How to Write Effective Design Brief - Design Buffet

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.