How To Write An Effective Creative Brief

Creative freelancers can save time and avoid miscommunication when working with their if they use an effective creative brief in their process. Simply talking about project expectations will not result in the clarity required for a successful result.

There are a few immediate benefits to use creative briefs:

1] The client values the creative and their work more than if a brief is not used. When you offer a brief, you’re elevating your work and your thinking in the mind of the client, because you’re focusing in on using design, photography or illustration to meet their business objectives.

2] Using a design brief changes the role of design from a necessary decorative add-on to a core business asset.

You increase your value, which can translate into increase revenue for the client and for you.


What is a creative brief?

The creative brief (also call a design brief or an innovation brief) is a summary of a design project. It provides a road map for expectations and working relationships while the project is in development. It describes the purpose, parts and schedule of a requested design solution. It outlines the client’s requirements and how the designer will address them. It provides enough information for the designer to proceed confidently, but not so much that her creativity is stifled.

While the use of creative briefs is prevalent in among corporations, it is better for the designer to write the creative brief. When the client writes the brief, it can fall short in providing the specific information the designer needs.

Clients will sometimes send out a Request For Proposal. An RFP is not a creative brief. RFPs describe needs but do not include how those needs will be met by the designer. The effective course is for the designer to write the brief and offer it to the client for review and discussion prior to proceeding with the design project. In this way, the designer becomes the project manager and navigator, which is reasonable and preferred, since it by removing management responsibilities from the client, the client is free to pursue their normal business duties.

I implemented the use of creative briefs in my design practice years ago, and discovered that my clients trust me more because they have assurance that I understand and can address their needs. They also treat me as a professional peer and strategic business partner.

While many designers keep the creative brief and the contract separate, others combine the two. I utilize a combined version because it is more efficient for my design process. I have a road map for the project but also a cost breakdown, terms of service and a signature, and I am able to start work with confidence. Word of caution to the designer: by assuming the role of manager, you are assuming responsibility for the project and any associated risks.


Do all design projects require a creative brief?

A single deliverable, such as a print advertisement or web banner ad, may be simple enough that a confirmation letter will suffice. Complex projects, such as the development of a web site, an app, an identity program, or a rebrand, should be detailed in a brief. When the client is a larger organization, corporation or agency, or managed by a board of directors, the creative brief outlines the roles of all the players.


A creative brief is unique to a project and a client.
No two briefs are alike.


In my experience, a creative brief is unique to a project and a client. No two briefs are alike. I developed a loose template to use as my starting point, and modify it to address the needs of each project. Creative briefs vary in length according to the needs of the project, and can take several hours to compose.


What should you include in a creative brief?

These are my top 10 creative brief essentials. Use this list as a guide for your initial consultation with a new client  to clarify their purpose and goals.

    1. Business profile. The designer needs to understand what your enterprise or organization is about, including why it exists, what it offers, how long it’s been established, and what its mission is. What is its history? Who are the people it serves? How does it meet its customers’ needs?


    1. Current situation. Answer the question, “Why are we doing this?” What created the need for the design project? A new service launch? A re-brand? An expansion? A merger? The need for a mobile-responsive web site? A new face for social media? Why are we doing this? is the most important question the designer asks, and it should be answered in detail.


    1. Position and differentiation. Provide a realistic picture of where your organization stands in the marketplace. How is it seen compared to competitors? How is your company different? What is your current marketing strategy? What designs are you currently using? Are they working?


    1. Objectives. What do you want to accomplish with this creative project? What outcomes do you expect? Be specific. Don’t say, “We want to expand our market reach.” but, “We are doing fine reaching our current audience of 30-45-year-old professionals but need to expand into the such-and-such market in order to grow, and we need to stay relevant to both demographics.”


    1. Brand reputation. What is your organization’s image in the marketplace? How are it perceived by its clients and the general population? How do you want it to be perceived? What messages do you want to avoid?


    1. Target Audience. Who are you reaching currently? Who do you want to reach? What is missing in your marketing or branding strategy? How are your current and target audiences unique? Include both demographic and psychographic information.


    1. What is your budget for the project? What are you prepared to invest? Provide a flexible ballpark figure for the entire project. Many times the project specifics cannot be accomplished because not enough money has been allocated. Clients don’t know the amount of time or costs involved in a project, and may have unrealistic expectations of what is possible. Come to the table with a flexible amount and allow the designer to itemize the various project parts.


    1. Schedule. When do you need the project completed? Do you have a roll-out sequence or does everything launch at once? Are there internal presentations scheduled that the designer needs to know about? Allow the designer to chunk the development process into phases and budgets. Phases I have identified include: Audit (of the client’s current graphic assets), Investigation (research into the client’s current and intended markets), Concept (develop the specified number of concepts that address the stated purpose), Review (with client and market testing), Refine (develop most successful concept further and then review again), Finalize (create the design in final form), Deploy (implement the final design.)Allow enough time for development, reviews, refinements and implementations. Do not surprise the designer with, “I need this in two days”. Be prepared to pay immediacy fees for short turn-arounds and additional fees for added work. The bulk of creative problem-solving occurs in the initial stages of a project and is not seen by the client. The client sees the results of the work, not the process. So, ask about your designer’s working process in order to gain insight about the time that is needed. To ensure the best solutions, make allowance for adjustments in the schedule. An experienced designer has a good idea of how long a project will take, and will communicate up front and throughout the project when adjustments are necessary.Clients! Realize that delays on your part will affect the development schedule. Be quick to respond to your designer’s questions and provide feedback promptly.Designers, do not assume anything! Do what you can while waiting for your client’s response, but do not move forward on key items without go-aheads.


    1. Medium and platforms. Given the complexity of marketing options, these need to be determined up front and thoroughly. Examples of mediums and platforms: web site, brochure, social media graphics, device apps, videos, slide decks, environmental graphics, fleet graphics, banner ads. Do all you can to avoid hitting your designer with a new item in mid-stream. Be as thoroughas possible in outlining your needs up front so that the designer can run with the project. When you need to change the scope, expect the schedule and budget to be impacted. An experienced designer is used to some amount of scope creep and will deal with it graciously.


  1. Technical specifications. Will the designs be used in a video? Be sure the designer and the production team are connected. Does your website need to be translated into 3 Chinese dialects? Get the designer connected with the translation service. Does the trade show display need to fit certain dimensions? Is the designer required to work with a specific printer, web host or fabricator? These should all be communicated up front so that the designer knows how to proceed and the budget can be adjusted.

Whether you are the designer or the client, a creative brief sets the stage for a comfortable working relationship and creates trust and mutuality. Designer and client are united in a common purpose, valuing each other’s roles as business partners and strategic allies.