10 ways to handle creative briefs

How we respond to design briefs is the single most important factor in creating successful graphic design. If we ignore them, failure is guaranteed. Conversely, if we follow them slavishly, the most likely outcome is mediocrity. But if we learn to question them and challenge them, then at least we have a chance of producing work that has conceptual depth, and does the job it's supposed to do with flair and originality.

The most important aspect of a brief is the person, or persons, who issued it. In other words, there is always 'someone' behind a brief - a living human being with thoughts, prejudices, fears and concerns. In our haste to get work in the door, it's easy to forget this. You can't interrogate a brief, and it's only by speaking to the brief's creator that you will squeeze out additional information, which is the catalyst for great work. Briefs come in all shapes and sizes - some good, some bad; some comprehensive, some skimpy. Let's look at how to deal with them€¦

A written brief is usually a document written by the client, although I've had them from other design groups, usually large strategy-based groups employed as consultants. A written brief can be any size, from half a side of A4 to a vast manuscript containing reams of research. But how do you know if it's any good?

In most cases you'll already have met your client, and perhaps discussed the project in depth. However, just because you've done this, you can't assume that this process ends as soon as you've received a written brief. It doesn't. It begins here. It's nearly always necessary to go back and ask more questions; besides, doing this shows that you're interested in the project, and clients always like to see passion.

Before you do this, though, you need to look for the practical requirements. Does the brief state the deliverables? Does it give full technical specifications? Does it supply the various delivery dates that you'll be required to work to? And, of course, does it provide budget details? You need to get all these things nailed down and agreed before anything else.

Once you've got the practical issues defined, you need to see if the brief is comprehensible. Is it obvious what is expected of you? Are you required to work within brand guidelines or are you working on a blank canvas? Who is your intended audience? Have you been given all the materials (logos, images, text) that you need? How do the practical arrangements (budgets, timings, and so on) impinge on your response? If you can't see the answers to these (and any other relevant queries you might have) the brief is in need of clarification and you must start grilling your client.

When you've got a well-established client, perhaps someone you've worked with for a number of years, you'll often be supplied with a verbal brief. This is fine up to a point, but it's a good idea to fire back a confirmation email or letter that spells everything out. In other words, write your own brief and send it to the client. This may seem unnecessary and pedantic, but it's a good discipline, and it shows your clients that you don't take them for granted, and it avoids the "Oh, I thought you meant x" argument when something goes wrong, or when you turn up at a presentation with the wrong sort of response.

If you're writing your own brief, never be frightened to state the obvious - it's amazing how it helps everyone to focus. It's for this reason that I begin every presentation with a restatement of the brief. It ensures everyone (client and designer) is on the same wavelength, and it instantly highlights any divergence of purpose.

There's another sort of brief: it's a type that most working designers will be familiar with. I'm talking about the pitch brief. This is normally a round-robin document, often sent to numerous designers at the same time, inviting them to pitch for a project - usually on a no-win, no-fee basis.

Free pitching has its own minefield of ethical questions that are beyond the scope of this article, but the unpaid submission of creative work is a fact of professional life, and as designers we each have to decide how to respond to this. My own rule is that I will free-pitch, but only if it takes me into an area that is otherwise closed to me. And I always ask for a kill fee. You'll be surprised how often I get one, so always ask.

If you decide to take part in an open pitch, you should approach it in exactly the same way as you would any other sort of commission - by this I mean thoroughly interrogate the senders. In the case of certain types of public sector pitch briefs, any questions asked to the client have to be distributed, along with the answers, to the other 'pitchers'. This can work in your favour, but it also means that any advantage you might gain by asking a perceptive question is shared with your competitors.

Occasionally, some clients will refuse to answer questions. When you encounter this, run away. It's a sure sign that the client is only commissioning design as an irksome necessity. I heard about the financial director of a plc who sat down in front of the design team who had created his firm's Annual Report and said: "I resent having to commission this document. And I want to be out of here as quickly as possible." What are the chances of getting good work out of this situation? I hope the studio that did this job was well paid, because there's no other reason to be involved in this project.

Now that you've got a brief, you need to decide whether the job it describes is worth doing. We usually need the work, and we've often fought hard to get it, but now that it's in our hands, we have to be tough and ask some searching questions. Is this a good brief? Does it explain what is needed? Is it possible to produce high-quality work from this brief? Is it likely to make a profit? If you can answer all these questions to your satisfaction, you should proceed. But if you can't, you need to challenge the brief, or walk away from it.

