Creating the Perfect Design Brief

Adapted from Creating the Perfect Design Brief: How to
Manage Design for Strategic Advantage
(Allworth Press)
By Peter L. Phillips

Dateline: June 14, 2005
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What is a design brief?
A design brief is a written document outlining, in complete detail, the business objectives and corresponding design strategies for a design project. Some prefer the term creative brief. Among a number of other things, the most critical elements of a design brief are: a complete description of the project—what is it that is trying to be done; why is this needed now; what business outcomes are expected; who is this being done for (the target audience); and who are the key stakeholders in this project. The design brief must also address current industry trends, the competition, scope, time-line, budget and measurement of success metrics.

How does a design brief differ from a marketing plan (or brief) and a request for proposal (RFP)?
A complete design brief must take the marketing plan or RFP several steps further. The design brief is not a description of what the design solution will actually look like. Rather, it matches a strategic design approach to each of the business objectives described in the marketing plan or RFP. The design brief also includes the detailed process that will be followed to develop and test concepts, as well as the process which will be employed to determine the best possible final design solution.

Who is responsible for developing, or writing, the design brief?
Design briefs must consist of collaboration between two equal partners. One partner represents the entity with the need for design work. The other partner represents the design function that will actually do the design work. Both partners are equally accountable for the final results of the design project. It is never appropriate for one group to prepare a design brief and simply hand it over to the design function for execution.

I traditionally have very short time periods to complete a project. Do I always need to develop a complete design brief?
No, not all design projects require a complete design brief. It is important to differentiate between simple "production" work and "strategic" design work. Creating a price list, or developing tent cards for trade show exhibits, would probably be considered production work. Designing a new product, package or the development of new sales collateral materials are generally considered "strategic" design projects. It is also important to remember that the time it takes to develop a complete design brief is more than made up during the ensuing design process. Using a complete design brief actually shortens the time it will take to complete the project.

What are the best ways to measure the effectiveness of a design solution?
Design can be a very subjective thing. You can't rely on an individual's subjective, personal opinions, usually expressed in terms such as, "I like it" or, worse, "I don't like it!" Unlike art, which often tends to follow the axiom, "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder," strategic design is a problem-solving discipline. The only truly accurate method of measuring design is to determine to what degree the design solution met the stated business objectives. Clearly developed and articulated business objectives should be measurable in a quantifiable way.

After a design brief is created and approved by appropriate stakeholders, what happens if a situation develops that requires changing the approved brief?
Although this should be a rare occurrence if the design brief was carefully crafted, it does happen. In this event the partners who developed the brief must make the decision to modify it and then communicate the changes to all stakeholders in a timely fashion. It is important to note that as the individuals held accountable for the brief, only the partners should be able to authorize changes to it.

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Adapted by permission from Creating the Perfect Design Brief: How to Manage Design for Strategic Advantage by Peter L. Phillips. This book is published by Allworth Press. For further information or to purchase this book at a 20 percent discount, visit Allworth Press.