Design Process – How to Write a Design Brief

A brief overview

If design is, indeed, a problem solving discipline then great design must start with the designer developing a complete and thorough understanding of the problem to be solved! Insight and enlightenment is best found in the design brief. It’s fair to say that most clients have some understanding of the necessity for a complete and useful design brief. However actually putting one together can be a lot more difficult and time consuming than expected.

What is a design brief?

There is no single right way to format your brief – it’s OK to compose a ‘narrative’ with paragraphed text, although a ‘bullet point’ list will work equally as well. On the whole the format you adopt will reflect the complexity and depth of the information it is designed to convey.

There is only one golden rule – the brief must be ‘written’ and never verbal! Despite common belief a well written, extensive brief will not only save time on production but it will also enhance and focus creativity!

Does every project need one?

Not at all. Many projects could be considered ‘ongoing’ or ‘routine’. Minor changes to existing documents, price list revisions etc, wouldn’t require a full brief as it might take longer to write and process than to actually complete the entire job!

How long should a design brief be?

Again, it depends entirely on the complexity of the project however one should never produce a short, simple brief at the expense of information.

A good brief is as long as it needs to be!

Who is responsible for it?

Writing the brief is entirely down to you – you are the expert at what you do and nobody knows more about your business than you and your colleagues. However we are experts at what we do and so, when it comes to ‘developing’ the brief we believe there should always be a commitment to ‘co-ownership’.

As design experts we see it as our responsibility to highlight any potential design, production or time issues that may arise from the specifics of the brief before the actual work begins.

Essential elements

Having identified what a brief is and why it is necessary, the next point is to ensure that all of the essentials are included. Here is a list of the most important information to be included within the brief:

The project overview and background.

Why we are here and what events have brought us to this point – a change in direction, a need to review the brand, falling sales, increasing sales, a new venture…

Remember, the more information available, the more creative and focused the solution will be.

Category review.

What industry ‘category’ is your business involved in?

On the face of it this may sound like an overly simple question but your company’s activities might fall into more than one category by design or straddle two by default, for example Hotel and Conference Facility or Fast Food and Childrens Entertainment. At this point it would be worth including information about your main competition and how they promote their business.

Try and include as much information as is available on how your current strategies/products/services compare.

Target audience review.

One of the most important and, equally, the least detailed factors of most design briefs is how the target audience is described. For a design team to truly understand who they are aiming to connect with, it’s essential that audiences are described in as much detail as is possible. If nothing else this exercise should provide you with confidence in knowing that you truly understand your target market.

Company profile.

Depending on the size and complexity of your company, compiling this information might take some considerable time and effort on the part of the author. However, please do percevere. This information is invaluable to the design teams overall understanding of what makes you (corporately) tick. Don’t forget that, once you’ve developed this part of the brief you can use it in future documents so never consider it to be more hassle than it is worth.

Business objectives and design strategy.

For a design solution to be truly effective, it must truly answer the brief! This section is probably the most important of the entire brief. It is here that you’ll need to define exactly what the primary aim of the project is and what effect it should have on your business objectives.

Now is the time to expand on the information offered in the ‘overview and background’ section whilst formulating the action plan and strategy for approaching the design process. For all intents and purposes it will become the “contract” under which we will all be working.

Project scope, timeline and budget.

So that everyone concerned understands all of the various aspects of the project, this detail is critical to developing a ‘road map’ to success. Projects will often require different levels of involvement – the ‘routine’ jobs with historically proven scope, time lines and budgets may only vary if a review is required. Other more complex or “phase” structured projects will have ‘deliverables’ for each phase and so must be defined in advance.

With production organised it is then very easy to allot a budget for that particular phase, and so on.

Avoiding scope creep.

The single most compelling reason why it is essential that project scope, timeline and budget are the list of ‘Essentials Elements’ MUST be addressed in advance of production starting is so that we can all steer clear of the dreaded ‘scope creep’.

Unless there is a properly structured schedule that covers the agreed production for the agreed budget, there will always be the potential for the project to, quite literally, ‘creep’ out of its projected time line and aportioned budget.