The Brief Sucks. Now Go Make Some Magic!
You may not have everything you need before designing, but at least you’ll know what needs to be there before pushing your first pixel.
If your client has established a solid brand and provides good assets to work with, you’re likely in for a nice project experience as a designer. If not, it can be a long slog. Either way, it’s your job to deliver. This Part One of two looks at the basic building blocks of a solid creative brief, solid brand guidelines, and tips on how to compensate and deliver even when neither is in particular good order on the client’s side.
Briefs can range from very buttoned up, insightful and informative to terribly disorganized, repetitive and virtually worthless in terms of informing a designer’s efforts (let alone the copywriter’s, who’s often on the hook for idea generation and strategy on the front end). It’s no coincidence that some of my favorite projects—the projects that ended up being the most creatively, conceptually and strategically sound—have very often started with a very solid brief. A solid brief is not about quantity but rather quality of information. When they’re well organized, they can actually be quite concise.
Every place I’ve ever worked has had a slightly different brief format. Some were good, others were OK, many were a train wreck. It never ceases to amaze me how different or deficient they are, despite that fact that the creative team or agency, internal or external, will always need the same timeless, universal essentials from the client to do their job.
Over the years I’ve developed what I call the Ultimate-Mini-Brief™, which you can download right now. It’s got the essential elements any responsible brief should have, however brief those contents might be. Even if some of the items come back thin or incomplete, or the client fills it out with “I don’t know, you figure it out,” at least you have these fields for tracking purposes, and for your own filling of the blanks, which certainly adds value and helps you think it through before you start designing.
Nine Tenets of the Ultimate Mini-Brief
- Overview—Short summary of and context around the ask. “Because of [current situation, launch], we need to create [communications/assets] that target [target] and say [message]. We want them to [Call to Action] so we can achieve [project goals].”
- The Target—Who the communication is trying to persuade, duh. The more specific, the better. There can be primary or secondary, but that’s enough. The communication won’t be as effective if the target is too broad or vague.
- The Message—This outlines the primary and secondary message. People can handle one main message with a few support points. That’s it. Try to get your client to stay on message, i.e. the main message—not saying three different things with every feature and benefit listed underneath for support.
- CTA—Call to Action, what do you want the target to do. Keep it simple, clear, directive and for Pete’s sake, just advocate one CTA no matter how many cross- and upsells the client tries to jam in there.
- Direction—This section outlines any client requirements, their preliminary thinking (it’s OK to encourage clients to share this, the good ones can be quite informative in outlining a vision), and itemizes any existing reference or legacy materials.
- Context—This section provides context about the initiative, where the product or service might sit in the marketplace, its top competitors, and/or unique selling proposition (USP). It also might contain any reference, legacy materials and/or assets the client might be able to provide (more on this in our next post).
- Goals/measurement plan—What are the client’s goals? This is of course tied to how effective the agency is in reaching them. How will success be measured? Seasoned designers know that as much as they’d like to limit their role and concerns to color, type and what the big, pretty hero photo is going to look like, they also read the brief. They know that graphic design isn’t just window dressing, it needs to be strategically informed and functional.
- Creative strategy—This is getting to that section of the brief that you might want to fill out before diving in. The point isn’t to have it fully baked but to get some preliminary thoughts on paper, before you spend valuable time in design exploration. Are you clear on the project’s goals, what you need to say, and what you want the target to do? Do you have a vision, however hazy at this point, on how you might convince them to do it? What are your preliminary thoughts on how the creative might articulate and fulfill on the strategy and project goals? This is also where I like to include a short, written description of potential concepts or avenues to explore. In exploring any concepts, try starting with a visual metaphor, or something iconic or symbolic in nature.
- The Deliverables Matrix I find this reference tool comes in handy most when there are multiple deliverables in a single project, and they all have slightly different information to convey, CTA, and the like. An example might be eight emails, two direct mail pieces and a print ad. If your project is a multi-asset beast like this, it’s good to encourage the client, account team or the producer to provide this filled out to the best of the their ability. If they’re not listed on their own, this matrix might include other need-to-have info like specs (file size, type, dimensions, etc.) requirements related to each deliverable.
- Schedule—Any responsible brief also includes a project schedule. If there are a lot of items to tackle, the brief might also prioritize or stage out multiple delivery dates.
The Brief Sucks. Now Go Make Some Magic!
So there you have it…all the elements of a good brief—the key info you need to have. It’s just a fact of a creative pro’s life that clients and even internal team members needs to be pushed to provide this info, and how to do so diplomatically and while maintaining your sanity is a topic for a whole other post.
In our next post in this two-part series, we’ll look at the elements of good brand guidelines and finally, how to deliver when the brief and guidelines might be lacking.
Until next time…go make some magic!