5 qualities of a truly effective design brief

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

7 min read

Focus, Goals, Alignment

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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.