Writing a design brief can be time consuming and frustrating.
And even for the most seasoned of design buyers or marketers it can be a tricky task.
A design brief is a vital document used to help communication between yourself and your chosen design agency.
It forms the fundamentals of your design project, and keeps everything in check if the wheels start to wobble a little bit.
Even if you’re just scoping out agencies to work with, having a well thought out design brief will make obtaining a quote for your design work easier.
Some design projects you might have in mind could include:
- Introducing a new brand to the market
- Rebranding your company
- Launching a new website
- Improving your content marketing efforts
- Launching a new digital marketing campaign
- Running a print advertising campaign
In any of these cases, a well written design brief will help to keep your project running smoothly.
And, if you’d rather watch us talk about design briefs than read about them, we’ve created a video to help out:
A good design brief will put everyone on exactly the same page, aligning expectations, and making sure both parties understand the goals and objectives of the design project at hand.
It’s an essential tool for Marketing Departments to use when kickstarting a new design project.
Trying to run a design project without a brief is difficult because you’re relying on telephone calls, email threads, and handwritten notes to keep track of things.
And that’s not the right way to run a design project! Trust us, we’ve tried.
Having a well written brief and a firm project plan keep the design process running smoothly.
But, before we jump in to how to write a design brief, let’s cover another important question.
What is a Design Brief Used For?
A design brief is a written document that businesses use to communicate their requirements with a handful of selected design agencies.
Typically, it’s a Company Director, Marketing Director, Marketing Manager, or Marketing Executive that is tasked with writing the design brief.
But, if you’re a startup founder 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 working at a business who is looking to launch a new brand, you would send your design brief to agencies that offer branding services, that you want to contact about your new launch.
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 well written design brief.
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 at hand, that can be used to help external branding and design agencies to understand more about your business and your plans.
That’s the answer to “what is a design brief?”
It’s a way of communicating with a design agency about your specific design needs and requirements.
Typically it’s served up as a Word Document or PDF, but some marketers like to get crazy with Powerpoint too and make their brief that way!
From a practicality point of view, the commenting features in a Word Doc, Google Doc, or PDF make it easiest for your design agency.
A Quick Note on Design Briefs vs RFPs
If you’re based in North America, it’s quite common for briefs to be classed as an RFP (request for proposal) or an RFQ (request for quotation).
We’ve got an entirely separate post about that. So if that seems more inline with your requirements, go ahead and check out How to Write an RFP or RFQ.
Typically there’s not much difference, but an RFP can be more widely focused than just on design. Have a read anyway and pop back here if you’re looking for a design project!
Why is a Design Brief Important?
By writing a design brief, you’re getting the ideas for your project out of your head, and down on paper. This helps drive a better understanding of your project from all parties involved.
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.
No agency on earth can know the ins-and-outs of every single industry on earth. Enter your design brief.
The chances are, unless you’re the Marketing Director of a huge company, they won’t have come across you. Enter your design brief.
And how are they going to get excited about your project if they don’t know anything about it? Enter your design brief.
Imagine you run a design agency, and this is the email you get:
“Hey, we’re looking to rebrand our company and like your work.”
For all emails like this do pique your interest, it’s always a lot more exciting to receive an email with a brief attached, or even just a tiny bit more information.
You want to include enough information to get the cogs turning.
Let us know why you’re reaching out, and how we can partner with you to solve your problems.
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 SMEs and larger companies, it’s usually the Marketing Director, Marketing Manager, or someone on the Marketing Team that would be in charge of creating or writing the design brief. Then, Marketing Executives would use it when reaching out to potential design 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 design project might be, and what we might need.
It’s important to keep in mind that your design brief should highlight the problems you’re facing. Not the solutions you need.
You focus on the problem, and let your agency focus on fixing it for you.
A good design agency can 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 fleshed out and finalised with your chosen agency.
Good design work comes from good partnerships.
Learning to trust your chosen design agency early on will help deliver better results for your business 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 Sort of Projects are Design Briefs Used For?
