Why Design Briefs Are Not So Important

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Last week, a client asked me in conversation whether her design briefs were good enough (she needn’t have worried).

You see, as a marketing professional, she’s well-versed in dealing with designers, with design briefs being a common point of contention.

In my own experience, time and time again I’ve seen prickly creatives balk at badly written briefs.

In fact, designers will often regale each other with horror stories of bad briefs.

Therefore those commissioning design work, often dread the process of writing one.

This creates two things: firstly, pressure on the client’s side to write a comprehensive, prescriptive and exhaustingly detailed brief.

And secondly, a situation where a designer delivers work EXACTLY as per the brief. Even if the brief doesn’t effectively communicate the problem to be solved.

However, here’s the thing: design briefs are not actually all that important. Not to real creatives. Not to marketers committed to meaningful work.

Design briefs are very important, only to people who need to be told what to do. Or those looking to avoid the responsibility of a bad idea.

A Brief Look at Briefs

So a few things to clarify. Firstly the term design brief is fairly broad, just as the term design is very broad.

Therefore in this context when I mention design, I’m referring to communication graphic design.

There are other areas of design, where briefs may indeed play a more pivotal role.

For example: product design, environmental design, system design.

Though I’d argue that even in these fields, designers still need to employ insight and creativity in service of said briefs.

So in terms of my particular focal point – graphic design – I’ve encountered design briefs in their natural habitat – the advertising and marketing industries.

Most typically found within agency processes, marketing departments, or in-house creative teams.

The briefing serves to outline the core objectives of a project, the background to the problem being solved, and the deliverables thereof.

The general concept of the written brief  (a document near biblical in importance for designers) has spread from agencyland, to anyone buying creative work.

And there are elements of this process, that are entirely necessary. It’s important to list objectives, scope and deliverables – this keeps everyone on the same page.

The problems arise, when we stop thinking beyond the page.

Who’s Line is it Anyway?

The more prescriptive the brief, the less important the designer.

The designer’s job, is to solve the client’s problem. However, this might not be the problem stated in the brief.

As the quote goes, “you only know what you know”. Many clients – especially small businesses – are not from a design, marketing, or advertising background.

Therefore they may lack the vocabulary or perspective, to correctly articulate whatever challenge they’re facing.

That’s why it’s not the clients job to figure out the brief. It’s the creative’s job.

The creative or designer’s task, is to utilise brilliance and magic to solve problems.

And it should feel like magic! It should feel like something intangible. Something that can’t be written down.

“If you can write it down, I can find it cheaper” – Seth Godin

This, is what gives creativity it’s value. If a creative needs everything spelled out, in a bullet-pointed list, what use is their creativity?

And if a client already knows how to solve their own problem, they should do it themselves. Or hire someone on Fiverr.

I’m not saying to do away with written briefs. Both client and creative need some kind of framework, so everyone is working to clear objectives.

But the idea that the brief should be a detailed set of instructions, defeats the creative process itself.

Value Added

When we need prescriptive instruction to adequately do our job, we are employees.

There’s nothing wrong with being an employee. However in some jobs, being an employee comes down to two things: time and money.

In this context, money is exchanged for time worked. Not value. You work a shift, collect your pay, job done.

This model is entirely appropriate for say, a shop assistant, or a waiter.

But, if you work in marketing, hopefully you’re in the business of creating change. Your salary is exchanged for the value you deliver.

When we undertake important creative work with an employee mindset, we fail to spot opportunities to create such value.

A Brief Aside

Another facet to this mentality, is the diminished-responsibility-brief.

This is where a designer or creative will stipulate for an instructive brief, which will be followed to the letter.

And if the project goes awry, the creative gets to throw his/her hands up and exclaim: “I did as asked – refer to the brief!” 

This of course does not make for happy campers.

As creatives, I believe we have a duty to advise and safeguard our clients interests wherever possible.

And if we want to command value, we need to leverage risk. We need to put our proverbial necks on the line.

Sometimes this will mean disagreeing with the person paying us. Or even walking away from a job.

But better that then knowingly consent to a waste of time and resources.

Though, what of stubborn clients, hell-bent on a half-baked idea? What of those who don’t take our even want our advice, our expertise?

Those buying creative work, need to trust it’s practitioners to do their jobs.

As such, my approach is to offer two paths: 1. I do as you ask, or 2. I show you a better way. And if such expertise is still of no value, there’s still always Fiverr.

Takeways

For clients writing a brief:

  1. Focus on your objectives – what you want to achieve
  2. Be clear on the parameters – time, scope, budget
  3. Overview, but don’t try to write your own solution

For designers reading a brief:

  1. Focus on the objectives – what does the client really want/need?
  2. Ask questions
  3. Look for opportunities to create value

– Greg Bunbury

PS. If you’re a startup, small business or entrepreneur daunted by the prospect of commissioning a design project, check out my brand strategy consulting services.

I help businesses navigate to the best creative solutions their money can buy.

 

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