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How to Write a Rock Solid Design Brief (9 Simple Steps)

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by Katie Oberthaler

15 January 2021

Design briefs are an essential part of every successful project’s workflow.

A well-written design brief is like a roadmap:

  • It lets you identify and avoid roadblocks early on.
  • It speeds up the design and development process.

On the other hand, a bad design brief that contains non-essential information and gaping holes causes even the best designers to struggle to do great work. And worse still, running a project without a design brief results in chaos with countless phone calls, ping-pong email threads, lost notes, and missing messages.

So, in this guide, we’re going to explain the benefits and show you how to write an effective design brief so that you can make your creative projects a roaring success.

Let’s get started!


What is a Design Brief?

A design brief is a short document—typically one or two pages—that explains the strategy for a creative project. It outlines the goals of the project and maps out the plan for how you'll get there.

The main focus of the design brief should be on the results and outcomes of the design and the business objectives of the project. In other words, it allows the client to focus on what they want to achieve before any creative work starts on the project.

However, it should definitely not attempt to deal with the aesthetics of design – that's the designer's responsibility.

Finally, design briefs are usually signed off by the client and designer at set milestones in the project to ensure everything remains on track.

Ziflow’s markup, annotation, and commenting tools allow creative teams to collect and share effective, actionable feedback, keeping creative projects on track.


The benefits of using a design brief:

Starting a new project with a design brief is beneficial to both clients and designers. For example, a design brief:

  • Equips designers with the background, foundation, and insight to create the end design.
  • Sets out the client’s expectations, taste (what they do and don’t like), and branding requirements for designers.
  • Keeps stakeholders and contributors on track to complete the project on time and within budget.
  • Ensures the project is understood and agreed upon by both parties from the outset.

Who Writes the Design Brief?

Various opinions exist, but most designers would expect an initial design brief from the client. From there, it can become a working document that gets approved/signed-off by both parties. But there are other options:

Client

With large companies, it’s typically a Company Director, Marketing Manager, or Marketing Executive who writes the design brief. In smaller companies, it’s usually the business owner who writes it. 

Designer 

Sometimes the design brief is written by the designer rather than the client. Designers usually have a template to be completed by the client that ensures they have all the information they need to start work.

Collaborative Team

A third option involves the client and designer collaborating on the brief. This allows both parties to clarify goals and objectives, get input from stakeholders, and sign-off quicker.

The point is that both parties have a vested interest in getting the design brief right and signed-off before any design work starts. The client has to initiate the process, even if it’s asking a designer to meet and discuss the project so they can get ideas down. Some designers will have a standard template they’ll ask clients to complete first and then flesh it out with more details in a meeting.


How to Write a Design Brief

Whoever writes the design brief needs to include key elements so that everyone involved has a clear picture of the requirements.

You can create design briefs in different styles and formats. But a good design brief outlines the deliverables and scope of the project, including any outcomes, timing, and budget.  

Design briefs are used across a wide range of projects including those in the fields of architecture, interior design, fashion design, and industrial design, as well as graphic design, web design, ecommerce, and branding and rebranding.

Depending on the nature of the project and the client requirements, there might be slightly different sections, but as a general rule of thumb, a good design brief should include:

  • An overview of the business
  • Goals and objectives of the design project
  • The target audience and market
  • The competition
  • Project design information
  • Project deliverables
  • Project timescales
  • Project budget
  • Project approval

Let’s look at each element in more detail.


An overview of the business

Design briefs should always include an overview of the client’s business so that all stakeholders are familiar with the brand and what it stands for.

Key elements to include in this section:

  • Company details, including name, industry, and product lines.
  • Brand differentiator and/or unique selling proposition.
  • Brand mission, vision, values, and messaging.

Questions to address:

  • What’s the size of the company, and how long has it been in business? 
  • What makes this company unique within its industry?
  • What is the product or service?
  • What is your brand’s mission?
  • What are your brand’s keywords?
  • What kind of feedback do you get from customers or clients?

Goals and objectives of the design project

A design brief needs to describe the goals and objectives of the project:

  • Goals describe the overall purpose of the project. 
  • Objectives are measures of success in reaching a goal.