The design brief is a document used across a wide range of industries.
We see design briefs used in a range of different projects, including:
- Branding and Rebranding
- Website Design
- Interior Design
- Fashion Design
- And more.
Chances are, your design brief will come in useful across most design related industries.
Whether that’s a packaging project, or an ecommerce website project, a design brief gives you something more to work with than a “blank canvas.”
The typical projects we see at Canny that come in accompanied by a brief are:
- Branding projects (where a range of branding services are typically required)
- Rebranding projects (when an existing company needs to change)
- Website projects (be it a standard website or something more complex)
At the end of the day, a well written design brief will make everybody’s life easier.
If you’re finding it difficult to make, then stop right there. Try a different way.
Maybe you can record yourself describing a bit about your business and the problems you’re facing.
It doesn’t always have to be a standard written document!
Do what works, just get your ideas about your project documented, so your chosen agency can start to help you.
Now that we’ve talked about design briefs in general, let’s jump into creating one.
What Should Be Included In Your Design Brief?
First things first, exactly what should be included in your design brief?
Writing a good design brief is no easy task. And if you’ve never done it before, expect to spend a good chunk of time writing and reworking it.
You need to make your brief easy to understand, compact enough to retain interest, but comprehensive enough to give a good overview of your situation.
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
- A rebranding project, which again has its own unique rebranding brief
- A desire to improve your company’s marketing, which would be best served with a marketing brief
- Or if you’re in the USA, you might be looking for an RFP or RFQ template
Click the links above to download the relevant brief for your project.
For now, we’ll try and keep things general.
So, what should be included in your design brief?
As a top level overview, 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, rebranding brief, or web design brief, you might add several sections to the structure of this.
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.
So, how do you write a design brief? Let’s dive in.
An Overview of Your Business
The first thing you should explain when writing your 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.
- At Canny Creative, we create brands, websites, and content plans that get our clients real business results.
- Currently, most of our clients come through our website, thanks to our content strategy. Because our content appeals globally, we have clients across the world.
- What makes us unique in the market is our partnership based approach. We treat our clients’ businesses like they’re our own, rather than a quick cash grab.
This sort of simple information is a great way to kick off your design brief and helps frame the information that follows.
The Objectives of Your Design Project
Your company doesn’t just decide to rebrand or build a website at random.
There’s always a driving factor. Getting this down on paper early will help drive further decisions.
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:
“We need a new brand identity to help us stand out from the noise. The market place we operate in is crowded. Therefore, differentiation matters. Our space is saturated with boring brands, we want to make a difference with the way we look.”
The goal here is differentiation. Simple enough.
A website project goal could be even more basic:
“Our website doesn’t sell enough products. We want to know why, and then make the necessary adjustments to make it convert more of our visitors into paying customers.”
Having a goal not only gives your agency something to work towards, it also gives you something to measure against.
Another thing to ask yourself 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 help all parties drive the correct response and results.
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 at its core, 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 in reality, it’s because your website isn’t working for your customers.
Chances are it’s not communicating your offering properly, or making you look professional. These are both things that will put your customers off.
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.
We’ve got a great post here about defining your target audience/a>.
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 do 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 just listing demographic information and psychographic traits.
In our free customer persona worksheet we ask you to list out the basic information about your customers, but also:
- Brands/influencers they buy or follow
- Their fears
- Their goals and objectives
- What challenges they’re facing
- What objections they have to your business
- What their hobbies and interests are
Knowing this information will help inform your design project.
By knowing which brands they buy into, you can tell what sort of style they like. By addressing their objections, you can make educated website copy, and so on.
The more you can profile about your demographic, the more well rounded and informed your design brief will be. In turn, when handled by a professional design agency, this will result in a design project that drives real business results.
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 objective 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 here 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?
- Do your contact forms work?
- Are you using enough trust indicators across your website?
- Is your website copy strong enough?
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.
