How To Write A Design Brief And Be A Glorious Client

Published by Nela Dunato on in Branding, Business, Graphic design

How To Write A Design Brief And Be A Glorious Client

Often when I’m talking with new clients about their goals for the branding or website design project, they half-apologetically say something along the lines of “I’m not sure what I want in terms of design”.

To which my answer is, “Perfect — that’s what I’m here for”.

What they really wonder is, how do I convey my ideas to a designer if I’m not a visual type? I’m telling you that you don’t need to worry about that.

Before I get into details of writing a design brief, I want to explain a bit on why we need a brief in the first place, and why some information is appropriate for a brief, and other isn’t. It begins with a dance called “relationship dynamic between the client and designer”.

A match made in heaven: complementary skills and compatible values

The best way to insure a successful collaboration between two professionals is to find people that have compatible values and a different skillset.

Recipe for a successful collaboration: Complementary Skills + Compatible Values

If the designer and the client don’t share at least some of their core values, the designer won’t feel like they can truly get behind the project, and they won’t be able to give their best. (This was a problem at my former jobs, which was the main reason why I started my own design studio.)

Also, if the designer’s and client’s skills overlap too much, there may be some stepping on each other’s toes during the course of the project (which can cause resentment in both parties), and not a whole lot of new value can be created from that space. It took me a while to get it, but now I understand how it works — at least for me and my ideal clients.

A good designer doesn’t need you to tell them your design ideas and color preferences.

We need you to give us two things: information about your business and content.

What we actually need is to see your vision for your business, and understand what you want to create for your clients.

I know that you probably weren’t aware of that, because it’s not exactly common knowledge—and it’s ours (designers) fault that we don’t take the time to explain it. It gets even more confusing because some designers might actually love getting clear instructions on colors, symbols and typography from their clients, instead of deducing it by themselves from the information the client provided.

I find that that’s most common with inexperienced designers lacking confidence. They prefer if someone just told them what to do, and don’t want too much responsibility on their hands. A newbie who is comfortable pushing pixels is a good match for micro-managing clients who want to make all the decisions (even those on matters they don’t know much about).

Not the experienced designer. An experienced professional has the knowledge and skills to lead their client through the process with confidence.

They take on full responsibility, and make design decisions based on their expertise, not subjective “likes” and “dislikes”. Experienced designer takes the information that clients provide in written form and uses their skills and knowledge to turn it into beautiful and effective visuals.

Depending on what kind of business owner you are, you might be annoyed (because you like micro-managing), or you might feel relieved that you have one less thing to worry about now.

If you’re in the latter group, please keep reading. (If you’re not, I’ve heard 99designs has a lot of newbies you can art-direct for as low as $100 per project.

I’m sure you don’t want to be one of those clients who ends up on the Clients From Hell blog. You want to be the client whose name showing up in our inbox brightens up our day. The client whose business we recommend to our friends saying “I’ve worked with her, she’s such a great person and a pro”. Let me tell you how you can be that client.

There’s a very easy way you can appear better than 90% of the clients we deal with.

Plan ahead: Start looking for a designer as soon as possible

I wrote about this in more detail in my article Avoid panic: Start looking for a designer before you need one. I’ll summarize the main point really briefly here.

The worst thing you can do is contact a designer a week before deadline, and assume they’ll be ready to start working on your project right away and get it done by tomorrow. A lot of us are booked at least a 1-2 months ahead, and I’ve seen sought-after designers being booked up to 9 months in advance. Also, the time that actually goes into a design project is often much longer than the clients anticipate.

So, how early do you need to contact a designer? I’d recommend you start looking around as soon as you decide you want to pursue this project. This way you’ll have the time to research potential designers and select one that is the perfect fit (instead of rushing into a relationship because you’re in a hurry), as well as give them ample time to fit you into their schedule. (See how I just gave you an excuse to avoid work and go “researching” for a potential designer on Instagram? You’re welcome.)

Make sure that you find a designer who specializes in the type of work you need. There are many different types of design services, and not all designers are capable or willing to do all of them. Verify that they have a similar project in their portfolio, or they mention it on their services page.

Now let’s go back to those two things you need to provide to your designer: business information and content. How do you go about doing that? That depends a lot on the designer’s process, and often you can’t know what it is until you ask.

Ask about their process

A professional designer has a process for getting the information they need from you and storing it for their use. They will take the lead and ask you relevant questions from which they will piece together their own brief. This process may take different forms:

  • Online form
  • PDF questionnaire
  • In-person meeting
  • Online meeting
  • A combination of above

Your designer may ask you for information you don’t like to give out, such as your online traffic stats, your revenue, number of newsletter subscribers, financial goals etc. but all of these help us get a clear picture of where your business is heading and how we can help your business grow. Rest assured that we keep this confidential.

