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How to Write Effective Design Brief

How to Write Effective Design Brief

Have you ever heard of Sherlock Holmes? He’s a fictional crime-solving detective in Victorian England, whose sharp mind and observation are one-of-a-kind. From the books to movie adaptations, Holmes takes us on a thrilling ride full of strange riddles and satisfying revelations. Fans world-wide love his brilliant investigative skills, and some are determined to develop problem solving qualities that take after their hero. But can they?

As important as it may be, logical thinking or being astute are not really the key to overcoming every obstacles. It is in fact one important factor that’s often overlooked – the understanding of current situation. Without getting all the facts straight, innocents go to prison, investors lose money, and designers lose credibility. Projects therefore must always start with a brief, which outlines necessary details before any thinking is utilized.

This begs the question: what exactly is a brief, and how does it help you?

In visual design context, a brief is the concise summary of business, product and project information. It reinforces the purpose of the project, outlines the scope of work parameters, and ultimately sets the foundation for relevant ideas to be formed. There’s no one brief to solve them all, but varies depending on complexities of projects in each organization. Indeed, an effective design brief must at least answer the following questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What benefits do you bring about?
  3. Who do you serve?
  4. Who are your rivals?
  5. What makes you unique?
  6. What exactly do you want?
  7. Why do you want it?
  8. What is your visual preferences?
  9. What should be avoided?
  10. What’s available?

Writing an effective brief is not all about facts and data. It involves insights and stories expressed in ways the creative people can “visualize” what they read, not struggling to understand what you mean. Let’s dive deeper into how each questions above should be answered.

1. Who are you

This is an important question that isn’t usually taken seriously enough in a brief. Such question can send chills down your spine in a networking event as it dictates why audience should care about you. In answering this question, you’re giving designers clues to how best visualize your introduction, so treat it like a pitch to an investors: concise and to the point, don’t exaggerate or brag. Start with the products / services and support with features you offer. It’s something like this:

Company X provides a household storage solutions with on-demand shipment and advanced security technology.

2. What benefits do you bring about?

As absurd as this may sounds, customer will never buy your product. In reality, they buy the effects – or benefits – that your products bring about. For instance, fancy suits reflect financial accomplishments or social status, MacBooks reflect creative spirit underlined by Steve Jobs. Can you guess the target audience for such products? Now your turn. Here’s some hint:

With Company X storage solutions, customers can sit back, relax and enjoy their favorite TV shows while our staff does the heavy lifting, moving, maintaining and delivering of all the excess household items, with just a tap away.

3. Who do you serve?

Let’s imagine you are with investors while addressing this question, what would you say? Now, imagine you’re hanging out with your best buddy when she asks you this, how do you explain? Do you notice any difference in how you express your answer to different audience? 

While age, income, marital status and other demographic data are important to marketing, our target customers are essentially human with hopes & dreams. Indeed, communication requires a more personal touch – how such data transforms into insights of our customers’ lives. That is how you should answer this question: describing them as a person whom you’re having a conversation with. Here’s some hint:

John is the marketing manager in his late 30s, who’s a happy family man with two beautiful children. He gains the trust of his colleagues for being approachable, passionate and fair. He’s often concerned with how to increase qualified marketing leads, and aspires to create viral marketing campaigns that rivals his heroes. In his off-days, John and his family enjoy his high salary with luxury that modern society has to offer. 

Can you guess what type of information or designs that John would fine appealing?

4. Who are your rivals?

Understanding your rivals is not about how to compete, but how not to follow them into the abyss – we all know what fate awaits copy cats. What really matters are their unique selling points and positioning in customers’ hearts and minds. With advance technology, we can do some CIA work in their social sites like Facebook and Instagram, even act as the customer if you’re thorough. Do what you see fits, and list their characteristics as detailed as possible.

5. What makes you unique?

Now that we understand what makes your rivals tick, let’s take a deep look on how you can differentiate from them, starting with your unique selling points. If products and pricing are the same, why should customers choose you over your rivals?

