10 tips for writing graphic design briefs

Here are some valuable tips for writing graphic design briefs, kindly provided by Sharon Hayes of Round Box Design. Sharon has a wealth of experience and has worked as a graphic designer since 1994.

Pebbles

10 tips for clients writing graphic design briefs

  1. Realise that any designer you hire is a professional (or should be) and must be treated as such.
  2. Understand that designers are not mind readers — that class is still under development.
  3. Before coming to a graphic designer, have your business model ready and your plan up to par. No design can save any business that is not well thought out.
  4. Number 3 will allow you to fully understand the goal of your business, the ideas you want to convey and who your target market is for any design.
  5. Understand your product or service and be able to explain it clearly – this ties in with number 4. It definitely helps the designer if you clarify exactly what (if it’s a logo) the design will be developed for. Knowing this ahead of time can prevent any future misunderstandings, in-effective design or troublesome production.
  6. Understand it wont be free. When people post on a design forum and expect a design service for free it is frustrating and shows how little they think of the process.
  7. Communicate with the designer — dont dictate. If you have questions or concerns, voice them, and return the favour of listening.
  8. Don’t try to design for the designer — you hired them for their knowledge and talent. Let them utilise that to put your company in the best light possible. Of course the designer should also take your opinions into consideration, especially if it deals with an industry-specific issue. This is still very much communication on both sides.
  9. For the designer: Do not assume you know the client industry! Each industry has its own specific requirements, quirks and expectations. LISTEN to the client, their concerns, what they want to play up, what they are truly selling and how they want to present themselves in the market. Ads that are pretty may win awards but they don’t always win market-share.
  10. Set expectations up-front: Both the client and designer need to let the other know what they expect as far as materials, deadlines and communication. Will you be meeting on a regular basis? Phone? Emails? How are you delivering materials? Are you going to be there for press proofs? How far will you follow the completion of the project. Make sure there are no surprises.

Do you have any advice for writing a design brief?

A client’s ability to deal with a designer (and vice versa) is vital. If you have additional tips, or a question about the process, feel free to leave a comment.

34 responses

  1. This looks like an outline of many discussions amongst my group of colleagues. Might add an additional point, something along the lines of “Significant functionality added halfway through the project was not included in the initial estimate, and WILL cost more”.

  2. I love top ten lists, thanks for sharing. I think you hit it on the head with listening to the clients (and probably vise-versa). Many a misunderstandings can be avoided through good communication.

  3. I haven’t had a lot of things done by graphic designers, but the things I have had done, I have drawn out everything the way I’d like to see it. They gave some pointers but basically just made what I had drawn look professional. It’s also going to cost more if you change or add something, just like someone building your house, so think about it carefully before you present it and you’ll save yourself a lot of money and frustration.

  4. Very informative.

    But there are many times the clients asked to do some research and add content, during the web design process, and also later point the pit-falls in it. How do you manage occasions like these?

    Also situations are there when some of the long-term clients asked to do this thing by next day and hosted without any reviews, but the immediate next day they call and say, “This is not upto my expectations. Please change.”…..

    How do you manage? (Specially when you are at the starting point of your career ladder..!!!)

  5. “Before coming to a graphic designer, have your business model ready and your plan up to par. No design can save any business that is not well thought out. ”

    This is such an important part that a lot of clients never do. It becomes even more of a problem in the web design industry….the development process of the website begins to scope creep, and the client ends up getting frustrated that they are being invoiced for this additional work outside of the original scope. If the client had a solid plan in place before hiring a design company, they would usually save a lot of money!

  6. Don’t expect more than one candidate layout and don’t ask for more than one. You are not being offered the chance to take a little from item A and a little from item B just so you can create an item C that you felt “creative” about.

  7. Thanks for your comments. I’m sure Sharon appreciates the feedback.

    Siddharth, looks like we have a mind-reading graphic designer in our midst.

    Jay, that’s a niche in the market. Need a partner?

    Kevin, we’re not long into our profession before one crops up.

    Chaitanya, web isn’t my speciality, so I’m not that clued-in on those you’re referring to. But expecting a site launch within a day?. I advise telling from the outset that changes will be charged at your hourly rate.

    Joe, quite a strict policy. Are you referring to web layouts?

  8. ^^/” Heyas Dave, nice site!

    Basically most of these were in response to a forum post requesting help on creating a client brief, and many things are ones I have come across not just “independent contracting” but also as an employed graphic designer.

    Nancy- Very true. Many times a client will do the “oh by the way” without realizing that it comes at a cost. Whether the cost is time or materials (and many times both) – with computers and so many “cousin graphic experts” alot of clients have the misconception it is just a “click of the button” when there is much more planning involved. Sure, I can click the button, but it took me 2 days to figure where the best place to click it would be so you dont get charged hundreds of dollars more.