Try and get to the heart of the matter, rather than skirting around the edges. If you know there are deep rooted problems, get them noted down. It’s better to pain the fullest picture possible.
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’ll be able to overcome it.
Project Specific Information
Project specific information can be tricky to outline in your 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 (e.g WordPress)? 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 be super technical.
But if you have specific requirements, it’s best to get them listed out now.
Other things to consider in your design brief are:
- Are you integrating your new website with a CRM system?
- Do you have a newsletter, and if so, which software do you use to serve it?
- 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 project specific information you can share about your project at this early stage in the process 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?
- Who are your biggest clients?
- What else is there to know?
Give us the longer version of the elevator pitch.
Noting down the ins-and-outs might make your brief seem long and boring, but from an agency perspective, I can promise you that it’s not.
It’s good to know who you’re going into business with. And, 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? Are you a true disruptor?
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 your design agency to get an understanding of what they’re all about, and how you fit into their 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.
This can then throw up some interesting points to think about and consider.
It also means they don’t stray too close to what your competitors are doing when creating your new brand identity or website design.
You shouldn’t be scared of your competitors. You should know and respect them.
They can help you feed ideas for your business, whether that be positive or negative. Competitors can also become partners and trusted allies, so don’t overlook that approach.
- Can you partner with them to offer a new service?
- Are there learnings you can take from their marketing?
- Do you want to be like them, or completely different?
By noting them down in your design brief, these are the sorts of discussions you can with your design agency, who can then help position you for success.
This question often helps design agencies to 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 I 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 your 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!
Nobody likes rush jobs. It’s pressure for pressure’s sake. Try and avoid them at all costs!
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 it’s another thing that you can do to build 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 design 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. And, that’s the fairest way of doing business.
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.
Keep in mind that we’re a growing design agency based in the North East of England. If you’re in London, or New York City, the investment you’re going to be making is going to a lot more.
But don’t let that dissuade you. Good work costs good money. But, it also gets you real results!
There’s nothing more frustrating than “design by committee.” However, it does happen, and it can be managed.
But there always needs to be a lead point of contact in every 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.
This person should know the project inside and out. From goals and objectives through to audience personas and competitor information.
Clearly listing out the contact details of the project contact, and 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 and allows them to tailor their responses accordingly.
The required response section of a design brief is pretty straightforward to write.
You need to let your agency know 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.
The “Do Nots” of Writing a Design Brief
Now that we’ve covered the ins-and-outs of writing a good design brief, let’s look at three things that you should avoid at all costs.
Do Not Send Your Design Brief to Everyone
There are thousands of design agencies out there, but you don’t need to send you brief to every single one of them.
Find four or five that you like the look of, research them thoroughly, and if they look like a good fit for your project, send the brief to them.
One large email with twenty agencies copied in just isn’t acceptable. It’s not respectful of their time or their work, and you’re going to end up looking a bit silly when nobody replies.
Also keep in mind that if you send your design brief out to twenty agencies, you’re likely going to have to field twenty phone calls.
Be picky! It’ll help everyone in the long run.
Do Not Skip Over the Budget Section
Budgets are important. They help to align expectations.
You don’t need to list every single detail out, but having a rough idea of what you could possibly invest, is better than no idea at all.
Also, don’t be closed off to being at least a little flexible. There might be much better solutions available at a higher investment level.
Do Not Forget to Include a Timescale Around Your Decision
Nothing is worse for a design agency owner, than projects stuck in the “possibly / possibly not” pile indefinitely.
In a design agency, you’re trading time for money, so being able to plan your workload is key.
Make sure you’re clear around when decisions will be made, and stick to the timescale you set.
It’s Time to Reach Out to Design Agencies
Now that you’ve learned how to write a design brief, and created your shortlist of design agencies, it’s time to start reaching out.
If you’re still not sure on how to find a design agency, you should contact us to discuss your design project.
So, it’s time to get the whole process started.
Conclusion: How to Write an Awesome Design Brief
Your 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. It’s a starting point.
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.