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A design brief is hugely important to any agency you anticipate working with. It will cover the scope, scale, and core details of your upcoming design project.

A well written design brief will make obtaining a quote or proposal much easier. It will also ensure both parties understand the goals and objectives of the project. Every project is different so if you want a different result to every other company in your position then the more detail you can give the higher the chances of achieving that. At Surefoot we are more than happy to help our clients complete their design brief. We’re here if you need clarification on any of the points below.


What is a Design Brief?

A well populated design brief has the potential to be a powerful tool. It should inform design decisions and effectively guide the overall workflow of your project; from conception to completion. It will also provide the design agency with the necessary insight, background, and foundation for the initial response and then effective completion of the brief.

Typically, it’s a Marketing Director or Marketing Manager that may write the brief, with a Marketing Executive tasked with using it to reach out to potential agency partners. That’s not to exclude entrepreneurs and small business owners who may well complete this document themselves.

If you’re approaching creative agencies about your design project, and don’t attach your brief, you’ll find that more often than not, you’ll be asked for it. Without a design brief you are likely to face a barrage of calls asking the same questions or having to put time aside for a string of exploratory meetings. You may even find some agencies disqualifying themselves from a project without the brief being in place.

A design brief is a top-level overview of the project and should give a decent enough foundation from which a relationship with your agency may blossom. This isn’t the finished article. Your brief can be flexed and finalised with your chosen agency.


Why do you need a design brief?

Your brief is a way of you getting across to any potential supplier your objectives, issues and expectations. This helps drive a better understanding of a project from all parties involved.

In an ideal world the agencies you contact may have experience in your industry sector, will know a little about your company and competitors and understand the problems you face. But none of these things are a given. Your design brief serves to make these things a reality.

Reaching out to a new agency for inclusion in a pitch or tender is an exciting moment, but a lack of planning can set both parties off on the wrong foot. If you need any proof of how a bad brief can impact a project then there are some frustrating examples for you here.


What Should Be Included?

Writing the design brief is no walk in the park, especially if you haven’t been involved in a similar process before. You may find you spend time writing and rewriting it over a matter of days.

As mentioned previously, every design brief will be populated with different information, because every company requirement will differ. Whether you have a branding brief, requirement for new collateral or a digital marketing campaign, your start, middle and end points are likely to be unique to your company.

So, what should be included when you write your design brief?

As a top level overview, we think a written design brief should include:

  • An Overview of Your Business
  • The Objectives of Your Project
  • Your Target Audience and Market
  • The Problem You’re Facing
  • Design Requirements
  • More About Your Business
  • Competitor Information
  • Project Timescales
  • Project Budget
  • Awarding The Project
  • Required Response/contact information


An Overview of Your Business

The first thing you should explain when writing a design brief, is about your business and the sector you work in. Specify your business name, industry sector, product lines and location/s. Do you have a mission and vision statement you can share and are you able to list your company values and messaging? It is important to understand where you make your money, your sales channel and what makes you unique in your market. If those details are not readily available, then write from the heart. This is often what powers the company forward anyway.

Every design project relies on all parties having a clear understanding of the business they’re working with and the sector they’re working in. The more you can offer in the first instance here, the better.


The Objectives of Your Project

How did you get to this point? Why are you doing this? What is the driving factor in requiring you to reach out to an external resource? This is normally quite an easy answer for clients and one that has been borne out of reaching a critical point in their growth, sales or change of landscape. There’s always a driving factor.

You may also have underlying factors in your decision to seek external help. Don’t be precious or embarrassed about your reasoning. If the company is in a downturn, tell us. You may also be building the company for eventual sale. Without knowing where the ship is going your design company will be rudderless.

Include as much context and background as possible. The ‘what’ and ‘why’ are key factors? ‘What’ will tend to be a more pragmatic answer such as ‘We want to sell more widgets’ and your expectations at the end of the project. ‘Why’ will tend to identify the problems you face and historically why the widgets aren’t currently flying off the shelf. The company objectives need to be clear.

Having a goal gives your agency something to work with. It will also help set targets for both parties to measure against.

How will the project be measured? What is going to make this a success in your eyes? Is it brand visibility, a product enquiry measurement, growth in your market share of your industry? Be sure that the measure for success is something your agency are able to directly influence. For instance a 25% sales growth in the next 12 months is hard to directly attribute to a rebranding project. Be realistic but do make it clear what part the brief plays in your overarching plans.


