If you’ve never worked with a designer or a creative team before, our process may feel completely mystical. After all, it appears we can create something out of nothing. As magical as this may seem, there are logical steps to the creative process, and it starts by listening to you.

I was having dinner with a fellow art director the other week. We both serve mid-to-small businesses and non-profits. One of the things we talked about was wanting to leverage creative briefs more often when working with clients and their projects. Working with agencies, the creative process can be quite extensive (and expensive) with steps all the way from A-F, depending on size and scope of the project. For mid-to-small businesses and non-profits that don’t have that kind of budget, a creative brief can be a godsend, keeping expectations and costs in check and to ensure the overall success of the project.

When Does a Creative Brief Make Sense?

While not every project needs a creative brief (in some cases, it’s over kill), the projects that benefit most from a creative brief are logo/corporate identities, new and refresh branding, and design projects that need to be relevant over time and for different audiences.

What Is a Creative Brief?

A creative brief is a short document that arises out of meeting with the client discussing the goals for the design. Think of it as the blueprint for your project. This is different than what the design will look like (that comes later). Basically, a creative brief is drafted by the designer or creative team that provides a project description of what you’re doing and why. From the project description, there may be a list of meanings behind the design. It helps to think in metaphors (think story telling) and avoid clichés.

A creative brief should list the audiences — who the design is for and who needs to understand it. The first audience is the client and his or hers organization, employees and other stakeholders. There may a core audience and second and tertiary audiences, as well. It’s important to dig deep and find out the range of audiences the design will reach.

A creative brief should list a set of messages the client wishes the design to convey. While the design is not a marketing program and as a visual it’s limited in telling the whole story. Still the design has a story to tell and will convey an intangible — a feeling or an attitude. Messages will use lots of descriptive adjectives that will help drive the design direction.

A creative brief should include approaches. This is a more mechanical step than creative. Approaches are list of what can and can’t be done. For example, don’t include Inc., or LLC in the design, don’t use acronyms, a horizontal format is preferred, color preferences, the design needs to work in black and white, etc.

Once the creative brief has been submitted to the client and both parties are in agreement to sign off on it, the design phase of the project can begin. The designer or creative team have a clear direction to design to by sticking to the creative brief and the client can be assured he/she will get the desired results.

What a Creative Brief is Not

A creative brief is not to be confused with a project proposal which is a written contract signed off by the client before the project begins. A proposal typically comes first, prepared by the designer or creative team that outlines project scope, services provided, cost estimates, project and fee payment schedules and terms and conditions. A proposal may include sample work that is relative to the project at hand and designer bios and/or design company background.

If you think your next project could benefit from a creative brief, ask your design or creative team. They’ll be glad you did. By-product of a creative brief — both sides will know and understand each other that much better — after all, good design arises out of good working relationships.

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