The problem with design briefs

Written by Finn Taylor on 12th December 2016

(Last updated 26th April 2017)

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A well-written design brief is the cornerstone of any design project, and yet it can be surprisingly difficult to write one that actually helps the designer.

For clarity's sake, I am not talking about the web design brief which outlines the project, its objectives, audience groups, functional requirements etc, I am talking about the brief that is given to the designer, helping them to understand the client's visual persona/brand.

So what is the problem with design briefs?

Over the past 20 years we have been on the receiving end of many design briefs, and whilst a few of these have been useful in helping us to understand the brand, it is sad to say that the majority of these have not really helped us, often falling into a common pattern of defining a brand with bland sets of keywords:

Our brand is:
Modern, contemporary, professional, knowledgeable, expert, trustworthy, reliable, etc

It can be tempting to laugh or howl when reading these statements as they all sound sensible and we are sure that the team that generated these thought long and hard about them, however these keywords do not actually tell us very much about the brand and they are a bit obvious….after all, you would not want your brand to be Old fashioned, backward, unprofessional, incompetent, untrustworthy or unreliable…!!!!

From experience most briefs seem to have the same set of values (we can almost pre-write these), they are therefore not unique or defining for a company persona, and worst of all they are not tangible or useful for a designer as they can be said about almost any company…we therefore need to find better ways of describing a brand.

The obvious answer is that your design brief should simply reference your Brand manual adding in a bit of additional thought, however all too often this document is a Corporate identity manual (rather than a Brand manual), telling you everything you need to know about how to use the logo, the colors, the typography and some rules about image usage. Unfortunately the visual persona, the emotional values…the essence of the brand are often not well defined and may simply be stated as a collection of keywords as above.

Trying to solve the fact that often projects do not have strong briefing documents, I have in the past found myself running design briefings where I have tried to squeeze out more fidelity and understanding of the client's brand. Embarrassingly I have been guilty of quizzing clients on their brand values asking question such as “If your brand was a car, what car would it be?", “if your brand was a puppy, what type of puppy would it be?" etc. Looking back, this seems cringy and clumsy, but there was nothing wrong with trying to position a brand by establishing its relationship and position to other tangibles, but surely there must be a more methodical way of establishing a language and vocabulary for this.

So the question comes back to 'how do you write a meaningful design brief?’…how do you convey what you want the look and feel of your new website?

You could find examples of other websites that you like….but this only shows us what you like and actually tells us nothing about what your brand needs. An alternative is that you could suggest brand alignments, however again this is a relatively blunt approach and does not help to differentiate your brand at all.

Writing a strong design brief is very difficult process – the reality is that a design brief is often an attempt to work around a poorly written Brand manual, as if this did the job, then the design brief would not be needed.

If you are in the position where you need to do this, then you need to accept that:

  • by the nature of what you are doing, you are actually trying to write a brand manual/guide…this is more than a simple briefing document!
  • you may be overstepping the scope and mandate of the project, as this has wider implications across channels.
  • this is more than writing a briefing document…there is a journey that you need to travel to define a brand.
  • ultimately this is a brand definition project.

Please feel free to share any thoughts and examples of good design briefs and processes people can go through, as most we encounter do not help the designer.

This article was posted in Musings, Design by Finn Taylor

  • Finn Taylor

    Finn Taylor

    Finn is a founding director of Liquid Light, and he still (after 22 years of web design) likes to get involved in projects. When he is not worrying about the clients, he is studying Chinese medicine, working with young criminals and doing spartan challenges.

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