Both need to be specific and measurable so that you can evaluate the success or failure of the project. For example: 

  • Goal – increase traffic to the website.
  • Objective – increase landing page visits by 10% by the end of Q1.
  • Objective – increase new monthly visits to 40% of total traffic by Q2.

Questions to address:

  • What do you want to achieve with this project?
  • What does success look like for this project?
  • Is this the first time this design problem has been tackled, or is it a reworking of a design that already exists?
  • If it’s a rework, what needs to change, and why?

The target audience and market

It’s essential to understand the target audience and market for the design. 

For example, a website designed for teenagers will look and work differently than one designed for corporate decision-makers. 

Questions to address:

  • How would you describe your target audience?
  • What are their demographics, habits, and goals?
  • What devices do they use?
  • Do particular colors resonate more with their lifestyle?
  • What research have you done to identify and understand your target audience?
  • Do you have supporting documents, like buyer personas or empathy maps, that I can review?


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  • Can your budget and schedule accommodate further market research?

Note: If the client doesn’t have this information or more is required, then you may need additional budget.


The competition

Knowing the brand’s competition helps inform the design process and clarify the strategy. For example, what works for your competitors will likely work for you, but you need to know how to stand out from the crowd.

Make a list of direct and indirect competitors. For example, when launching its Watch Edition, Apple listed competitors as:

    • Samsung Galaxy Live Watch: Though a trusted tech brand, its bulky, masculine designs are not as aesthetically appealing.
    • Moto 360 by Motorola: A mid-priced option with a round face that resembles a traditional watch rather than a mini-tablet.
    • LG G Watch R: A mix of classic style and technology.
  • Fitbit by Tory Burch: A high-functioning, affordable sports tracker disguised as jewelry.

Questions to address:

  • Do you want to do something similar or strikingly different from your competitors?
  • What are the strong points in your competitors’ designs?
  • What don’t you like about your competitors’ designs?

Project design information

Clients don’t have to provide creative direction – the design team will handle that. However, it’s good to list requirements about what to include or exclude.

Include any reference materials:

  • Brand style guidelines; e.g. fonts, colors, tones.
  • Mockups 
  • Moodboards

Questions to address:

  • Is there a brand style guide available?
  • Are there any fonts, colors, or styles that we should avoid?
  • What previous design or marketing materials can you share?
  • How would you describe the style you want?
    • Do you want high-end or down-to-earth? 
    • Do you want to be bold and dominant or easily approachable?
  • What styles would you prefer to avoid?
  • What is the size of the design?
  • Where is the design going to be used; e.g. web, business cards, stationery?

Project deliverables

Both parties need to have a clear understanding of what is expected by the end of the project. Make sure expectations are set on both sides.

Include any of the following details about your deliverables:

  • Asset dimensions/resolutions
  • File formats
  • Required color palette
  • Image assets to be included
  • Associated copy documents

Questions to address:

  • What do you expect to have at the end of the project?
  • What file formats should the design work be supplied in?
  • What asset size and resolution are needed?
  • Is there a specific prototyping or handoff platform that should be used?
  • Do you require me to handoff work directly to a development team?

Project timescales

Clients need to state when they want to start and complete the project. If timescales don’t fit with the designer’s other commitments, it could be a non-starter. 

Aside from starting and ending the project, there will be other milestones along the way like concepts, final designs, development work, and reviews. Clients also need to account for providing their timely feedback throughout the project – otherwise, they could end up delaying the process and missing deadlines.

In short, both parties need to be realistic and flexible to account for potential changes or unexpected obstacles to project timescales. 

Questions to address:

  • When will the project start?
  • When will the project finish?
  • Are there any inter-dependencies for this project?

Project budget

Both the client and the designer need to be aware of the budget and constraints before the work commences.

The project budget has to align with project deliverables to avoid the possibility of scope creep.

Don’t avoid the subject. Discuss it as soon as possible so both parties know what to expect.

Questions to address:

  • What are the budget constraints on this project?
  • Have research, development, and testing costs been considered?
  • In what circumstances would there be budget flexibility?