6 & 7. What exactly do you want and why?

You’re probably thinking about me having made a mistake, we’re wired to focus on the needs of customer, not the other way around. Think about it, if customers only focus on what they need, why would they buy designer clothes, fancy cars, Apple products and other luxurious things? Surely a loincloth, a bus and a crappy laptop should fill their basic needs, right?

No, focus on the needs is the poor’s mentality. The wants have been the driving force for wealth and innovation since the dawn of human kind. When giving brief, state what you want to happen so designers can visualize your vision. More importantly, explain why you want it to happen and what inspires your desires, so the potentials will be clearly reflected in the results in the eyes of customers. Below is some hint on how it should be:

A sales brochure that informs and inspires the target audience on the value of beach front real estates investing opportunities, featuring details of a perfect spot for weekend get-away: total privacy with perfect sea views, wide-silver beach front in the back yard, conveniently positioned near supermarkets and medical centers with only 2 hours journey from the city, guaranteed passive cash generation of 8% per year. 

Can you imagine how the design of the brochure will look like?

8 & 9. What is your visual preferences & what should be avoided?

While designs are created for target customers, projects are often put on hold due to stakeholders’ disapproval of the result. As everyone has their own definition of art, visual design is essentially subjective, thus visual requirements must be provided to avoid unnecessary confrontations. Get on Google, Behance, Instagram or Pinterest to find the art styles that you fits your tastes and those who don’t, then paste the screenshots to the brief. New designs will be created based on the established likes & dislikes.

10. What’s available?

If you have an established brand guidelines, make sure to send over to the agency or designer in charge of the project to ensure a holistic brand experience. 


Sherlock Holmes may be the genius problem-solver, but like us, he needs to start at the same place in every case: awareness of the status quo. It is achieved via the use of briefs in visual design context, which practically guides designers to the creation of meaningful ideas. Because of this, writing an effective brief is vital for the success of any project, and the trick is  the vivid expression of business stories and insights. 


How to work with designers and ace creative project

How to work with designers and ace creative project

Working with “creative” people can be difficult. If you work with one, chances are you’ve had trouble expressing your thoughts or speak their language to produce desired outcomes.

As a marketing agency, we’ve been on both sides of the fence – having struggled to sell our creative work, and witnessed clients as they get frustrated to tell us what they really want. Not exclusive to Vietnam, this scenario has happened everywhere in the world, and usually results in mediocre work with disappointments that later transform to distrust towards marketing / design industry.

It doesn’t have to be such a irritating journey. Designing is not rocket science, but a process essentially based on logic and common sense. Within this process, we identify problems and look for suitable solutions – a common ground for clients and designers to communicate effectively and get the job done, which we’ll show you in this article.

First: what is design?

Logos, brochure or business cards tend to pop in our minds whenever we talk about design, but that’s only a small piece of a big pie. In reality, design has many applications across different fields aside from graphic: experience (UX), product (smartphones), system (OS) and culture (organizations). In terms of noun, design is a solution to a specific problem, while the verb indicates the part where designer turns their visions into concrete results.

Ever got goosebumps when watching a movie, or feeling motivated when working in certain place? If you do, that’s the proof of what a good design is – bringing a memorable experience that make it seems like there was never a problem in the first place, or that it’s easy to achieve. Good design is often intuitive and a pleasure to appreciate, yet tend to be undervalued until we experience the poor ones.

Most of the time, design is often thought as very simple e.g. creating User Interface for a website, and the looks are more focused on than how it works. However, if the website doesn’t work, the design is a failure. This is why communication is vital in any creative project – to avoid simplification of what design is, and to make sure functions and visuals are aligned for the ultimate goal.

Communication gaps

Before we discuss about communication, what you need to understand about marketing & design is that, they aren’t art, but science. This means for every problem, we take a deep look and form hypotheses on how to solve it, then test them. Ineffective results are casted away, and those that work are tested again until they bear fruits. It’s an constant trial-and-error process before we can arrive to that Aha! Moment. Do you think an iPhone was created in one shot?

