How to write a design brief

In the second of a series of blogs, written for the Sport and Recreation Alliance and their membership, we provide guidance on how to prepare a design brief.

Many of us nowadays work on ‘projects’ rather than on continuous workstreams, requiring a decent amount of upfront planning to set the task off on the right track. Depending on the nature of the project, part of the start-up will involve briefing your design team, whether they are ‘in-house’ or from an external resource. As most project leaders are not designers, they won’t necessarily be used to preparing a design brief but with some guidance, a good working document will pay dividends.

It may sound like common sense but the better the design brief is, the better the designers will understand and meet your expectations. Taking the time to write down the key criteria will help the designers evaluate the challenge ahead, consider the time and resources required, which ultimately determines the price of their involvement.  Ideally, a face to face meeting to talk through the brief will help establish the chemistry between the client and their creative partners, which is equally important.

In my job, I see many briefing documents, from multi-page requirement specifications to a single side of A4 paper. In fact, a design brief doesn’t have to be long-winded to convey the primary objectives. More concise the better, I’d say! As long as the following key topics are covered, the designers will have a good grasp of what you want to achieve and will get the creative juices flowing:

  • Background, putting the project into context. How have you arrived at this point? What has worked or failed in the past? How has the organisation changed or expanded, demanding new ideas and solutions?
  • Competitive situation; who else is doing good work in this area. Is this a totally new ‘stand-alone’ initiative or is the marketplace crowded with similar players, services or products? Is there a ‘benchmark’ against which this project will be judged?
  • Description of the problem/challenge. In particular, who is your target audience and what are you seeking to achieve. This is the crux of the issue! Once a problem or objective is clearly identified, you’ve made a major step towards finding a good solution and the creative process can really begin. A good designer will challenge assumptions and ask what might appear to be daft questions, but with the sincere intention of understanding the fundamental issues and making the ‘creative leap’ to a solution that justifies the investment.
  • Description of the deliverables. What are the ‘tangibles’ you are expecting to receive at the end of each stage and at the end of the project? This might be something like “a full set of brand guidelines in pdf format and on our website”, or “design, artworking and 500 printed copies of our Annual Report”, or “full suite of event materials for our campaign launch including …”.
  • Stakeholders and decision makers. Who will be involved in the project as a point of contact, decision makers and those that need to be kept informed? Very often, many days if not weeks can be lost waiting for the right people to be available to provide input or approval. This needs to be carefully anticipated and accounted for within the timescale.
  • Timescale. What needs to be achieved by when and what factors could influence these dates? Unexpected extensions to timeframes are a killer to any project, risking the loss of momentum and putting strain on budgets, especially if they are fixed from the outset.
  • Budget. Sometimes a budget will be allocated before a project has been thought through and to a certain extent the cloth can be cut to suit. Your designers will be able to tell you if your expectations can be met within any budget constraints. More typically, your designers can provide a budget proposal based on your requirements, which can then be evaluated against the business case, prior to any go-ahead.

If having prepared a brief and it feels ill-defined, this would suggest that more research or strategic thinking is required. Design companies are often adept at helping to ask the right questions to fill in any gaps, as part of a pre-design/strategy phase.

A well managed design project, starting with a clear brief, will get the most from your designers, ensuring a measurable business benefit.