About PM4Web

The PM4Web blog was born as an outlet to return knowledge back to the web development community. My goal is to share my experiences as a project manager from over the years in a manner which helps you succeed with your own projects.

09 September, 2009

Writing a Design Brief

Questions to ask before undertaking any creative project.

Comedian Chris Rock mused in one of his stand-up shows that "you can drive a car with your feet if you want to; it don't mean it's a good idea!" The same can be said for starting a creative endeavor without first taking down a design brief; you can certainly do it, but that doesn't make it a good idea.

What's a design brief meant to do? The idea behind the design brief process is to tease out what the client has in mind. It's meant to extract the visual communication requirements of the project. Whether it's the creation of a website or a brochure, the questions answered during the process will act as a guide for the development of the end product.

Why is a design brief even needed you may ask, can't we just 'wing it' and see how it turns out? After all, creativity shouldn't be constrained by bureaucratic procedure. This is definitely true, you don't want to apply stringent protocols to a creative endeavor, it can actually stifle the flow of creative juices. That said, a design brief is about moving from a vague idea to something firm that everyone can agree on. It's about moving away from "I'll know what I like when I see it" to a shared sense of the project's purpose.

Should you run into the attitude of "just get on with it", it falls upon you to explain the importance of undertaking the briefing session. Something along these lines should suffice: "the design brief session takes about 15-25 minutes. It needs to be done so I can produce a high quality product for you."

So what does a design brief document look like, and how do you conduct the briefing session? The template I use is a simple Word document about a page and a half long. It consists of 15 questions. There is also a preamble section with a short paragraph describing the document's purpose and another one on why the design brief is needed. On average, the briefing session itself takes about 20-30 minutes to complete. It can be done in the board room or at a cafe, it makes no difference since its an interview-style format.

Let's take a look at some of questions you may want to include in your own design brief document. I should state that this template is best suited to smaller projects, like the creation of a ad for a niche magazine, or the development of a business website presence. It won't cut it for that Coca-Cola campaign you're pitching for. It's simple enough for anyone to use, not just professional graphic designers.

Target audience - You are trying to find out who the material is intended for. You want to know things like the audiences' age, gender ratio, locality (national vs. international), occupation, etc. Why would such information be relevant? Take age for instance, if you were making a business card which is destined to be handed to seniors, it wouldn't be a good idea to use a tiny font on it.

Organization background - you should have a basic understanding of what your client's business does. Getting a brief history of your client's business will give context to the work you are doing.

Communication objectives - what message is are you trying to convey? What feeling or metaphors reflect the spirit of the product or company? For example; is the client going for a corporatey image or something more fun and friendly?

Market positioning - this connects closely to communication objectives. Is the client trying to appear like a big established company or an innovative new-comer? Do they want to appear as an international player or something more exclusive?

Business objectives - what is the client actually trying to do with this piece of marketing material? Is it meant to act as a sales tool, is it meant to encourage inquires, or is it meant to promote brand awareness?

Overall design goals - is the client going for continuity with their existing marketing material or are they trying to establish a new brand or product?

Keywords indicative of the product - this is an opportunity to get some alignment with what your client has in mind. For example; you may ask "what are some words that describe the logo I'm designing for you?", the client may come back with "simple, credible, professional".

Colors - is there a company style guide you need to follow? It could be that the client has some particular colors they wants you to try out. Otherwise, you would state you intend to stick with the existing corporate branding color scheme.

Hierarchy of information - what should grab the audience's attention first? This question is especially relevant for websites. Take a website selling a new product, you would expect the 'call to action' to have a very prominent position on the homepage.

Where to find inspiration - ask the client to show you examples of work similar to the style they want used for the project. With a website, you may ask "can you show me some websites you like?"

Design examples - it’s not enough to just see the examples, you want to find out what the client likes or dislikes about them (e.g. "its a simple design, I like that" or "our competitors website is cluttered with text"). There could be many aspects which appeal to your client, including: color, imagery, typography, atmosphere, etc.

Artwork and content readiness - its best to find out early if things like logos are available in a high-res digital format, or if the copy text is ready. This often serves as a heads-up to the client, letting them know they have work to do as well (i.e. preparing the content for their website). It may also act as a signal to indicate a copywriter is needed on the project.

Time constraints - its vital to know when the work has to be ready. Your client may have an expo coming up which requires brochures to be printed and ready before-hand.

Budget and resource constraints - how much time and money is available for the project? There has to be some kind of alignment between your client's expectations and what you can deliver based on their budget and deadline. You may even find you can't take on the project, better to know this early on than commit to something you can't achieve.

Language to use - should the text appearing in the product be informal, corportey, inspirational, emotive? This may not be relevant to you if a copywriter is involved in the project.

Dilbert, graphic design department rushed

As mentioned earlier, the design brief acts as a guide. It should be looked at periodically at various stages of the project to make sure you're on track. It should also be reviewed when the product is completed, to check that the original objectives of the project have truly been met.

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