Learning how to write a design brief can be a tricky task, even for the most seasoned of design buyers or marketers.
A design brief is a vital communication tool between yourself and your chosen agency.
Even if you’re just scoping out agencies to work with, having a well written design brief will make obtaining a quote easier than ever.
Some design projects you might have in mind could include:
- Rebranding your company
- Launching a new website
- Improving your digital marketing and online presence
In any of these cases, a well written design brief will help keep your project running smoothly.
It’ll also put everyone on exactly the same page, making sure both parties understand the goals and objectives of the project.
Trying to run a project without a design brief is difficult because you’re relying on telephone calls, email threads, and handwritten notes which is no way to run a project.
Before we jump in to how to write a design brief, let’s cover another important question.
What is a Design Brief?
A design brief is a written document that businesses use, to communicate their wants and needs with selected design agencies.
Typically, it’s a Company Director, Marketing Manager, or Marketing Executive that is tasked with writing the brief.
But, if you’re an entrepreneur or small business owner, then you should learn how to write a design brief too.
Here’s an example of when you should write a design brief
If you’re a Marketing Director or Executive working at a business who are looking to rebrand, you would send your design brief to agencies that offer branding services, that you want to contact about your rebrand.
If you contact several agencies about your design project, and don’t attach your brief, you’ll find that more often than not, you’ll get asked for it.
Or failing that, you’ll end up on several different calls asking the same questions, which you could have covered off in one great written brief.
And, your design brief doesn’t need to be a huge document, you’re not writing “War and Peace.”
A design brief is a top level overview of the project, that can be used to help external branding and design agencies to understand more about your business and it’s plans.
That’s the answer to “what is a design brief?”
It’s a way of communicating with an agency, about your design needs and requirements.
Why is a Design Brief Used?
By writing a design brief, you’re getting the ideas out of your head, and down on paper. This helps drive a better understanding of a project from all parties involved.
Essentially, when contacting agencies, you’re hoping for several things:
- They know about your industry
- They know about your company
- They’re excited about your project
But none of these things are a given.
Your design brief serves to make these things a reality.
There’s nothing worse as a designer, than receiving an email that says:
“Hey, we’re looking to rebrand our company and like your work.”
For all emails like this do pique our interest, it’s always a lot more exciting to receive an email with a brief attached, or even just a tiny bit more information.
Let us know why you’re reaching out, and what problem we can solve!
Who Should Write a Design Brief?
If you or your company are looking to partner with a design agency on a project, then you need to write a design brief.
We find with larger companies, it’s usually the Marketing Manager that would be in charge of creating or writing the design brief, with Marketing Executives then using it to reach out to potential agency partners.
In smaller companies, it’ll usually be the owner/operator of the business. In this situation, they’re usually quite time poor, and the brief will be less comprehensive.
And that’s not a problem either!
Like we said earlier, we’re not writing “War and Peace” here. We’re giving a taste of what we think the project might be, and what we might need.
A good design agency will help you formalise or build on your design brief, by dissecting it and asking you thoughtful and insightful questions.
Your design brief isn’t a finished article. It’s an overview, that can be flexed and finalised with your chosen agency.
Good design work comes from good partnerships.
Learning to trust your agency early on will help deliver better results in the long run.
Design agencies have a poor reputation, because unfortunately, there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there.
If you follow these steps, you should be able to find a great design agency to work with.
What Should Be Included In Your Design Brief?
Writing a design brief is no easy task. And if you’ve never done it before, expect to spend a good chunk of time writing and rewriting it.
You need to make your brief easy to understand, and compact enough to retain interest.
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that depending on your specific project, your design brief might alter slightly.
For example, you could have:
- A branding project which needs a branding brief
- A website project which needs a website brief
And we’ll visit these more specific type of design briefs in the future.
For now, we’ll try and keep things general.
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 Design Project
- Your Target Audience and Market
- The Problem You’re Facing
- Project Specific Information
- More About Your Business
- Competitor Information
- Project Timescales
- Project Budget
- Contact Information
- How the Project will Be Awarded
- Required Response
And again, depending on whether you’re writing a branding brief or web design brief, you might add several sections to the structure.
But for now, let’s take a look at writing a design brief based on the outline above. This is also the format that our design brief template follows.
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.
Try to answer the following questions in your business overview:
- What do you do and how do you make your money?
- How do customers currently buy from your business?
- What makes your business unique within the marketplace?
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 Design Project
Your company didn’t just decide it needed to rebrand or build a new website out of the blue.
There’s always a driving factor.
Perhaps your website isn’t mobile friendly, or the brand has moved in a new direction, and your identity needs updated to reflect that.
It’s great that a decision has been made, but let your design agency know why.
