Your guide to writing design briefs (with a free downloadable template)
Consider a good design brief to be the bedrock on which your latest design project will be built. And as anyone living on landfill in earthquake country will tell you: everything needs a strong foundation.
Whether you’re working with clients or colleagues, the brief is a critical part of good communication. Let’s go into what design briefs are and what they have to include.
What is a design brief?
Although it can take many formats and follow many templates (we’ll provide one later in this post), the purpose of a design brief is capture the key details of a project and ensure that the client and the designer are aligned on what’s being asked.
Contrary to common belief, a brief is unlikely to be handed to you by a client at the start of the project. On the contrary—a brief is usually written by the designer themselves in order to ensure they have all the information they need to start work.
A design brief should capture exactly what the designer needs to accomplish in a given project and ensure that there is full agreement on issues including project deliverables, budget, and schedule.
Iif you happen to be freelancing, a good design brief is even more important: it can limit scope creep, safeguard your own schedule, and protect you from clients with unrealistic expectations or moving goalposts.
A good brief can save you headaches down the road—but that’s only if you capture the right information. So how can you make sure your brief is providing an earthquake-safe foundation? Let’s take a look at the most essential ingredients in any excellent design brief.
1. Company and brand overview
A good design brief often begins with some information about the client and what their brand stands for. Including this helps to connect an individual project with the bigger picture.
Aim to capture key points about what the company does, how big they are, and what their key products or services are. Here are some other questions you could put to the client:
- What makes this company unique within its industry?
- What is your brand’s mission?
- What are your brand’s keywords?
- What kind of feedback do you get from customers?
As with any sections of the design brief, you can write this up in prose or bullet-point format. The key thing is simply to capture the information that you need to deliver the project.
Here’s an example of an effective company and brand overview:
2. Goals and objectives
A design brief would be of no use without a description of the work that needs doing, so the next priority is to capture goals and objectives for the project.
Goals describe the overall purpose of the project, while objectives are concrete measures of success in reaching a goal. The more specific and unambiguous these are in the project brief, the clearer the path will be for your work.
Here are some questions to ask the client to help get clarity on project goals and objectives:
- What do you want this project to achieve?
- What does success look like for this project?
- Is this the first time this design problem has been tackled, or is it a reworking of a solution that already exists?
- If it’s a rework, what needs to change, and why?
Here’s an example of a good goal and objective section:
You’ll see the goal and objective are both specific and measurable, setting the client and freelancer up for easy management in the future.
3. Target market or audience
Knowing your audience is an essential aspect of good UX. Every robust UX design process begins with research, both about competitors and end users.
Some clients may have a wealth of research insights they can share with you about their target market or audience. If they don’t, or if your analysis of those insights doesn’t give you what you need, you may need to explain how incorporating research into the brief could benefit the project.
To help yourself assess what’s required here, you could ask the client questions like these:
- How would you describe your target audience?
- What are their demographics, habits, and goals?
- What devices do they use?
- What research has been done to identify and understand your users?
- Do you have supporting documents, like personas or empathy maps, that I can review?
- Can your budget and schedule accommodate user research?
Although discussing budgets can be awkward, it’s essential for both the client and the designer to be aware of what the budget is and what constraints that budget will place on the work that can be done. Understanding the budget and agreeing to a schedule are pivotal points of the briefing process—not optional extras.
Where possible, try to find out information about budget at the very beginning of discussions—before even gathering other details in the brief. If necessary, explain that knowing the budget means you can tailor your proposal to meet their needs while not coming in over budget.
Best practice here is to itemize costs so as not to surprise or overwhelm the client. Most clients are not designers or developers, and will need to have things like web hosting, domain registration, and equipment needs explained.
Try asking these questions to gather the information you need:
- What are the budget constraints on this project?
- Have research, development, and testing costs been considered?
- In what circumstances would there be budget flexibility?
Coming to an understanding of the project schedule is as important as laying out a clear budget.
Non-designers often don’t know how long it takes to design a website, logo, or interface, so as the designer, you need to manage the expectations of your client while still respecting any internal deadlines they might have.
Setting realistic expectations at this stage will stress and frustration down the road for both you and the client.
Discuss with your client:
- What internal deadlines this project needs to align with—for example, product launch dates or industry events.
