design Explainer

The Creative Brief: A Good Plan for Good Design

Graphic design is at its best when it resonates beyond what our rods and cones can process.

It fires up our neural pathways. It burrows into our perceptions. It makes us feel and do things we maybe didn’t originally intend. 

In their hearts of hearts, all sports fans are also graphic design fans.

There is no shortage of great designs out there… but great designs and successful designs are not necessarily the same thing.

What makes a design successful is whether the design accomplishes the goals of the client. That is: 

  • Does the design tell the audience what the client wants them to know? 

  • Is it in-line with how the client wants their brand to be perceived? 

  • Does the design avoid saying things that distract from or contradict the intended message?

If you want your design project to go according to plan, then you’re going to need a plan. To that end, a good design project should begin with producing a good Creative Brief.

What is a Creative Brief? Is it homework? It sounds like homework.

Well, yes. It is a little bit like homework.

Please do not walk away.

In many design projects, it is possible that the designer only wants to “create” (which is understandable). It is also likely that the client would rather just ask for a design, check the freezer for Fudgsicles, and come back to a complete and gorgeous design (also understandable. Fudgsicles are delicious). 

This is not an endorsement; this is a declaration of love.

While the above scenario sounds ideal, it neglects the most critical party in the design process: Namely, the audience that both client and designer intend to reach. 

The client knows a lot about their target audience, and the designer knows how to get visual messages across to different audiences. The two must collaborate to share information and spark inspiration. 

And that’s what a Creative Brief is: A collaborative document that acts as a blueprint for designer and client to engage the intended audience.

Working together on the rules for a design project has multiple benefits that make the effort extremely worthwhile.

What are the benefits of a good creative brief?

When designer and client are working off the same page, it will save time and money by avoiding costly misunderstandings.

A good creative brief will:

  • Encourage the client to consider the most important goals for this particular design. Sometimes we all get lost in the weeds; clarifying the goals for a design project will help both sides focus on what’s really important.
  • Establish parameters within which the designer can problem-solve. A blank canvas does not inspire great art—when goals, boundaries, and challenges are clearly established, the artist can choose which tools to use to create a successful design.
  • Prevent scope-creep. A creative brief can be the difference between a bit of extra effort at the early phase of the creative process (research, consultation, and ideation) versus a LOT of extra effort later on (revisions, revisions, and yet more revisions).
In case you were wondering why you’re constantly drinking Coke in the dark….

Designers and clients both have significant stakes in a design project, and each might have a hard time deciding when that project is finished. A creative brief can be used as a rubric to determine whether further work is required. When both parties agree the design has accomplished its goals, it is officially time for high-fives and highballs (or equivalent). 

What information should be included in a Creative Brief?

Depending on the scope, ambition, and novelty of a given project, the info to be included in a creative brief will vary. Generally-speaking, though, a creative brief should include at least the following:

  • Client Background: Who is the client? What makes them unique? What are the words they want others to use when describing their brand? Who is their closest competition?

  • Project Summary: What is the client’s project? Why is the client seeking design support for the project?

  • Goals: What is the client hoping to achieve with it? How will the success of this project be evaluated?

  • Target Audiences: Who is the audience the client wants to reach? What do we know about them?

  • Key Messages: If the target audience only remembers one or two things after seeing this design product, what would the client want those things to be? What action would the client like their target audience to take?

  • Required Deliverables: What graphic assets would best accomplish the design goals? Is the client open to suggestions from the designer? 

  • Timelines: When would the client want the work to begin? When will the project wrap? What are the significant dates or milestones that exist in the interim?

  • Budget: What funds has the client set aside for the graphic design services required for this project? Is that budget able or likely to change?
Congrats on reading all that! As a reward, please enjoy this photo of two seals having a smooch.

What should the client know about filling out a Creative Brief?

At Curio, when our design team requires a Creative Brief, we provide our clients with a link to an online questionnaire and encourage them to block off the time to fill out the questionnaire in detail. 

When the client questionnaire is submitted, it is reviewed by the Curio team, and, after any necessary discussion, synthesized into an official creative brief. This way, the project begins in earnest when your team and ours have reached an agreement on the most important considerations for the project.

So, will MY design project require a Creative Brief?

An excellent question with a wholly-unsatisfying answer, which is: Maybe?

Not all projects require a creative brief. When a brand is already well-established and the design challenges are minimal (or when designer and client have worked together for a long time), both parties can probably duck the creative brief process in the name of expediency.

However, the project would benefit from a Creative Brief when:

  • Client and designer have not worked together before (or recently);

  • The design project is a departure from the client’s existing branded materials;

  • The project is significantly different in scope or originality from more ‘typical’ projects (for instance, an explainer video will require more creative reckoning than a business card).

Generally-speaking, it is ALWAYS better to have a creative brief (even a very BRIEF brief) so as not to tempt the fickle forces of scope, time, and budget. 

Our friends at Northwestern Polytechnic wrote a FANTASTIC creative brief for their recent rebrand. More on how that project turned out over here.

If YOU think you or your organization might need some design work soon, check out our long-form and short-form Creative Brief questionnaires to get an early start setting your project up for success!

This post was last updated on July 21, 2022 by Matt Steringa