If your designer hasn’t asked you any questions and expects you to provide them a brief, your job is a bit more difficult, but I’ll show you how to do it.

How to write a good brief

A design brief is a document that outlines relevant information about your business and all the project requirements. All the design work will be based on this document and your subsequent feedback. It’s your responsibility to provide information that is useful and accurate.

A brief can be in the form of a simple Word document—use plenty of paragraphs and headlines to keep the information organized.

When it comes to the content of the brief, the one thing you as a business owner must provide is information about your business:

  • Business type (sole trader, non-profit organization, LLC, etc.), year founded and number of employees.
  • Your business’s values/vision/mission.
  • List your products/services and how you sell them.
  • Your unique value proposition (ie. how you differ from others in your field).
  • Your target audience/ideal client profile.
  • Your main competitors.
  • Your business goals in the next 1-2 years and 5-10 years.

Specifically for brand identity design projects, I recommend including the following information as well:

  • Copy of a current brand strategy (if you have one).
  • Current state of your brand: symbol, colors, typography, graphics, and other elements you’re currently using that you may want to keep, or base the new brand on.
  • Mediums where you plan to apply your brand identity (stationery, brochures, website, social media, video, vehicles, merchandise, etc.)—it’s important to know this in advance, because the limitations of some mediums will guide design decisions.
  • The core values and qualities you want your brand to communicate to your clients.
  • If there are any absolute no-nos, like cliche symbols, colors used by competitors, qualities you don’t want to be associated with you etc. let the designer know about it.
  • If you have examples of text your clients wrote such as reviews, testimonials and thank you notes, include them as well—this will provide insight into what your best clients think and feel about you.
  • If you already use Pinterest, create a board with imagery that you feel represents the qualities and values your brand stands for—your mood board. (You can use other file-sharing services to do this as well, like Dropbox or Google Drive.)

I can’t go into detail for every type of project here, but I hope you got a good idea of what a design brief might look like. For web projects, relevant information may also include current statistics such as monthly unique visitors, conversion rate on sales pages, etc.

It that looks like a lot of work, it is. Design projects are not just about the designer “doing their thing”. It’s a collaborative process where you put your expertise on the table, and the designer picks it apart, rearranges, organizes, and packages it so it becomes more appealing to the right people.

The output of the project depends a lot on the input, that’s why the client’s work is most intense in the beginning. This is a phase where we’re building the foundation for the project.

As you may remember, we also had that other bit you need to take care of: your content.

How to prepare your content

While the brief is something you may or may not need to have prior to starting working with a designer, content is something you must have.

There are many problems with creating a website (or print design project) without content and I wrote a very detailed post on that. These are some of the things I’ve experienced with my own clients:

  • Once we put actual content into the placeholders, it fits poorly or looks nothing like our mock-up—often the case when the client says every blog post will have a featured image, and then 80% of posts don’t.
  • It takes months to launch the website after all the design & development is already done.
  • The client remembers they need “just one more thing” that hasn’t occurred to them before they started writing their content, which means more design & development work, which requires more money.
  • The website is pushed live with only the bare minimum content, and stays like that for years.

If you booked your designer well in advance, you can use the time while you’re waiting for them to become available to create your content. See how all that works out perfectly?

Creating content is your responsibility.

If you don’t want it to be your responsibility, you have other options:

  1. You can hire a marketing consultant/copywriter/content writer to help you brainstorm what type of content would be best for your audience, and who will write your content. (This is more expensive, but frees up so much of your time.)
  2. You can hire a virtual assistant to proofread and format the content you’ve written, and to find the right stock photos to accompany your articles. (This is cheaper, but requires a lot more input from you.)

If you decide to go the do-it-yourself route, you’ll need to get your content in order first.

(Rest assured that I follow my own advice: when I started this website, I had 2 months worth of blog posts lined up before the launch. I wrote them before I even started working on the design.)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

  1. Clarify who you want to serve and how you’re different from your competitors (my book The Human Centered Brand can help you with that)
  2. Create the content your clients will want to read, listen and look at

It may take you a while, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just a few days of concentrated effort can result in a business and content plan that will keep you busy for months or years to come.

And the best thing about this? Once you’re done, you’re done. You can just send it over to your designer and relax, knowing your business is in good hands.

Are you currently looking for a brand identity designer? Check out my branding services!.

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

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