How to create a top quality design or project brief

Nicholas Green, founder of printed.com, shares his insight on the key elements which should be included in an effective brief

Writing a high quality design or project brief is a fundamental skill for any business to ensure you get what you were looking for in the first place. Yet, its value is often underestimated, until unsatisfactory work that you commissioned is submitted. So much time and money can be wasted just because suppliers didn’t fully understand what you wanted – and don’t then deliver. The awkward position this leaves you in is to either push for changes the supplier doesn’t feel it should have to make or you having to make a decision on whether you have fair grounds to withhold payment. If I’m being honest, I know how to write a good brief now but it’s a skill which has taken me many years to hone. My company, printed.com, recently conducted research on branding for small businesses which highlighted how designers view the briefs which start-ups and small businesses provide them with. More than a third said they felt that new businesses do not put together quality briefs, with a similar amount also stating that they are not given sufficient time for briefs to be fulfilled. The stats indicate there is clearly work to be done in terms of the briefs which start-ups and small businesses are creating, but how can they improve?

The basics

A project or design brief is essentially a document which concisely outlines what you expect from your supplier and the timeframe in which you expect them to deliver it. To provide context, share what the core objectives of your business are and how the project fits in. Putting a well thought out idea down on paper focuses and defines your objectives. It ensures your primary goals remain front of mind for you and your supplier. A brief is not set in stone and as projects develop, naturally there may be changes of direction and so the brief can, and should, be amended to reflect this – something you should always make clear in writing, along with the process you agree to go through to agree amends, when you share it. Regardless, a brief will enable you to track your progress and will become a map of your project.

What makes a good brief?

Calling on my own experience, writing the rebranding brief for printed.com was one of the toughest I have ever had to put together. To set the scene, think late nights, lots of coffee, various abandoned A4 pads and a scattered packet of pens. The difficulty is when you sit down to think about what your company does, what the brand stands for, and the different audiences you want to engage with. You quickly find yourself becoming lost within your own messaging. However, there are a number of elements that contribute to a good brief and you can use them as a checklist to keep your writing focused and your brief succinct and concise: …    Always include a brief introduction with your intent at the beginning. …    Have a paragraph containing some basic, but key, background information about the company, or specific project. …    Set out the key objectives – state clearly what the brief needs to achieve. Your objectives will map out the majority of the brief’s content. …    List competitors; provide a snapshot of the particular industry. …    Provide examples of things you like that relate to what you’re asking for. Helping a designer or other supplier to visualise what you want will help. …    Detail the schedule – include key dates and (realistic deadlines).

How to create your masterpiece

  1. Once you’ve got a clear idea of what your brief should include, you can then focus on putting it together. Again, there are several key steps you should follow:
  2. Take your time: Rushing through this crucial document could have a negative impact on the future success of your business. Have a look at your schedule and plan a realistic amount of time which you can dedicate to writing your brief. Try to allow as much time as possible and avoid organising any other impending deadlines shortly after this one. You will need enough time to fully write, edit, re-edit and finalise your brief, without the strain of something else!
  3. Focus on writing clearly: Aim to clear your mind of all other work stresses, with only the key objectives of the brief in mind. There’s no such thing as a first-time perfect attempt so give yourself a break and keep working until you get it just right.
  4. Redraft and revise: Remain fair to yourself and don’t get frustrated when you haven’t quite captured the essence of the brief. Ultimately, it’s a work in progress which will become its best following careful reflection and consideration. Try not to interpret revisions as an added frustration, rather the steady and thorough pace towards a perfect brief.
  5. Ask someone objective to read it: When writing a quality brief, you don’t need flattery. You need a business-minded person you can trust who will question and challenge your thinking to ensure conviction.  This will increase the strength of your brief and draw out other key areas to consider. At the end of the day, this is your business and the brief you are creating is an essential tool. You need that person to tell you when you’ve got it right, as well as when you’ve got it wrong.
  6. Test it: The most important factor of all: checking if your brief is any good. The brief needs to speak to the reader and provide them with a clear message so they can walk away with all of the detail they need. Test the impact of your brief on someone who has previously had no involvement with it. This way, you’ll be able to see its immediate effect. If they are confused rather than informed, it is likely that your writing has been misunderstood; therefore it’s back to the drawing board to refine what you’ve written!
  7. Talk it through with suppliers. Once designers or other suppliers have had a chance to digest the brief, ask them to explain what they think you want. And ask them if they have any questions. If something’s not clear now, resolve it before they commence work.

Overall, clarity is the critical end point with briefs and with a bit of effort, a great brief can be created, ultimately leading to a successful project or design for your business. Nicholas Green is the founder of printed.com.

If you want to read more about design and branding for your business, check out these 5 branding considerations when setting up a company.

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