless – and frustrating – cycles of iteration, while your vision for the project slips further and further away.
So, it's crucial that your instructions are as clear and as detailed as possible. A key part of this is to prepare a comprehensive design brief. In this article, we explain how to structure your brief, and what to include in it to ensure that the designer understands your needs fully from the outset.
What is a Design Brief?
"Designing a project without a design brief is like playing charades." – Devora Homnick, Art Director at Oorah Inc
A design brief is a document that sets out what you want your new design to achieve. It should include all of the key elements that you want your designer to include in the design, as well as other important details such as key contacts, fees and timeframes.
How to Write a Design Brief
The more detailed your design brief, the more likely you will be to get the desired results. If you are not clear on your objectives from the start, then your designer can become confused and lose focus.
This could mean that you end up with something that is completely different from the design you first envisioned, and which fails to have the positive impact that you had hoped for. Such a mistake can be costly, and could even negatively impact your brand's reputation.
A good design brief is usually structured as a series of questions and answers, and should include details that cover the following four key points:
- Key contacts and stakeholders.
- The problem and your objectives.
- Style guidelines.
- Project management details.
We'll now look more closely at these points, and the information that you should include for each.
Key Contacts and Stakeholders
It's important that your designer knows who to contact if he or she has any questions or problems, so remember to include the following details in your brief:
1. Key Contact
Feedback from various people and departments can make messages confused or contradictory. To avoid confusion, the designer should take direction from just one key contact who is managing the brief and the feedback process. This will help to keep his instructions consistent, and will ensure that the design is delivered to the brief's specifications.
2. Business Name
Make it clear whether the design will be for a particular division, brand or subsidiary of your organization, or for the organization itself. The designer will likely do some online research on the business or division that she is producing work for, so that she can get an idea of its current brand identity and what it does.
3. Who Will Approve the Design?
Specify the stakeholder(s) who must give final approval on the design. The designer will want to know what they are looking for, and what criteria they will apply to it when they come to review it and sign it off. You may want to set up a meeting between the designer and the key stakeholders to clarify these details before writing up your final brief.
If a lot of people need to give feedback on it, you – as the designer's key contact – will need to clarify and collate all of this information before passing it on to him.
This will reduce the need for a constant "back-and-forth" between you and the designer. It also means that he won't have to waste valuable time deciphering conflicting feedback from different people or departments.
A common mistake is to give your designer an objective of creating a design that will appeal to customers, but then to give feedback that reflects someone's personal preference. "John doesn't like pink," for instance.
If this happens, your designer will likely be confused, because the design brief wasn't intended to reflect an individual's tastes. She may start to wonder what other shapes, colors and images John dislikes!
If the aim of a project is to create a design that appeals to customers, make sure that the feedback relates to how the design can achieve this. If, however, the aim is to satisfy a particular individual, make this clear before the work begins. The designer can then liaise with this person directly to gain a better understanding of his expectations.
4. What is Our Service or Product?
Describe how your product or service differs from those offered by your competitors. What makes it special or unique? Why should customers use your product over similar ones on the market?
This can give your designer valuable insight into the type of design that you want. If, for instance, you want a new design for one of your premium brands, you'll no doubt want it to reflect the quality of the product.
In this section, describe what features you offer that make you stand out from the crowd. Instead of saying, "We make network adapters," try, "We're the only company that offers a lifetime warranty on network adapters."
The Problem and Your Objectives
Be clear on the problem that you hope to solve with the design and the objectives that you want it to meet. Give your designer clear direction by covering some or all of the following points in your brief.
1. What Would We Like to Produce?
List all of the assets – or items – that you want the designer to make for you. For example, a logo, a stationery set, a presentation, or an image.
If you want to expand the scope of the project or change it in some way later on, discuss this with your designer and update the brief to reflect these amendments.
Try to include all of the assets that you require in your original design brief. Work that's added later will likely be considered to be outside the scope of your original agreement, and may result in additional costs.
2. What Are the Project's Objectives?
Design always has an objective. Perhaps, for example, you want to redesign your website. The primary objective of this will be to improve your customers' user experience. But, your organization's wider objectives might be to make it easier for customers to purchase your product or service via your website, and attract new users.
It's important that your designer understands both the primary objectives of your project and how they link to your wider organizational goals. The more she understands these objectives, the better she will be able to meet them.
3. What Problem Do We Want to Solve?
Creating a new design, or replacing an old one, is often motivated by the desire to solve a problem. Perhaps your existing logo or app icon is out of date, or doesn't effectively communicate your product or service, for instance.
Explain the problem to your designer and then work with him to find a solution. He might have encountered similar problems in other projects that he's worked on, and be able to give you some valuable advice.
4. How Do We Want to Be Perceived?
The designer has probably researched your company, and will know a bit about your brand's personality and its "tone of voice" – the words that you use on your website or in your marketing material, for instance, that reflect your brand's unique character.
However, you may be seeking to change these aspects of your brand and want these changes to be reflected in the new design.
Perhaps your organization has begun to invest more in green projects and introduced new environmentally-friendly practices. It wants to promote these achievements in a new brand design and be perceived as a "green" company. Not only will this likely require a shift in tone, but it may also require a re-design of the company's logo and website.
So, when you come to fill out this section of your brief, make it clear how you want your company to be perceived by your customers and the role that you expect the new design to play in this. Clarify what elements of your current design you'd like to keep, and what elements will likely need to be removed or updated.
5. Who is the Target Audience?
Your new design could be intended for your existing customer base, a particular segment of it, or a different demographic entirely. Let your designer know who she will be talking to. Who do you hope that the new design will attract and engage? How do you want them to react to it?
