Compass. Blueprint. Roadmap. There are lots of words that describe the function of a design brief, just as there are lots of approaches to writing the brief itself. The key, of course, is making your brief as effective as possible. The stakes are too high, and the potential rewards too great, to do anything less. When getting ready to take on any client project, make sure you create a strong backbone with a design brief that gets everyone on the same page.
But first, what is a design brief and why is it so important?
On any project, the design brief is your touchstone for project management. In one compact document, you have a thorough guide to all the key elements of your project—its vision and its function, its scope and its shape.
Here are a few reasons why creating a good design brief will improve your next project:
Your client gets a clear idea on what to expect through every step of the process.
Your team has an outlook for moving toward a common goal, with workflow and prototype needs carefully laid-out.
Your leadership can make early, informed decisions on how to spend time and money, ideally finding ways to make the process smoother and faster.
Your various departments can identify challenges and tripwires before they develop into bigger problems.
The entire involved unit—agency and client—can use the clearly defined vision as a springboard into other concepts, either related or brand-new.
How to write a great design brief
Every good design brief needs a few standard elements. In this article, we’ll cover 13 tips for writing a great design brief, so you and your clients will be on the same page from start to finish:
Get your client’s business info
Understand your client’s history
Understand your client’s goals and KPIs (key performance indicators)
Define the target audience
Determine the project deliverables
Include the media files needed for the project
Understand your client’s look and feel
Understand your client’s voice
State the budget
Include the cost of maintenance and upgrades
Add a project timeline
Include project milestones
1. Get your client’s business info
This is square one. Here you want to get all of your clients’ core attributes: history, product use, demographics, brand guidelines, and unique selling points (USPs). You also want to include your client-contact right at the top, so you always have a direct line of communication. Usually this person is a company director or marketing manager.
2. Understand your client’s history
As you’re developing the brief, probe deeper. How was the company founded? Where did its name originate? What are its long-term plans and business model? Learning and possibly incorporating such details can guide and/or strengthen your overall approach and build stronger client relationships.
3. Understand the goals and KPIs (key performance indicators)
Along with knowing your client’s target audience, you need to know the precise result you’re seeking from them. This means narrowing the mission into measurable components. “Drive more site traffic,” for example, is probably too general a goal. Instead, use a project quantitative goal to compare current site-visitor numbers to desired site-visitor numbers.
4. Define the target audience
Establish a clear idea about your clients’ target consumer. A broad outline usually isn’t enough; you want to create a distinct persona—or multiple personas—that your design will “speak to.” Maybe it’s all-new users, or maybe it’s former users who have recently turned elsewhere. Know those answers cold.
5. List competitors
It’s crucial to know who and what you’re up against. Track all your corollaries, not only from competitors offering the same product, but companies in other industries that have aesthetics worth emulating.
6. Determine the project deliverables
Be direct about outlining the finished product. Your client might want a full site design from scratch, or just a redesign. Within the build, you might be expected to deliver a new logo, a bookings page, a discussion forum—or all three. This is a good time to introduce new capabilities and services your client may not have considered previously. Confirm all projects deliverables before you complete a site handover.
7. Include the media files needed for the project
This detail can get overlooked, but including file formats in the brief can save you trouble down the road. Dig into those details—what are the expected platforms for social media files, sizes for print files, and image assets for visuals?
8. Understand your client’s look and feel
If you’ve successfully addressed the first seven, you’re probably already clear on your client’s brand aesthetic, and your responses here should fall into place. An upmarket product might opt for a more dignified, “classy,” look; a product aimed at teens might skew bolder and brighter. These considerations must be translated into clearly delineated choices—color palettes, graphic designs, typography. This section is your moodboard.
9. Understand your client’s brand voice
Language is just as important as look. You have to know how your content will read—not just stylistically, but also with regard to general length-preferences and segments that require custom content. Plus you have to clarify who’s generating that content—you or your client.
10. State the budget
Avoid generalizing or guesstimating. And be inclusive, accounting for all factors from initial research to final review, plus every point in between—design and development, coordinating and testing.
11. Include the cost of maintenance and upgrades
In many cases, that first delivery is just one stage of the process. Make sure your budgeting also accommodates longer-term considerations, such as maintenance and upgrades. No one wants a good relationship to sour over what are perceived to be “hidden costs.” So set clear expectations from the start and continue to build great relationships with your clients.
12. Add a project timeline
Be rigorous about crafting your schedule, and avoid the planning fallacy—too much optimism forecasting the speed of completion. (And if you’re following each step here, that shouldn’t happen.) Obviously, full site creation will take longer than a redesign, just as eCommerce sites will be more involved than simpler ones. Consider “showing your work”: indicate the thought-process behind the estimated delivery time. This will help you to productively manage the client feedback process and be in control of your schedule from start to finish.
13. Include project milestones
While most eyes focus on that ultimate hand-off of deliverables, an effective schedule should also feature markers along the way. Clearly signal points between commencement and final submission, such as draft deadlines and review periods.
Now that you have a basis for writing a design brief, here are a few more principles and practices to consider:
By its nature, a brief isn’t a “finished” work, and is more of a plan than a product. But it is your compass. Make sure you stay on point, always sticking to the key concepts. (There’s a reason it’s known as a brief.) And, when possible, emphasize the actionable over the theoretical.
No, you’re not writing an epic guide or even an eBook. Still, you’re laying the foundation for a lot of work to come. Be precise about both concepts and details. On-point numbers can be more helpful than words or graphics.
Collaborate with your team
As you develop the brief, the document should regularly make the rounds of stakeholders and key colleagues. At early stages of a project, you only stand to gain by being flexible and open-minded. Solicit feedback and explore as many avenues as possible.
Sure, the brief is a planning tool. In another sense, it’s a call to action. You want everyone who’s using the completed brief to be on the same page and envision your project’s possibilities, so you can make any client project come to life. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your client and make a personal connection.
Of course, before deciding to take on any project you’ll want to make sure you’re a good fit first. Take the time to ask the questions that matter. To help guide you along the way, check out 12 questions to ask a client before taking on a web design project.