Then, get clear on your goals.
Your goal for a branding project, could simply be something like:
The goal here is differentiation. Simple enough.
A website project goal could be even more basic:
“Our website doesn’t sell enough product. We want to know why, and then make the necessary adjustments to make it convert more of our visitors into buyers.”
Having a goal gives your agency something to work towards. It also gives you something to measure against!
Another thing to consider here is, what will make this project a success?
This ties really nicely into your project goals.
If you’re going to judge the success or failure of a project, it’s only fair to let the agency you work with know what the criteria are.
If you’re hoping to 10x your sales, you need to include this in the design brief.
Because it’ll change how the agency approaches your project from the outset.
Rather than spending time on creating pixel perfect website designs, they’ll be running quick tests for conversions, and designing around the results.
Having a set of “success factors” can really help all parties.
It ensures everyone knows what their responsibilities are, and will help to create the project plan.
Your Target Audience and Market
One of the most important things to include when you write your design brief, is a section about your target audience.
Here’s the deal:
Design is often used to solve problems for your customers, as well as your business.
The job of a design agency isn’t just to make things look pretty. Sure, that might help at times, but design is a problem solving tool.
Think about this:
Your website isn’t converting visitors into customers. Sure, that’s a problem for you, but realistically, it’s because your website isn’t working for your customers.
More often than not, a design agency is responsible for designing for customers, to help solve problems for your company.
Therefore, it’s important that they know what your target audience looks like.
We’ve got a great post here about creating customer personas.
Essentially, you want to outline their demographic traits and psychographic characteristics.
You can do this by asking insightful questions about your existing customers.
Take your ideal customer, and build your persona around them.
On top of thinking about demographics and psychographics, I love asking the following questions:
- What does their family structure look like?
- What type of car they drive?
- Are they a pet owner?
- What newspaper/magazines do they read?
- Which websites do they visit? And for what purpose?
I often find simple questions like this help a lot more when creating design work, than the demographic information and psychographic traits.
Knowing what websites customers visit and brands they buy into, can help inform you about the design styles that appeal to them, what type of content they like.
Customer personas should take up quite a chunk of your design brief. Make sure you include 2 or 3 examples!
The Problem You’re Facing
The objectives of your design project is one thing, but the problem you’re facing as a business is something else entirely.
Goals and objectives focus on where you want to be.
The problem you’re facing, focuses on the hear and now.
Here’s an example:
“Our website isn’t generating enough leads for our business.”
That’s a problem that needs unpicked a little.
- Is there something wrong with your website design?
- Are you driving enough traffic to your website in the first place?
Although it can seem a little self-deprecating, deep diving into the real world problems you face as a business is the only way to solve them.
You’ve done the hard part, which is realising the problem you’re facing.
Now, steer into it, and with a professional design agency by your side, you can overcome it!
Project Specific Information
Project specific information can be tricky to outline in a design brief.
This happens because more often than not, it’s beneficial to have your design agency make recommendations, rather than adding restrictions from the outset.
On top of that, you might not actually know what it is that you need.
However, there are always some things to consider.
Let’s look at website redesign project as an example:
- What is your current website built with? Are you happy with it?
- Do you use tools to measure statistics and conversions? Can you share these?
- Are there any key pages that drive traffic and conversions?
- Is there a brand guideline that would help with redesigning the site?
- Where is the website hosted? Will it stay there?
Your project specification doesn’t need to super technical.
But if you have specific requirements, it’s best to get them listed out now.
Other things to consider are:
- Are you integrating your new website with a CRM system?
- Do you have a newsletter?
- What does your digital marketing plan look like?
You’re going to your agency for their talent and recommendations. So don’t be completely closed off to changing things!
The more information you can share about your project here, the better.
More About Your Business
At the start of your design brief, you’ve given an overview into your business and the sector you work in.
But now, you have a chance to share even more about your business.
- What is your brand strategy?
- What have you done to arrive at this point?
- Who makes up the business?
- What are you most proud of?
- Why did you get started?
Give us the longer version of the elevator pitch.
The more your agency knows, the better they can help!
It’s funny, the level of influence that competitor’s can have on your business, and design brief.
You need to decide here, are you trying to stand out, or fit in?
There’s not a right or wrong answer here. This should be assessed on a case by case basis.
If you’re working on a branding project, knowing about your competitors can help us to get an understanding of what they’re all about.
It also allows us to take a loot at their brand identity, and discuss with you how you fit into that competitive landscape.
Knowing your competitors is great.
Helping your agency to know your competitors not only eases their workload, but allows discussions about them to take place at an earlier stage in the process.
It also means they don’t stray too close to what your competitors are doing when creating your new brand identity or website design.
