Hiring a designer? Make both of your lives easier by learning the ins and outs of a standard design brief. Turn your visions into reality – with fewer revisions – using this informative guide.
What Is a Design Brief?
Design briefs are the reference materials of a job or campaign. When they’re properly structured they list all of the goals, expectations, instructions, visual exploration/inspiration, and any small details necessary for a designer to produce work that meets a client’s expectations.
Whether you’re in an agency working with a team of 15 creatives, or you’re an entrepreneur hiring a freelancer to develop marketing collateral for a one-off project, a thorough design brief is the greatest communication tool available.
Designers, by nature, are exploring concepts and making connections somewhere on the astral plane to visually communicate your needs. They need something concrete to reference so that they can remain tethered to the task at hand without having to interpret vagueness.
Image by tsyhun.
Why Should You Use a Design Brief?
A brief lets you take care of your work at the outset. The point of providing a brief is to cover everything you want addressed so the designer knows what to do and how to approach the project. You want to front-load the brief with everything you can think of to ensure no one is peppering you with questions or turning in misguided work.
When you hire a designer, no matter their skill level, remember that they are not a mind reader. I can’t stress this enough: designers are not mind readers.
If you’re defaulting to “you know what I mean,” spend more time elaborating, and then read it back to yourself to judge if it makes sense.
There is almost no such thing as too much information*, but there is always the risk of too little information. You can’t think of everything, but due diligence covers most things under normal circumstances.
*There is a difference between helpful, thorough information and rambling thoughts that veer away from the subject matter. Keep things concise but complete, and you won’t have to worry about providing “too much.”
How to Write a Thorough Design Brief
Let’s explore the sections included in a thorough design brief.
Fill out your company info, the name of the project, and its due date. Just as you would for a grade school book report, give the project an informative name. It helps to keep documents arranged by project.
If there’s a job number or code, display that prominently at a top corner for quick reference.
If you have a logo, put that up there, too. Make it look official.
Image by beeboys.
2. Project Description/Goals/Objectives
What are you trying to achieve?
This is where you write the overall direction of the project and how it fits into your company’s bigger picture.
Explain the goal of the project and how deliverables fit into this goal.
An example of this would be to state what action you seek to elicit and how you propose to get it. Consider this brief project description: “We have this new loyalty program, and we’d like to put it in front of customers in such a way that email traffic is converted to sales.” It states the desired action or end goal (email traffic converts to sales) and the proposed solution (marketing new loyalty program).
This section guides understanding and makes sure everyone knows what the end goal is, which can be crucial to getting the results you want.
From personal experience, knowing the bigger picture helps the designer make the smaller pieces fit together, or “ladder up,” and speak to the campaign.
3. Target Audience
Who are you talking to?
Be succinct and direct in this section. Show numbers if you have them, or write a persona or personas of the ideal customer.
Image by leungchopan.
Ex: Judy is going to her friend’s wedding in a month, and she needs a place to stay. It is short notice and she hasn’t budgeted for this expense, much less the time off work and travel expenses. She is shopping for hotel rooms by browsing the sites of popular budget hotel companies.
Since she has stayed with us in the past, our site collects her I.P. address and records the dates she searches and whether or not she checks out on the site. This data is matched to her account information on file.
She leaves the site without purchasing, so a “come back” email is triggered, offering a discount if she books now for those dates. The goal is to show that we have great short-notice options at affordable prices, and if possible, in a new location or one that has been renovated.
Personas let a designer and copywriter know whom they are talking to, how to talk them, the tone of the message (welcoming with a personal, just-for-them deal, perhaps), and the right sense of urgency. The detail in the buyer persona, which shows how a specific event triggers a specific message and offer, helps them fine-tune the messaging.
4. Brand Perception
What does your target market currently think? Have an understanding of where your company stands in the public eye. You can use sales figures, web traffic monitoring, social media chatter, or real customer feedback to gauge your company’s standing among your target market. Big companies will have a budget for this type of analysis, but if you’re a small or medium-sized business, use the tools you have at your disposal to make an educated assessment.
Image by Artens.
What do you want your target market to think? This is the very heart of the brief. This defines the emotional reaction you seek from your target market. Without the heart, the emotion, and the reaction well-defined, you’re just throwing darts and guessing.
Knowing the result you want is like lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness, so to speak. Understand your customer and you can give them what they didn’t know they needed.
Explain these thoughts well, and your designer can bring them to fruition.
Why should they believe it? This is the plan. How will using info from column A solve column B? This is where that solution is detailed and how it will happen.
5. Message Hierarchy
List the messaging in order of importance, or the hierarchy. As simple as it sounds, it is a common oversight. Clients may list the messages they want to convey, but they can neglect to order them.