Your Target Audience and Market

It will be vital for your design agency to understand your target audience. Without knowing who the project is aimed at you are likely to end up with something that many will like and few will love. Target audience information will help your agency make informed decisions during the design process.

Yes, the project results should inspire the action you want it to but it should also solve problems. More often than not, a design agency is responsible for designing for your customers, to help solve problems for your company. Therefore, it’s important that they know what your target audience looks like.

It will be essential to understand the demographic of your existing customers as well as that of any new target audience. These may be markedly different. Building a persona around that audience will help your agency focus their efforts in the right area;

  • Age and gender?
  • Family structure?
  • What type of car they drive?
  • Pet owner?
  • What media/magazines do they view or read?
  • Which websites do they visit? And for what purpose?

Understanding these types of questions can help inform your agency about the design styles that appeal to them and what type of content they like. It is also important to understand that your target customers may contain 2 or 3 different personas. Be sure not to narrow your focus too much at the start.

If you don’t have current customer personas then you may consider using market research to determine this. This may prove to be outside of your budget or timescale. Working with your agency to help determine these may be an early part of your project objective. Building personas is something Surefoot can help with.


The Problem You’re Facing

The objectives of your design project are normally led by an existing problem or issue that has been highlighted within the business. This is not to say that all design briefs are to solve a problem that can be easily identified in your current marketing. You may be launching a new product or service and your ‘problem’ is therefore one of visibility rather than being a fix to a current issue.

The project goals and objectives will focus on where you want to be, whereas the problem you’re facing, focuses on the here and now.

If you’re facing a specific definable issue then do include it in your brief. This will become even more relevant if you have already taken steps to counter it. Is this your first shot at solving the problem or have you tried and failed with previous solutions? Don’t be coy when explaining to your agency about where you’ve already been with this project. It will at least remove the possibility of finding yourself on the same path in a couple of month’s time!


Design Requirements

Most clients are unlikely to have much creative input for their brief. That’s why you are engaging a design company, right? This is less about design ideas than it is guidance on the do’s and dont’s. By including any design guidance in your design brief, you can ensure your agency has everything they need to meet your expectations. It’s a tough situation to be in when an agency is told ‘That’s not how I saw it looking in my mind’. Be open and honest. Even if your ideas are not ‘creative’ they will serve as a guide on your train of thought.

Technical requirements are also a very important element of the brief. What are the final asset requirements and on which platforms will they be required to work? Which file formats are required? Should the project be managed with existing colour palette’s or be adhering to corporate guidelines?

Do include any guidelines or reference materials in this section. Moodboards, examples of other brand solutions you admire, and anything else you feel could assist with the completion of the project. The more guidance material you can supply, the less chance of starting off on the wrong foot.

Remember, you’re employing your agency for their talent and recommendations, so don’t be completely closed off to changing things! At Surefoot we encourage open discussion that will sometimes yield different results to those expected. If you are keen to seek some creative inspiration then you could do worse than some of these design websites.


More About Your Business

At the start of your design brief, you will have given an overview into your business and the sector you work in. This is your opportunity to expand on that and give a little more in-depth information about your company.

It will be important to understand your current brand strategy so that any new projects can be aligned with your long-term goals. Who are the project’s key stakeholders and what involvement have those core individuals already had with the project framework so far?

You may also want to give your agency a deeper understanding of your business ethos and history. Why did the business get started? what are the current values and beliefs? Should those be reflected in the project deliverables? If you have other business collateral that needs to be aligned with this project then make those items available for review. Whether the alignment is visual or represents a tone-of-voice, consistency of your message is always a key factor, especially when working with an agency not currently on your books.

The more your agency knows, the better they can help!


Competitor Information

Knowing who your competitors are is valuable information. Remember that this information may seem obvious to you but there is no harm in spelling it out in your brief. This will save your agency time and may afford them information not freely available to the public. Competitor information can have a huge impact on the way a project is approached. Who are your core competitors, both direct and indirect? What impact will their products and services have on your project? If there are risks of any conflict with specific competitors then it will be imperative to spell those out.

You need to decide here, are you trying to stand out, or fit in? The answer to this question is likely to change from project to project.