    Chai – for web sites, I NEVER start online, I always start on paper and with a flow chart to show what information we have, where were currently are as far as navigation (to prevent me from designing the same button 10 times). This was taught to me by another designer who specialized in multimedia content. By doing this you can figure the code out later, but it gives you and the client a good checklist to start by.

    Also, by flow charting the site – you give yourself a visual on how many pages you really have, is it four or fourty (yes I have had one grow to that large) – and how many supporting documents with they have for people to download? what other medias are they offereing? (such as movie files or audio files) – make sure this is there so if they want something you dont feel qualified for you are able to recommend a professional you know can do the job to their “expectations”,

    David is right, no websites in a day if they want a good, inclusive and solid business site. It goes back to basic business – are they business to business, business to consumer, what are people looking for information wise, again – talking with the client before hand, maybe a questionnaire, etc. I still think people take their websites too lightly, and its frustrating when you ask what they want it to accomplish and they have no idea.

    What you can do… is find your own “test server” site for them preview and ok the site on – this way they are able to see a working version of the site, but it isnt live with possible mistakes. especially with information about the product or service. Flow chart it and then work with them from there. Sometimes clients are that way (and I have had a few myself) and not much you can do at times. Get a small, quick site up and then work from there

    BUT, what you can do – when you quote the price for that small quick site – is give them a scope of what will be included in that project… so many changes by such a time line. Otherwise it will be hourly as Dave so properly suggested. Its basic business on that one – they want a small fast site, usually they dont want to pay a lot and your time is just as valuable as theirs.

    Jay – you already know

    Joe – unfortunately it doesnt always work that way – but by talking to the client, learning a bit more about their expectations you can get closer with A or B and not worry as much as a C. Its all about letting them know your scope from the beginning – and showing you want to work WITH them for the right image. Not just for them – but have an interest in it – once again that doesnt always work and I have walked away from a few clients.

    That’s about it for now, back to “work” ^^/

    talk to ya soon Dave and keep up the excellent work

    -Sharon

  9. Can’t say I’m a graphic designer by trade, but having done freelance work here and there over the years, I can say this is a great list of tips. On the mark in every way. Well done!

  10. As mentioned already, number 3 is vital.

    We’re currently working with a client who approached us about 3 months ago to request a new website for the main company and a new site for their flagship product/service (the current by their own admission is awful). They also wanted some of the back office functions brought online to improve workflow and reduce paperwork.

    As usual we gave the client a list of 10 questions surrounding the website, and ultimately this lead to a series of meetings of the Directors and staff to take a look at where the company was, is, and wanted to go, and comparing this to the original plan. We were fortunate enough to sit in on some of these meetings, which not only was a fascinating process on it’s own, but also gave us great insight into what really made the company tick.

    Just an interesting aside as to why number 3 is so important for many reasons!

  11. Sharon, thanks again for the guest post, and for responding to each commentator.

    Karl, great how you gained experience from the meetings that took place, and thanks for the added insight into #3.

    Jay,

  12. There are a couple of posters here that have indicated that some long term clients’ expectations are unrealistic and that they need it yesterday and once complete the client inidcates it’s not up to speed.

    My response….
    Approvals, Approvals, Approvals… Make sure you get client approvals before anything is sent to print or online populace. I can see how established clients do tend to get breaks with quick turnarounds …etc, but having said that its up to you as the designer to educate the client on turn-arounds, expectations, budgets and approvals. As far as revisions – raise the flag – again the client needs to understand that revisions take time and are not free unless you have budgeted for one round of revisions in your initial estimate.
    Thanks again David.

  13. Hi david,
    Nice, straightforward and valuable tips. Thanks for writing such informative posts from time to time. And i also liked the idea of flow charting. Clients do need to understand hoe designers execute their work. And also the importance of client approvals is very very essential to save the valuable time and creative energy.
    Keep writing.

  14. Really great tips. Let me add something that applies in the corporate world and when dealing with agencies.

    (1) Beware of the requirements from your boss or other departments before you jump ahead. They might not tell you the full story upfront, but will cause troubles later on (You should have known our policy …)

    (2) Also beware of the middle men in agencies. Sometimes they assume too much (especially when it comes to billing you).

    Even though it might take longer to properly prepare briefing material and get internal approval. It might save the project’s time line and the budget if you do so. Just walk up to those folks, get their approval in writing (at least informal) … don’t just wait till the email you back. You might be waiting too long.

    Yours John.

