Like any creative effort, a successful design project involves many different people with different talents coming together. But too often, lots of cooks in the kitchen can be a recipe for disaster. That’s why great design starts with a great creative brief: a single, clear direction that communicates everything anyone needs to know about a project.

A wall mural of many elements bearing the words “We are the generation”
Art mural by Ron | Graphics for Gustav Jonsson

This can seem daunting at first, and that’s why we’ve provided this easy guide to putting your best foot forward with a comprehensive brief. Creativity is messy, but it’s definitely worth it.

Overview

Here’s a basic outline of what your brief should include. This won’t be the same for every project, so just consider it a starting place.

  • Project Title—The name of your project. Keeps multiple projects organized for both designer and client.
  • Project Goal—Explicitly states what your end deliverable is trying to achieve.
  • Project Deliverable—What you need, including file types and information on your planned distribution method.
  • Project Deadline—When you need your deliverable.
  • Project Budget—Your maximum expenses for your project.
  • Company Name—Who you business is.
  • Company Background—Briefly describes what your company does but most importantly your brand personality.
  • Target Audience Information—Who your project is for.
  • Competitor Information—Your top main competitors and similar successful projects.
  • Style Preferences—Color specifications and the overall tone you want to achieve. Also include what NOT to do.
  • Reference Designs—A collection of designs that match your aesthetic preferences.
  • Project Assets—Copy, logo files, stock images, pre-existing websites that will inform your designer.

Easy, right? Next, we’ll walk you through the steps of how to flesh this out.

Step 1: Get started before getting started

Decide on your focus

A dog detective logo for hound spy
Logo design by Vi.

Maybe you’ve just had your grand opening or maybe you’ve got franchises all over the place. Either way, you’ve got all sorts of creative needs, from copywriting to graphic design and beyond. Lumping all of those into one project will be overwhelming for everyone involved. Different projects are going to require different skill sets, software, planning and research. So before starting, make sure you have the project narrowed down to one specific end deliverable.

Tally your resources

A monopoly man character illustration
Mascot design by Snowkie

Before writing the brief, make a list of what you have to work with. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Define your max budget. Keep in mind that this will involve more than paying the designer. You’ll need to account for printers & coders, stock images, font licenses and more.
  • Have your copy on hand. Designers can use placeholder copy, but the specific word count will impact the design layout.
  • Clearly state your deadline, even one that seems far off. You might think you’ve got all the time in the world now, but anything can happen. Keep in mind that neither you nor your designer are going to be happy scrambling through the 11th hour.

Get your specs

A cartoon of personified tools
Every tool has a personality and a project it’s better suited for. Character illustrations by reep

If you’re sending the design off to a printer or coder at some point, don’t wait until the very end to find out what they will need. Give them a call to discuss their specifications, and make sure you walk into the project with a list of your own (e.g. exact product dimensions, dielines, file types). Designers will do their best to deliver standard files, but these won’t always be the same depending on where you go to implement the design. Providing specific use cases—such as whether the design will be featured on t-shirts, billboards, web or mobile—is another way to help designers make sure the files they create are technically suited for your purpose.

Step 2: Get acquainted

About you

An illustration of a stand-up comedian
They’re laughing with you, we promise. Illustration by nasgort

Introductions can be tricky. Imagine meeting someone at a party. You might say hello, tell them your name, a funny personal anecdote, but you hopefully aren’t going to sit them down and launch into your life story.

Similarly, if your creative brief is a first meeting…

DO be specific about your product/service, but include only background that is relevant.

Most importantly, think about how this information fits into your ultimate goals for this project. Are you a brand new organization seeking name recognition? Are you making something more convenient? Is your product empowering people in some way? Are you giving access to something previously inaccessible?

DON’T copy and paste the “About Us” section of your website.

One helpful tip: make these details personal. What do you love about the work you/your company does? Remember, copy conveys cold hard facts, but design conveys emotion.

About your target audience

A series of flat design illustration showing different kinds of people
Business avatars by Bonographic for gvc3204

Some designers like to do their own research, but at the end of the day, you know your customers best. Though demographic stats like age and location are great, dig deeper. Give customers faces and names. Imagine what their daily lives are like and what their interests are. Once you have this pinned down, be sure to tie it back to the project at hand. Outside of your overall product/service, how are these people benefiting from this specific project?