Image by Ditty_about_summer.
A typical hierarchy looks like this:
- Body copy
- Call to Action
Delineate what messages should be top of mind, and then list the rest in descending order. In a piece requiring multiple messages, like an email, note the most important message.
A typical multi-message hierarchy is:
- Body copy
- Call to Action
- Secondary offer
- Body copy
If the other messages are independent of the main message, list the order they go in as well. Make sure to note which message supports the other.
For more detail, you can note on the brief how messaging should tie together, e.g. subheadline A supports headline A.
Whether the work is digital or print, you will want to have a Call to Action, or CTA.
A CTA is the conversion or action point of of an advertising piece. Common CTAs are “Buy Now” or “Shop Now” buttons in an email. On a print piece, it would be a website url, a phone number, or anything that takes the customer to a place where engagement can be recorded or a sale can be made.
Let your designer or copywriter know what action you want the customer to take. This will help them create a graphic or write copy that encourages this action.
Describe how you want to convey the above messages. Do you want a light and fluffy tone to convey a new product in the shop? Or do you want a reverent tone to announce your charitable donation to a social cause?
Clearly stating the intended tone can help everyone create work that reflects your company in the best – and right – light.
8. Specs and Deliverables
Specify the colors
Digital and print specs differ, but both are absolutely mandatory in a design brief.
When starting a job, or setting up a file, the designer needs to know the size and color space for the materials.
Provide color values that correspond to the type of artwork to be turned in.
For digital pieces, provide either the RGB mix values or the hexadecimal codes of your brand colors. This ensures that when viewed on a computer or phone screen, the colors match the brand. Brand colors help tie the various offshoots and platforms of the brand together, so it’s important to provide this information.
For printed pieces, it’s expected to use the CMYK, or process, color space. However, some brands require the use of a Pantone spot color. These colors are not mixed from the 4 ink colors on a press or in a printer, but are made to a specific value represented by a color chip in a Pantone book.
If there is a brand Pantone color, provide that information so the designer can include the correct spot color in the file.
Image by Rostislav_Sedlacek.
Specify the sizing and physical dimensions/number of pages
When a designer starts a new file, they must input the dimensions of the file.
Typically, an email is 600 or 640 pixels wide, while the height is determined by the amount of information contained within.
However, your data may advise that the height of an email should not extend past one scroll or swipe. You would determine the platform-specific dimensions for both desktop and phone based viewing and provide those on the brief.
For print pieces, dimensions are just as crucial. These include:
- Trim size – edge to edge dimensions.
- Live area – the area within the dimensions where the it is safe to cut into and still retain the valuable elements.
- Bleed – the extra provided beyond the trim for cutting variances — the reverse of the live area.
In addition, designers must consider the vehicle for the printed piece. In a magazine setting, it helps to provide the magazine’s specifications. Certain magazines or publications have their own requirements, so know your vehicle and get their specs.
If possible, provide the size of the spread the ad will be printed on. If you have a full page ad to be printed on the left side of a magazine spread, you don’t want the headline and copy to be buried in the right-hand side, or gutter.
Sometimes you won’t know this information, and that’s okay to mention. The designer can consider that and create a spread-independent layout.
Image by Jacob Lund.
9. Inspiration or Examples
Where possible, find visual representations of the look, tone, or voice you envision. If you have expectations in mind, it’s perfectly fine to provide examples of what you like to see.
This can be as simple as a shared Pinterest board, or as extravagant as a portfolio of curated designs you print in a bound presentation.
Designers don’t expect to produce carbon copies, but any reference materials you provide will help the creative person see your vision. It might even spark an idea that takes your idea further.
More Tips for Great Design Briefs
To promote harmony when interpreting a design brief, focus on using informative language. Remember, you are not selling your business to the designer.
Talk about the work or the request in a way that is descriptive of your goals, without using persuasive language. You don’t have to use emotional communication, but you have to describe the emotions you want to evoke.
Using language that is persuasive in a design brief can distort the actual goal. In trying to interpret an emotional statement, the designer or copywriter can get the tone wrong, thus burning a revision or, at worst, forcing a redo.
Image by g-stockstudio.
Businesses and individuals have specific needs that vary widely. Filling out these sections providing thorough, informative instructions is a universal practice.
You can only provide what you know, but putting that information in deliverable terms with clear expectations saves time, money, and frustration for you and the creatives you hire or work with.
The more effort and thought you put into the brief, the greater and more immediate the rewards will be.
Only then may you justifiably yell, “It’s in the brief!” when someone asks a question, and that is my greatest gift to you.
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