- What are the key milestones within the project itself?
- How would you like to handle review periods and revisions?
- What turnaround time will you need for those reviews, and the subsequent changes?
- How much flexibility does this schedule allow, if any?
If you can tell a budget or schedule isn’t feasible, let them know and try to suggest an alternative or scaled-down solution instead. If you don’t have the capacity to meet their needs, try to refer them to another designer you know and recommend. This will help preserve your relationship with the client for the future, and may leave the door open for other work.
6. Project deliverables
Although every part of the design brief is important, ensuring that you and the client have a shared understanding of project deliverables is fundamental to a successful project. Without this, you could reach the end of the project before you discover you’ve created the wrong thing.
Even a small misunderstanding could make the difference between the client assuming that you will be building out and developing the entire website, and them understanding that you will only be supplying mockups that they then need to contract an engineer to make into a live site.
Here are some questions to ask to help you get clarity on what deliverables are required:
- What will you expect to have from me at the end of the project?
- What file formats should work be supplied in?
- What asset size and resolution are needed?
- Is there a specific prototyping or handoff platform that require to be used?
- Do you require me to handoff work directly to a development team?
7. Stylistic preferences/creative direction
The client doesn’t need to provide any creative direction, but if they have strong opinions about what they do or don’t want their product to look or feel like it’s best to find that out before you start work.
In particular, find out if there’s anything they definitely don’t want to appear in the design. Sometimes this will be extremely arbitrary—like “I hate yellow”—and you can take this on board if it’s something relatively unimportant.
Other times, you might need to explain that you won’t be able to observe all the client’s preferences if your research and design work suggests otherwise. Listen to all your client’s ideas, but play it by ear and politely push back if required.
How you approach this will also depend on whether your client has a designer or creative director in-house. If they do, ask to be connected with those people so that they feel included in the work and are discouraged from derailing progress later on.
Here are some questions about creative direction that you could put to your client:
- What are the strong points in your competitors’ products?
- What don’t you like about your competitors’ products?
- Is there a brand style guide available that I should observe?
- Are there any fonts, colors, or styles that we should avoid?
- What previous design or marketing materials can you provide me with?
- How would you describe the style you’re looking for?
- What styles would you prefer to avoid?
Other points you might want to note
- The competition. Who are the company’s primary competitors?
- Key stakeholders. In a company of any size, your point of contact is unlikely to be the only stakeholder. Find out who the important people are within the company.
- Final approver. Someone within the company will have the power to approve or reject your work at the end of the project. Again, try to find out who this is and if possible establish any issues that might be at play in the approval process.
How can you make sure you have a brief that works?
One way of ensuring you follow a robust briefing process for each project is to take a template along with you. We’ve created an example template here (link to download PDF and Sketch formats) that you’re welcome to use and adapt!
Ideally, take a little time to create a template for your design briefs which is customized to the specific kind of work you do. There is no one-size-fits-all; the exact information you need is defined by your own design process and preferred way of working.
Don’t forget the magic step…
So you’ve been to one or two meetings with the client, and you’ve written and revised the design brief for the project. Time to get started, right?!
Not quite. A design brief is of only limited value if you’re the only one who ever sees it. The true purpose of a design brief is to align the expectations and understanding of the designer and client.
Once you’ve reached this step, take the time to send over your brief to the client, at the very least for their review and verbal approval. In larger contracts or more formal projects, you may also want to have the client officially sign off on the brief before you begin work.
One way to handle this without creating too much friction is to book a call with the client to go through the brief. Ideally, get a small stakeholder group together, including the person who will give final approval on the project if possible.
Work through each section of the brief together to ensure that you’re on the same page. They’ll appreciate your attention to detail, and, most importantly, get a better sense of your design process and what to expect. Whether or not you ask them to formally sign off on it, always make sure they receive a copy of the final, agreed brief.
No matter how you choose to develop the brief, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Clients often don’t have a great understanding of what a designer’s work entails; they could use some guidance from you on what information you need to do your job. It’s better to ask your questions at the outset of any project than worrying about misunderstandings down the line.
With this checklist in hand, go forth and freelance! Know that getting the answers you need from the get-go will make for a more relaxed designer and a more satisfied client in the end. You’ll be able to rest easier knowing that the foundation of your project is as solid as a rock.