Sometimes, we all need some help. Emily Ruth Cohen consults with small to mid-size creative firms and in-house corporate design departments. This breadth of experience gives her insight into a wide range of issues that face creative businesses.

Creative briefs, marketing briefs, design briefs… “Call them what you want,” says Emily Ruth Cohen, a consultant to creative professionals with more than 20 years of experience under her belt. “What matters is that you understand this business tool inside and out – its purpose, content and how it can contribute to your value and professional credibility.”

It’s a point Emily repeatedly reinforces to her clients, perhaps because the payoff is significant. Unfortunately, few design professionals fully utilize – much less know about – this invaluable tool. This reality was confirmed at the 2006 HOW Design Conference in June, where Emily spoke on the role and importance of creative briefs. During her session, titled “Creative Briefs: Linking Business Objectives to Creative Strategies,” some attendees said they’d never written a creative brief; some even admitted loathing the idea of creative briefs all together.

But those who acquaint themselves with this document and learn to incorporate it into their professional repertoires are never disappointed. We spoke with Emily to learn about the process behind developing creative briefs, and how they can be used to build stronger business relationships and achieve a more satisfying career.


Nuts and Bolts: Elements of an effective creative brief


The Creative Group: “What is the main purpose of a design brief?”

Emily Ruth Cohen: “A creative brief is a written document that summarizes as comprehensively and concisely as possible both the business and creative objectives and requirements for a specific project or relationship. It is not a proposal, RFP (request for proposal) or initiation form, which are tactical and include project specifications, such as deadlines and budget. A creative brief is much more about the business objectives – it digs deep into the project and discovers the main factors that will drive the creative strategy.”

TCG: “What are the main components of a good design brief? What are the critical questions and issues that it should answer or address?”

ERC: “All design briefs will differ depending on the project and client, but they all should link design strategy with business objectives. The basic elements of a good design brief include:

  1. Background information. Introduce the project and any background information that will drive its progress (i.e., new products, positioning strategies).
  2. User and target audience. Identify the gender, age, geographic location, characteristics, priorities, occupations and cultural considerations for each group. Find out what motivates and inspires each group and their differences and similarities.
  3. Brand attributes and mission statement. Refer to the client’s website or research you’ve already collected; analyze the competitive landscape, chart strengths and weaknesses, and determine how they are relevant to what you will be developing for the client. Note: This is the ideal time to clarify mixed messages between key stakeholders and turn subjective emotions (i.e., “I don’t like blue”) into objective statements (i.e., “Using blue can solve this objective”).
  4. Business objectives (success criteria). Pinpoint the client’s goals in developing a particular piece or service (i.e., Is the initiative meant to increase awareness, generate sales leads, educate existing clients, improve employee morale?). Link business objectives to design strategies and address functionality specifications, approval processes and timelines, testing requirements, and budgets.”

Selling the ‘Creative Brief’ Concept


TCG: “What role should designers play in creating design briefs? Ultimately, whose responsibility is it to initiate the process?”

ERC: “Most designers are either given creative briefs by their clients or write them on their own, but they have to be developed collaboratively. If you’re given a creative brief, you’re not going to digest and absorb the information; and if you try to create it on your own, there’s a good chance you’re not going to deliver what the client wants.

“Creative briefs are best written at the start of the relationship and prior to the development of any design solution. They should be written after the research and discovery phase as a deliverable. The research and discovery phase includes identifying key stakeholders, decision makers and people on your team who will be part of the process; reviewing background material provided by the client; conducting a planning meeting with the client and stakeholders; and collecting additional research if necessary. The final deliverable will summarize everything you’ve learned during this process, including findings and related recommendations, and provide a clear set of expectations. It should align the client’s business objectives with your creative strategy.”

TCG: “What should designers do if clients don’t buy into the process and are reluctant to create a brief?”

ERC: “One way to avoid this problem is to sell this service as part of your marketing strategy and in your promotional materials – on your website and in your initial sales pitch and proposal. Tell the client in every communication – written or verbal – that the creative brief is an integrated part of your process.

“If the client knows about the brief in advance, they will allow time in their budget and schedule for it. Include a description of what the creative brief is and its purpose as a deliverable during the planning phase.”


Everyone Wins: How creative briefs benefit both the designer and client


TCG: “What are the benefits of creating the design brief together?”