If you’re working on a branding project, knowing about your competitors can help your agency understand what they’re all about, their identity, and where this fits into the competitive landscape. Understanding your competitors and reviewing their current situation will also ensure any new solutions don’t stray too close to what your competitors are doing.


Project Timescales

This question may well determine who can and can’t work with you on your project. Tight turnarounds may mean the agencies you reach out to have to decline the offer to work together because of current workloads. ‘ASAP’ is not an acceptable answer when talking about timescales either. There needs to be a reasonable level of understanding here as a drifting timeline is very likely to cause issues further down the line.

There are no hard and fast rules for a creative brief timeline. Try to be realistic and if you need to, then discuss this with your proposed agencies before completing the brief. Timelines can be determined by the briefing document content. If your deadline is not fluid then that must be made clear at the outset. You may need to set project milestones that are agreed by both sides and reviewed regularly as the work proceeds. If you are launching a product at a trade show in 2 months then make that clear. It is likely that there will be further work required after the deliverables of the brief that you will also need to factor into your timelines. If you need us to help plan your project timescales then just ask. It is beneficial for the client and design agency to be singing from the same song sheet.

Try to avoid reaching out to design agencies at the last minute. The earlier you can bring them in on your plans the better!


Project Budget

The catch 22 of budgets! It is very likely you as a client will have some idea of budgets assigned to complete the project, but you want to see an estimate from your agency before showing your hand. You don’t necessarily need to commit to your exact budget at the outset but by indicating a ball-park figure or a ‘between’ figure it will allow your agency to quickly determine whether they can deliver on your expectations. It will also allow them to align this with various project disciplines such as research to design, copywriting, development, project management and production.

Neither side will want to be wasting time on a proposal if the budget and brief are not aligned. Consider walking into a car showroom – there are hundreds of different models of car and a salesperson will be of no help if he doesn’t know whether you’re looking for a Ford or a Ferrari.

By being clear with your budget early on, you can make sure everyone is on the same page from the start. It will also go some way to building trust and transparency from the outset.


How The Project Will Be Awarded

This obviously only comes in to play if you are putting the brief out to tender. Understanding the how, when, where and why of a project brief will be an important determining factor for you and your prospective agency. It should be clear what is expected within an initial proposal. Also make clear what is expected and where that should be delivered to. The project may be being scoped now but not expected to be progressed for several weeks. The agency landscape may vary greatly if they undertake seasonal work so always make this clear from the outset. Some agencies may determine that their costs are based on completing the work in their quieter periods. Work required during traditional holiday periods may cause both sides to consider their ability to deliver on the timeline requirements.

It is also important that your agency understand your process of assessment for awarding the work. Will your decision be determined by cost, turnaround, availability, experience or simply by determining who ‘gets you’ most from your initial interactions.

If you have invited a new agency to quote or pitch for a project, then make it clear why you have chosen them to take part. Was it through recommendation (always a good starting point), reputation, location or other factors? There may be an incumbent agency in the mix and a new agency may be sceptical that they are there to ‘make up the numbers’. As long as that is not the case then make it clear why they have been invited to pitch. What you are hoping they will offer that is aligned to your project requirements?

Be aware that if you are asking multiple agencies to ‘pitch’ for the work then a nominal pitch fee may apply. The fee will be payable regardless of where the work is awarded. This fee often becomes redundant if the work is awarded to that agency.


Required Response/Contact Information

Lastly, make it clear within your brief who is the focus point with your company. Not only for any initial questions but for the required response delivery. Should that submission only be by email or hard copy? Supply an email address and contact telephone number for open access for ongoing questions. Before any creative work is undertaken you may also start to generate a feel for working with an agency by their reaction to your request.

Ensure there is a level playing field for pitch times, dates and attendees. Remember that not all agencies are created the same. Their ability to react quickly may not always be the best assessment of their ability to deliver the best solution. Be open minded and responsive in your contact and you might just find yourselves presently surprised.


Hopefully the above information will furnish you with enough confidence to write you own stunning design brief! Surefoot Communications are here to help if you need any advice at all. Alternatively, here are some great examples of how creative design can go horribly wrong. It’s hard to see how any of these made it past the first proof stage but serves as a warning to not take your eye off the ball!