Project approval

In this section, list all the key stakeholders, contributors, and points of contact within the project with their assigned roles. You'll need a primary point of contact for the project, plus a person responsible for the final sign-off on all project deliverables.

Make sure all the details are listed, including their name, email address, and phone number. Remember to include any third-parties involved in the project, such as copywriters or web developers.

Questions to address:

  • Who’ll be the primary contact person for the project, and who will have the final sign-off on all deliverables from the client's side?
  • Is anyone else to be included in the approvals?
  • How will the review and approval process work?

Ziflow lets you standardize your review and approval processes across all design projects. Internal and external team members get real-time visibility and notifications, ensuring everyone is on the same page and reducing the need for status meetings.


Review and Approve Design Briefs and Projects With Ziflow

Online proofing software from Ziflow streamlines the entire creative review and approval process so that clients and designers improve collaboration and deliver design projects quicker.  

All project documents, including design briefs, are reviewed and approved by the appropriate stakeholders, which is critical to ensure brand and marketing compliance.

Here's how.

Centralize design briefs

Creative teams need to be able to reference the original approved design brief (containing the project goals and requirements) against design comps and deliverables as they are created and modified throughout the project. 

Using intake forms, clients and design teams can start projects by collecting all the requirements and files in one central location. This allows all stakeholders to view and comment on the design brief alongside all the design files created during the project. 

A centralized design brief keeps creative projects on track and protects against any "scope creep" should the client request new design elements.

Set review groups

Every design project has different stages involving various groups of stakeholders.

With Ziflow’s online proofing, you can create separate review groups, ranging from management to developers, copywriters, and graphic designers, so that each one can conduct reviews at different stages of the process.

Each review group can be assigned predefined roles and access rights, so you can decide who can view, comment, or make decisions on a design version or project milestone. 

For example, you could have an “internal” group conduct a review of the design brief, and when approved, bring in a second “external” review group to complete the process.

Review groups streamline and accelerate the review and approval process by involving the right people at the right time.

Enable real-time feedback and collaboration

Ziflow’s online proofing solution saves teams wasting time sending emails back-and-forth. 

No more searching your inbox for the latest email thread!

As your team works on a creative project, members can add comments, suggestions, and attachments within the design document and even give thumbs-up notations if they like what they see.

Real-time feedback and collaboration reduces frustration and speeds up the collaborative workflow. 

Create an audit trail

Every comment, reply, and attachment in Ziflow is time-stamped with the person's name so that you can keep a record for auditing and compliance purposes.

The built-in audit trail ensures you comply with brand guidelines or legal and data requirements.


3 Design Brief Examples to Use for Inspiration

Here are three different types of design briefs to give you an idea of what’s possible.

Editor’s note: All these examples use the term “objective” rather than “goal”, which means there are no success measures in reaching a goal. And none of them include project budget, timescales, and approval, which one might assume would be discussed and added to the brief and proposal in the next stage.

1. Hush Puppies

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The design brief example from Hush Puppies ticks all the boxes. It’s presented in a formal layout with clear section headings highlighting each component of the design brief. 

2. Quaker Oats

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The next design brief from Quaker Oats has a different layout, but when you look closely, you’ll see it has all the essential ingredients. The background facts also provide handy information on the problem and what Quaker Oats want to achieve with their campaign.

3. Apple Watch

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The final example for the Apple Watch Edition uses some existing photos to add substance to the design brief. But aside from that, you can see all the required elements, plus the “mandatories” of what and what not to mention.


Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Good Design Brief

Good design briefs are essential for any successful design project as they benefit both the client and the design team by:

  • Equipping designers with the background, foundation, and insight to create the final product.
  • Setting out the client’s expectations, taste (what they do and don’t like), and branding requirements for designers.
  • Ensuring the project is understood and agreed upon by both parties from the outset.
  • Keeping all stakeholders and contributors on track to complete the project on time and within budget.

Ziflow is the perfect tool for successful sign-off of design briefs by the client and design team as all stakeholders get real-time updates and notifications throughout the review and approval process.

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