Like the best generals and leaders of the old world, we do make mistakes. Instead of blaming and hating, take a deep breath and calm down, no designers want to shoot themselves in the foot. Empathize, communicate and work together to get the job done, isn’t it what we all want?

Now, let’s take a look at some gaps that put both sides on edge.

“It’s terrible. I don’t like it”

To some, it’s an insult on purpose to intimidate designers. To others, it’s an honest comment before moving on to other feedback. The truth is, this kind of comment will severely affect designer’s morale and creativity, which will hurt the commenter in the end. Even professional designers will develop resentment towards you, who may be patient to guide you back to the right path, but can only endure so much before they have enough.

Why so serious? It’s because you give a judgement, not communicating the feedback that can be analyzed for proper revision. Remember: designing is problem solving, not guesswork. Every element used in a design has a purpose, ask about it and how it helps solve the underlying problem.

Demand a trial work for free (Spec work)

Do you go to a restaurant and demand a meal, and only pay if you like it? If you’re the restaurant owner, would you agree? If you do, you have to commit ingredients, labour work and facilities to cook – all of which are limited resources that have opportunity cost. Indeed, the cost of creating such meal for a free trial and not getting paid is much higher than the cost of finding new customers. This applies to every job, including design.

Don’t misunderstand spec work and pitching. A pitch requires a formal Request for Proposal, detailing your requirements, judging criteria and timeline, as well as a negotiable pitching fee. With spec work, you just give designer a brief and ask for a demo. The problem with spec work? The results are only a fraction of what a designer is capable of, no matter how thorough your brief is. This is due to the doubts that they may not win the project or being taken advantage of.

How, then, can you know if a designer or agency is capable enough? Ask! How do they approach problems? What suggestions do they have for current issues? Any case studies? When you’re done asking, put your FBI hat on and look into their profiles online. Are they associated with fraud? Is their work applied in real life or is it just a dream? Keep in mind that designers can do the same to you to decide that you’re worth of their time.

Telling designers how to do their jobs

We all have ideas on how a certain job should be done, and we can’t help but want to be a part of the solution, or at least help creating one. Yet, you don’t tell a chef how to cook, you don’t tell a doctor how to cure, you don’t tell an architect how to build. Why would you tell a designer how to design?

Similar to other admirable jobs, Design as a craft requires observation, logic and years of practice to become a professional. They should be treated as consultants, not tools. Don’t tell them to use this color, that elements, move X to Y or how to ideate. Instead, question the purpose of ideas, the placements of elements, the use of colors and link them back to the problem you want to solve.

If you’re an experienced designer, the rules still stand.

How to improve communication?

The root of all communication problems is assumption. As clients you want to have quick results, but sometimes too busy to invest proper time into the brief. Therefore designers have to assume what you want, which later results in something you don’t want. Why not start properly in the beginning? Always spend a block of time to talk with designers, make sure they understand everything about the problem that’s bugging you.

Ask, ask more, ask further, and ask again if not clear, leave no stones unturned. Better ask stupid questions than to look stupid when shit hits the fans. It is expected from both  designer and client when engaged in a project. If clients can’t answer questions about the problem, there’s no problem to be fixed, and the outcomes are just art. If designers can’t explain simply and clearly the reasons behind the designs, they’re actually artists, not designers. Art is for entertainment, design is for solving problems.

While it’s for intended audience with designer’s viewpoint, it’s hard not to feel the design is your brainchild, and that it should bear your mark. This is understandable and doable – just share your preferences with the designers and discuss how such elements can be implemented in the design, then work together to a mutually agreed solution. However, be ready to compromise as you don’t want an unrecognizable mess in the end.

Give input and feedback that builds and completes the design, not undermining designers or blaming them for failing to provide the “perfect work” in one shot. Own your project, be an active partner and everyone will benefit. Empathize with fellow humans, communicate well, don’t guess, and have faith.