This question often helps agencies decide whether they can be involved with your project or not.
If you’re looking for a rapid turnaround time, and the agencies you reach out to have a lot of work on, they might decline the offer to work together.
“ASAP” is not an acceptable answer when talking about timescales either. There needs to be a reasonable level of understanding here, things don’t just happen overnight.
As a rough guide, here’s what we tell people at Canny:
Branding Project Timescales
Branding projects can take anywhere between 6 and 12 weeks. It really depends on their complexity.
If you’re looking at a brand identity project, with limited visual assets to be created, you’ll be down nearer the 6 week mark.
However, if you’re looking to completely rebrand your business, create new visual assets, brand guidelines, and roll it out into a large organisation, you’ll be looking towards the top end of that timescale.
Website Project Timescales
With website design projects, things do tend to take a little longer. 6 weeks as a minimum, up to 16 weeks for large eCommerce projects.
Timescales should really be put in place by you design agency when you decide to move forward.
One thing I always ask our new clients is:
“Is there an event/product launch/something else we can work towards with the project?”
And that always immediately helps get some initial plans in place.
Try to avoid reaching out to design agencies at the last minute. The earlier you can bring them in on your plans the better!
Ah, project budgets. Everyone loves to talk about money, but nobody ever wants to show their hand first.
Thankfully, we have an article about project budgets, and why it’s important to share your budget with your design agency.
Think about this:
Design agencies get approached for work on a regular basis.
Amongst the requests for work, there’s often a lot of rubbish, some half-decent leads, and sometimes, a real diamond in the rough.
You want to be that diamond!
Now, telling an agency your project budget isn’t the only way to do this. But yet again, it’s another thing that goes towards building trust and transparency from the outset.
Nobody wants their time wasted.
You have a 30 minute to 1 hour call with a design agency. And then you send the brief. With no budget information.
Your agency reads through it, and comes back with a proposal.
It’s 5 times over what you thought you’d be paying. You’ve lost an hour of your time, the agency has also lost a significant chunk of time by writing out the proposal.
By being clear with your budget early on, you can make sure everyone is on the same page right from the get go.
Now, you don’t need to list the budget to the penny. But just giving some indication of what you’re working with goes a long way!
If you’re really unsure on how much certain things cost, we have some great posts about pricing that are listed out below.
I hope that helps!
There’s nothing more frustrating than “design by committee.” However, it does happen, and it can be managed.
But there always need to be a lead point of contact in a design project.
One voice of reason that can be used to add balance to the discussions, and go between both the agency and the company.
Clearly listing out the contact details of the project contact, as well as the best time and way to get hold of them will make things run a lot smoother.
The design agency should also do their part here and once the project kicks off, they’ll assign a member of staff (usually an Account Manager) to handle their side of the communication.
How the Project will Be Awarded
If you’re considering working with a number of agencies, or firing out your design brief to several choices, then you need to make sure they know how the project will be awarded.
For the record:
We don’t believe in distributing your brief to a huge number of agencies. It’s not respectful of their time.
That said, we appreciate you’ll want to collect several proposals and opinions. 3 to 5 agencies is a fair number to approach.
Not sure how to choose an agency to work with?
- Check out this post about choosing a graphic design agency
- And this post about finding the best web designers near you
Now, how will your project be awarded?
Typically, there are several elements at play:
- Cost/Value for Money
- Quality of Work
- Previous Experience
- Alignment to the Design Brief
- Suitability of the Agency
There are any number of factors you could use to judge the responses.
It’s normal to write into your design brief, the percentage and weighting of each of the awarding criteria.
This helps to show your design agency what’s most important in your decision making process.
The required response section of a design brief is pretty straightforward to write.
You need to know your agency what you’re expecting back, by when, and how to submit it.
It’s simply a case of listing out what you expect to receive back.
Perhaps this is as simple as:
- A written response to the brief
- Examples of relevant work
- Testimonials from happy clients
Tell them how to submit their proposal, what to include, by when, and you’re off to the races.
It’s Time to Reach Out
Now that you’ve learned how to write a design brief, it’s time to start reaching out.
If you’re still not sure on how to find a design agency, you could contact us to discuss your project.
So, it’s time to get the process started!
Conclusion: How to Write a Design Brief
The design brief is a tool to be used when sourcing an agency and building out your design project.
Quite often, it’ll be added to or modified. And that’s exactly how it should be used!
You’ll get ideas as you go, things will change, goals will become easily reachable or be out of reach. Your focus might change altogether.
Your design brief should be used to reach out to agencies, and referred back to at key milestones within the project. But it isn’t written in stone. More, wet sand.
It’s a great initial document to have, but it should grow with your project.
What do you think? How did you write your design brief? Let us know in the comments below.