Step 3: Get a sense of style

Eying the competition

A logo design of a big fish swallowing a smaller fish
Logo design by bo_rad

Your competitors are caught up in the same grift you are, so by now you’re wise to their tricks. You know their brand story, so investigating their design aesthetic can be a great source of insight into the techniques they use, which be a great asset for your creative brief.

While it’s important to be aware of your competitor’s style, that doesn’t mean you have to pigeonhole yourself into replicating them. In what ways are you different? Maybe you have a similar service, but you’re after a more upscale audience. Similarly, to avoid fading to the background, be aware of what is common and overdone in your industry.

Exploring your style

A logo design showing a group of fashionable women
Speaking of Dresses logo design by SHANAshay for VCris

This is the fun part—take a step back from the project to pin down your personal aesthetic taste. The internet is full of great sources for design inspiration such as Dribbble, Behance, and our very own Pinterest page. If you have any specific designers in mind, make sure to include some designs that you like from their portfolio. Collect as many samples as you can and identify which specific design elements you like about each. What styles do they all have in common?

Speaking graphic design

An illustration of a middle aged man dressed in a bloody fairy costume
Blood Fairy illustration by treemouse for thebloodfairy

This is the hard part—giving words to your aesthetic vision is a tall order for non-artists and (let’s face it) even for artists. We’ll try to make it as painless as possible.

Besides common graphic design terms (which are good to know), the thing you are ultimately going to communicate is the qualities you want to associate with your brand. Much like your target audience, if your company was a person, who would she be? Think of a list of personality traits to describe her. What are her ‘friends’ whispering about her as soon as she’s left the room?

To connect this to design, start with some of the general designs you collected from earlier. Without knowing anything about the organization, what can you infer about their personality just based on the design? Make a guess as to the specific design elements, such as a serif typeface or a muted color scheme, that have led you to this impression. Does this impression fit with any of the brand qualities you listed earlier? If so, this will be a great visual reference for designers. If not, this might just be a style you personally like and not relevant, but a worthwhile exercise in speaking design nonetheless.

An app icon showing a superhero knocking out letters
App icon by Akira X3 for imlabs

Time to tackle the actual words. Your goal is two-fold: describing your brand personality to designers and linking this with your aesthetic style. If you don’t have a good idea of both at this point, refer to the steps above.

An illustration of a knight with a pencil as a sword and a letter as a shield
Look at you, slaying those briefs! Character design by Art Astronaut for josephz7

Start with those descriptors you listed for your brand and make sure they are specific. Adjectives like “vintage” or “sophisticated” can be helpful, but they are broad, carrying a variety of meanings each with subtle nuances. When in doubt, doubling up on modifiers can help. “70s vintage” or “demure sophistication” are already more clear.

When attaching design references, describe what it is that appeals to you in relation to your brand personality with each picture. Remember, there are many things you can admire about a great design, and if you don’t specify, designers might be drawn to an aspect of the image you either didn’t notice or didn’t care about.

Step 4: Get feedback

Here we go—your creative brief is all done and your project is up and running. But what’s that? That meddlesome designer just pointed out how the goal of your project is still a little ambiguous. And how your favorite design reference doesn’t seem to fit with the others. They suggest you make edits to the creative brief you’ve worked so hard to perfect.

This is normal. Until the end of the project (meaning the deliverable has been sent off to wherever it needs to go) nothing is set in stone (or ink or code). In the meantime, designers are a valuable creative asset, beyond simply pumping out design proposals, so listen to their advice. You may even learn something about your project that hadn’t been on the agenda. Most of all, remember that the creative process isn’t just fluid, it is collaborative.

An illustration of a group of people washing an elephant
As they say, it takes a village to wash an elephant. They say that, right? Illustration by DashaMari

Don’t worry, you’ve got this.

The truth is a bad brief won’t always make or break a project. Sometimes, the stars align, lightning strikes twice and fortune favors the bland. Some people can get lucky and wind up with a great design out of a lackluster brief, but you’re not some people. You’re a business owner. You didn’t rely on luck to get this far, did you? So why start now?