ERC: “When designers participate and lead in the process of creating a design brief, they express and reinforce the value of their insight and contribution to the client. They also reiterate their role as the client’s partner – rather than a vendor, an artist or someone who simply executes ideas – and ensure buy-in to the entire process.

“Clients who include designers in the research and development process gain from the designers’ insight and industry expertise. Both benefit from a mutually agreed upon set of expectations, objectives and success criteria.

“A creative brief also provides an opportunity to determine ROI, a term clients love but designers hate because it’s hard to measure. But if designers ask clients the right questions, they can gather great information, testimonials and case studies to add to their resumes. Clients also can use this information as proof of the project’s success and, thus, better define the value of their contributions and defend themselves to management.”

TCG: “Given these benefits, why do so many designers overlook this preliminary step in the creative process?”

ERC: “Often, designers are given creative briefs and don’t push the client to be more involved in the project. One way to solve this problem is to rename the document (‘strategy document,’ for example) – this reinforces the value of the work the client did, but also allows you to expand on their document and incorporate your insight and knowledge.

“Another reason is that few designers are true ‘partners’ with their clients; they often simply work on projects as they arise without selling the bigger-picture strategic thinking that most projects and programs require. The most successful designers provide this type of guidance – trying to convert existing client relationships but also not accepting new clients without selling this service.”

TCG: “What are the potential dangers of moving forward with a project without a design brief?”

ERC: “Without the designer being truly involved in developing the creative brief, miscommunication and misunderstandings can arise. Designers can certainly read a document, but to truly buy in to the content of the brief, they need to be a part of the process. This allows for a deeper understanding of the client’s needs.

“And, as I’ve mentioned, designers risk being viewed as vendors rather than partners or collaborators by the client, and the client ultimately controls the strategy and direction of the piece.”


Pointers and Pitfalls


TCG: “What do you think are the greatest challenges in creating good design briefs?”

ERC: “Selling the client on the need and value of the additional time and costs required to conduct thorough research and develop a well-thought-out document. Keeping your recommendations and language simple and to-the-point and eliminating redundancies also can pose a challenge. Use a bulleted format and utilize your design skills to make it easy to read by including charts, graphs, color and appropriate typography. And, if possible, present it in person – this allows you the opportunity to navigate potential problems and helps ensure the client actually reads it.

“You also should schedule enough time for the creative brief – it can take several weeks to complete. If you’ve sold it in your promotional materials and reiterated it in your proposal, the client will allow the time. It’s also crucial to provide clear deadlines for feedback and approval on the creative brief and identify who will actually sign-off on it.”

TCG: “What are some red flags to watch out for when developing a design brief?”

ERC: “If the content or categories in a design brief are formulaic or redundant, it’s a good sign that it wasn’t carefully considered or researched. You never want to use a template to create a design brief; it should be customized to the client and written in your own voice. Conflicting information also can be a sign it wasn’t thought out.

“Unreasonable expectations, schedules and budgets also should raise concern. No creative brief should try to solve 50 business objectives. In fact, overpromising and underdelivering is a huge pitfall designers often make. It’s far better to underpromise and overdeliver – your client will love you.”

TCG: “Do all projects require design briefs? Or only the ‘big ones’?”

ERC: “You do not need to create one for every project – only when it’s appropriate. Decide when it makes sense to develop a creative brief because it can be very time consuming and expensive.

“Usually, only large-scale, important or long-term initiatives – like branding, logo development, naming, packaging, integrated communications programs and website projects – require them.”

TCG: “Is it OK to revise a design brief as a project progresses?”

ERC: “Rarely should a design brief be modified, unless something drastic changes the project’s business objectives (i.e., a new competitor enters the market, the business changes ownership, the economic climate shifts dramatically). A complete change in direction midstream, however, really requires a new proposal and creative brief. This is different than concept revisions, which of course, are a natural part of the process.”

TCG: “Do you think today’s designers are savvier about design briefs than in the past? Do you think requesting jointly created design briefs will become a more conventional practice among designers and clients?”

ERC: “It’s becoming more common for clients to develop creative briefs, but they aren’t always done intelligently or don’t include enough research and understanding of how creative strategies best align with business goals. It isn’t common for designers to write creative briefs at all; I would love to see this become a new trend. All my clients are embracing this service and are seeing a tremendous change and improvement in how much the client values their insight because of this. In addition, it streamlines the process and is a great way to guide the approval and decision making process.”