  15. I guess some clients just believe the designer is responsible for the whole process. We’ve had two recent experiences, one with an occasional client who wanted a custom business software, and he had absolutely no idea what he would be needing from that software, in terms of invoicing capabilities, management of stock, clients, storage… We referred him to his business consultant to have those needs sorted out.
    The other case is a prospective client who wants to renew the website of his business (and rightly so, the current one is painful to watch). We went to his offices, had to sit there for an hour because he was late, and then didn’t even spend more than 5 minutes with us. How dared we believe that he had made up his mind about what he wanted for his new website; he hadn’t given it a moment of thought, and didn’t even remember the URL of his current website, so we had to google it ourselves.
    Still, those clients sometimes let you make decisions and trust your judgement, so we will make a proposal and see what happens…

    Well, that’s the real world, things don’t always work like they should.

  16. Umberto, approvals are absolutely necessary before printing, I completely agree. Having your client sign-off guarantees you against any post-press changes the client thinks of.

    grafic7, thanks to Sharon for the post. I was happy to include it here.

    John, good of you to add your $0.02 from the corporate world. Thanks very much.

    GD,

    “…that’s the real world, things don’t always work like they should.”

    Wise words. You’ll learn much more from 1st hand experience than you ever can by studying.

  17. Just like to share a little more based on Sharon’s #9. Besides wanting to know what the client wants, I also want to know what he doesn’t want. The answers could be so interesting that my creative/copy/production team got to re-think the entire game plan. I often caught first time client s off guard with this question. Many told me later that they got more clarity, on the kind of end results they want, as a result.

  18. Oh! Thanks to Sharon first for the tips and again for replying back with an equally long comment.
    In the matter of websites i want to know why clients expect the designer to do the content management part. That’s something i dislike to do (except my own blog!).
    How to handle a web design project? Any suggestions….

  19. Good points Sharon/David. The number of times I’ve had to weasel more information out of clients who think a brief is saying things like “make it modern” or even “you know what to do”!

    Getting as good a brief as possible from clients means time saved and more time spent in the areas and on the ideas that need work and development. I’m thinking of putting together my own article as a guide and may incorporate some of these points. Would that be ok?
    Thanks for the info.

  20. Great list.

    I think communication is especially important and actually could do with a blog post of it’s own. Maybe I’ll write that one day when I get time.

    I’ve found my most difficult projects have been where the client has resisted communicating with me.

    You know where attempts to garner opinions and feedback are met with barely any response and you wonder where on earth to go next with such lack of feedback.

    That’s when the magical mind reading skills come into force ;)

  21. Gareth, “You know what to do.” I’ve heard that before. As for using the article, please keep it under 15% of the content, with a link to the rest. Thanks.

    Amanda, you’re right about the communication part. Perhaps a series of posts would be more appropriate. ;) Since taking up graphic design I’ve become more and more appreciative of my mind-reading skills. Without doubt.

  22. The most important thing I think as designers is not to expect the clients to be aware of the design process. It’s up to us to educate them on how it will happen and what we require from them (as well as what they shouldn’t expect). If possible, writing up a contract and getting it signed will save hassle later, especially with the old ‘oh by the way’ changes. I sometimes use a contract with a list of each stage of the design process and what will happen in it, with the requirements and signoffs needed to progress to the next stage (good for web design, grafic7). We also need to ask lots of questions and push the clients to respond, rather than just taking whatever they give us. Sometimes clients get so excited about the visual possibilities that they don’t think about the other things we as designers do – ie. their markets, colour appropriation, international and cultural considerations, etc as well as all the visual. I had clients who I was doing a logo for that seemed to want completely opposing things, so I had to discuss and draw out what they really wanted, it took ages but preparation before starting is better for you in the long run! It’s difficult to do this, especially with new clients.

    But we push on! :) I like these discussions. I hope my 2c was helpful!

  23. Once the brief is written and has been agreed, this should be the hymn-sheet everyone sings to. Client: Be aware of any additional ‘bits’ of work you request, not originally in the brief, once work is underway. This is known as ‘project creep’ and frustrates even the most experienced designers.

    Accommodating designers will bite their tongue and say “yes, I can do that, no problem”. Quite often these seemingly small tidbits of work accumulate and form quite a substantial amount in addition to what was originally agreed. So don’t be surprised when eventually your frustrated designer turns around and requires additional but deserved payment. Communication is the key!

  24. I advocate re-writing the client brief to make sure that it is in the format that I need and addresses the questions that I have before beginning the project. That way, when you pass the revised brief to your team there is consistency — a house briefing style, so to speak. Get the client to sign off on what YOU think the project details are and you’ll avoid — not all the time — a good number of headaches.

  25. Great post David,

    Here in the MENA region design is greatly undervalued, a large chunk of all my new clients clash with at least 5 of the points you mentioned! A lot of the time they dictate and design for us as well.

    It’s been a full time job lately educating some of my clients around the importance of the process in Logo design and the use of typography.

    I’m thinking I should translate those points to Arabic :)

    cheers,

  26. Pushingrock, certainly, avoiding headaches is what it’s all about, for all parties.

    Mustapha, that’s great you found Sharon’s advice of use. Thanks for saying.

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