You can clarify who your target audience is by building up a picture of it using personas. Read our article on personas for more on how to do this.
6. Who Are Our Competitors?
List the organizations that you consider to be your key rivals. This will provide valuable context for the project and will give your designer some background information on the market in which you operate. It will also help him to avoid accidentally copying a rival's color palette or logo.
7. How Will We Judge Success?
Designers want to please their clients. They want glowing testimonials and ongoing, successful relationships with the people who they work with. So let her know what will constitute a "win" for your organization. Is it, for example, the number of shares that a video or image gets on social media, positive customer feedback, or an increase in sales?
The design work that you want will likely need to adhere to your organization's particular style guidelines. These are the standards that your organization uses for its documents and media to make sure its tone and branding is consistent.
It's important that you are as clear as possible when describing these to your designer. Use the following points in your brief to help you to do this:
1. Tone of Voice
Are you introducing a new tone of voice specifically for the promotion, product or event that your designer is working on? Or do you want the work to adopt your organization's existing tone of voice? Be clear on whether the personality of this project should be in keeping with your current brand or if it's a variation of it.
If your design includes written information (or copy) – if it's a pamphlet or a logo with a tagline, for example – make sure that both your designer and your copywriter understand that the design must match the copy, and vice versa. A medical institution that uses a playful, jokey tone of voice on its website, for instance, will likely leave users confused and could even find that its integrity is damaged.
2. Color Preferences
Color is the element of design that captures people's attention most powerfully, so it's important to get it right.
Define your color palette as soon as possible, and make sure that it's signed off by all of the key stakeholders. Otherwise you'll risk some laborious work correcting the new design later down the line, as well as the additional cost that this will likely involve.
Be wary of changing your existing color palette if you're a well-known, established brand – after all, this is how your customers know and recognize you.
3. Example Designs
Designers tend to be visual people, so visual guides will likely be the most helpful when they come to read your brief. Include examples of designs that you like and the elements of these that you want to be incorporated into your design. This can really help a designer to get a more exact picture of what you want.
A common mistake is for a client to micromanage the designer. This can prevent the designer from making a valuable, creative contribution, and often occurs because the designer does not have a clear idea of the client's needs. The client, in turn, might take this to be a sign of low confidence or poor ability, and take even more control.
You want to get the best out of your designer. So, if this happens to you, talk your concerns through with him and find visual examples that demonstrate what you want. Once he is clear about what's required, the project can get back on track.
A good design is a distillation of an idea. Describing an organization in complete sentences is a luxury that the designer doesn't have. Put yourself in her shoes, and try to distill your vision into a few key words. Doing this will give your designer a memorable point of reference, which she can easily refer back to at any time.
5. Existing Materials
Show your designer some assets that you've used in the past, and explain what you did and didn't like about them. This will likely help him to understand what to include and what to avoid.
If you can't put your finger on exactly what's wrong with your current design, but you'd like something to be more attractive generally, emphasize this to him. Designers often have a good instinct for how something can be made more visually appealing.
In 2015, Adobe® carried out a survey of more than 2,000 people in which it discovered that 38 percent of respondents would stop engaging with a website if the content or layout was unattractive.
Project Management Details
Like any project, the design work that you commission will need to be delivered on time and to budget, so you need to be clear on these parameters from the outset. Include the following points in your brief to ensure this:
1. What is the Project's Budget?
Will you pay a set price for a package of assets? Or will you pay the designer a daily fee? If you need amendments done at a later date, how much will they cost? Be clear on the fee that you are willing to pay your designer up front, so that she knows exactly what she's agreeing to. This will also help you to keep track of how much is being spent on the project.
If you and your designer discuss matters relating to payment by phone or video call, take notes and send her an email confirming all of the agreed points immediately afterward. And, don't forget to update the design brief with these details!
2. What Are the Due Dates for Each Stage of the Project?
Some projects simply take longer than you expect. However, including a rough timetable of when you expect work to be completed in the brief will help the designer to understand how long he has to spend on each stage of the design process.
Remember to update your design brief if deadlines are renegotiated.
3. Is There Any Additional Information That You Should Include?
Try to "head off" any potential problems that may crop up, by including everything that you think the project's key stakeholders will want to see in your original brief. Then, get them to look over it before you send it to the designer, to check whether there's anything they'd like included or omitted.
Also, try to anticipate additional potential uses for the assets that are delivered. For example, if there's the possibility that you'll later enlarge a new logo design for use on a billboard, be sure to mention it in your brief from the start. Then the designer will be able to create an adaptable design: a design created using mathematical points like vector shapes can be enlarged infinitely without reducing the quality of the image, but one that is composed of pixels, such as a bitmap design, cannot.
A template of a design brief that includes all of the points that we have covered in this article can be found here. Why not use it the next time that you need to produce a design brief?
When you work with designers, good communication is key to ensuring that you get the best from them.
This can be achieved by writing up a clear and comprehensive design brief. This should give your designer a detailed idea of what the design should look like and what it will be used for, and will provide both of you with a written record of what has been agreed.
A good design brief should cover the following four points:
- Key Contacts and Stakeholders.
- The Problem and Your Objectives.
- Style Guidelines.
- Project Management Details.
If any elements of the brief change during the project, update it immediately. This will make the design process smooth and efficient for both parties, and will help to make sure that the project doesn't drift off-brief or exceed its budget.
Remember that your designer is the expert here. So, although you know your audience the best, don't discount her input. She may have valuable insight to offer. Share and respect one another's knowledge and experience, and you'll be sure to create something special!