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The Ultimate Design Brief

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A few times a month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of FreelanceSwitch. This article by Shaun Crowley was first published August 5th, 2007, yet is just as relevant and full of interesting information today.

Your design can only be as good as the brief you worked from. The best projects are borne from creative briefs that are open enough to inspire ideas, while being specific enough to feel workable. Learn how you can elicit these kinds of briefs by providing clients with briefing templates.

Picture the scene. You’ve just landed a new client, who hurries a brief to you for a marketing brochure. There are a few holes in the brief, but instead of asking for constant clarification, you get to work. Later you’re told the design “isn’t quite right”. Before you know it, the client is refusing to pay.

Familiar story? All too familiar for most freelance designers I know. Ambiguous design briefs are infuriating. What’s worse, clients who set you up to fail often go away thinking you stuffed up.

So what can you do to avoid this?

The only way is to formalize the briefing procedure. I say this as a client myself; when I hook up with a designer I need a formal brief at hand. It helps me turn the gobbledegook in my head into well-articulated language. And it reassures me that my designer has some pointers to refer to after we meet.

Unfortunately, clients who aren’t familiar with the design process don’t see carefully-written briefs as a high priority. This may be because they don’t have time. Quite often, it’s because the client hasn’t made fundamental decisions about the objectives of their marketing collateral.

By supplying your client with a briefing template and briefing tips, like the ones below, you can elicit the information you need from a few carefully crafted questions. You may even draw attention to the things your client hasn’t thought of—like “Have I got all the artwork my designer needs?” or even in some cases “Who am I targeting with this item?”

A formal handover template gives you the opportunity to offer a few pointers, so the client learns how to get the most from your talent. It’s a frame of reference when you meet to discuss the assignment, and a point of review if your first proofs don’t pass muster.

Remind your client that a formal design brief is not unnecessary red tape. It’s there to ensure your client gets value for money from your service. The trick is to educate your clients without patronizing or victimizing them. Maybe post the templates on your website and offer a link to them in your email correspondence. Make the templates subliminally accessible for your clients.

Maybe then, you can make that dream design brief a reality on every project.

Good Things to Include in Your Design Brief

  • Title of item.
  • Delivery mechanism and marketing objectives.
  • Format.
  • Budget and schedule.
  • What are you providing the designer with: Product shots, website screen shots, photographs, diagrams, etc. (Check these are high-resolution.)
  • General description of format: Describe any formatting issues you have arranged with the printer.
  • Description of target audience: Occupation, gender ratio, average age, nationality/location, psychological demographic, lifestyle preferences.
  • Message objectives: Hierarchy of copy messages, treatment of headlines, body copy, visuals, product samples, call-to-action.
  • Where to look for inspiration: Give brief examples of style / overall look you want the item to achieve. What aspects of the product or branding can be used as a starting point for the design? What feelings or metaphors reflect the spirit of your product or company?
  • What not to do: Also give examples of what the design shouldn’t include and what styles to avoid.

Tips for Briefing a Designer

1. Think about the message of the design.

Offer guidance to help the designer marry the “look” of the item with the “voice” of the copy.

2. Don’t prescribe solutions.

You are paying for the designer’s ideas, so avoid the temptation to tell the designer what to do. Instead, be clear about what the item needs to achieve, so the designer can explore ideas. This is where you need the designer’s expertise.

It’s rarely a good idea to give a designer a mocked up layout – they will simply follow your instructions which are not necessarily making the best use of the space.

3. Do your scheduling before you brief a designer.

Make sure you schedule the whole project before you brief a designer, incorporating appropriate feedback and incubation stages. Ask your designer to inform you in advance if deadlines or set budgets are unrealistic.

4. Formalize design briefing.

Carefully word your brief in an email or as a front page to your copy, and use this as a reference point when you meet. Always brief designers face-to-face, or on the phone for smaller projects.

A few times a month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of FreelanceSwitch. This article by Angela Ferraro-Fanning was first published December 5th, 2008, yet is just as relevant and full of interesting information today.

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