If you think a brief is wrong, then you must challenge it. But how do you do this? By discussion, and by standing up for what you believe in. If your client is open-minded, it's sometimes possible to re-write, or at least remould, a brief. O f course your client may take umbrage, but frankly, this is rare, and if you believe in your point of view, you must be prepared to take a stand - if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will.

When challenging a brief, you must be prepared for two possible outcomes: a lot of extra work doing research to back up your claims, or possibly even outright rejection. But if your client is amenable to a bit of development work on the brief then the benefits are also twofold: you will alert your client to your commitment to his or her project, and you will gain a deeper understanding of the brief.

What happens if you're rebuffed in your attempts to get a brief reworked, or if you decide that the job on offer is a bad one? Turning down work isn't easy. We fight like demons to get briefs into our hands, and we are usually so grateful to receive them that we respond to them unquestioningly. But think how many times you've done this and then been disappointed by the result? Well, perhaps you didn't get things right from the start (you didn't challenge a brief you didn't believe in), or perhaps you shouldn't have taken the job on in the first place (you accepted a bad job).

Turning work away is one of the hardest things you will have to do as a graphic designer. But it often has a magical effect. It can earn you respect (as long as you always do it politely) and sometimes it often has the effect of making your client want your services all the more (we all want what we can't have!). Of course, it can have the opposite effect too, and you will find yourself blacklisted by a resentful client. But in my experience, turning work down usually results in long-term benefits.

In every brief there are a number of instructions and demands. Follow these and you'll probably end up with a half-decent result. But in most briefs there is a hidden or unspoken element - a key that unlocks the creative solution to the task.

But how do you find this key? Well, by asking questions and by research. I'm also a passionate believer in talking directly to the audience that a brief is targeting. If you're aiming to reach 15-year-old skate kids, go and talk to them. You'll almost certainly be surprised by what you hear. I was recently involved in a project to design a journal for doctors, and they turned out to be one of the most adventurous and open-minded groups of people I've ever worked with; I've known rock bands who were much less adventurous. But I only found this out by talking to them. The way to find the creative key that unlocks a brief is through ruthless interrogation - of the client, the audience and yourself.

Not all briefs are bad. Designers often receive good, well thought-out briefs, yet still manage to mess up the job. Why is this? The usual reason is because we've made some wrong assumptions about the brief or, more commonly, because we have imposed a response on the brief that suits us and not the client.

I come from the school that believes the designer has a voice. I'm not from the school that says 'submerge-your-personality' to ensure the client's message is delivered untainted. For me, good graphic design unites the client's needs with the designer's vision. But if you're going to live by this precept, there is pressure on you to make sure you see the client's point of view, and don't serve up your own self-centred solutions. We demand that our clients are open-minded, but as designers we are often guilty of narrow-mindedness, too. The brief is only the start of a journey, but unless we get our response right, we'll never end up at our destination. You wouldn't set off on a trip abroad with the wrong passport in your pocket, would you? The same is true with a brief: don't set off without ensuring it's the right one.

Invisible briefs are not so much 'invisible' as unspoken. I'm referring to those jobs you do for a client - often on a regular basis - where there is no need to issue a brief: the client knows that you know what is required, so merely gives you new text, and a delivery date. This is a nice situation for the designer to be in. You are trusted to deliver without the formality of a brief. It's flattering. But it's also dangerous.

I have a client who I produce work for on a regular basis. It's a classic case of invisible briefing. Every so often I get an email from him with all the text I need. Recently, I noticed that I was beginning to take the work for granted, and my client was beginning to take me for granted. Not a good situation. So I invited him for a meeting to discuss the project. We quickly discovered that there was a need for a new approach, and we modified the brief and I began work on modifying the design.

Invisible briefs are great - but only so long as they don't result in you becoming invisible too.

I was once given a brief to launch a new service targeting the creative directors of the leading British advertising agencies. The brief talked about "stunning production values", "high-end imagery", and urged me to use the opportunity for my studio to "showoff to its peers". In other words, the client wanted to hit their target audience with the sort of dazzling material that, as heads of agency creative departments, they dealt with every day.

We thought this was wrong. Surely the opposite was true? Surely this privileged group was overdosed on the most exciting and diverting imagery imaginable? Surely it would be better to do something that bore no resemblance to their daily work? So, after convincing our client with a reasoned argument, we produced an ultra-minimalist, all-white book - white text on white pages, the name of the venture embossed on the white linen cover, a mix of high-white paper stocks, all packaged in a white slip case and delivered personally by people in white suits with white gloves. In other words, the exact opposite of what was briefed.

The job was well received and our client achieved his immediate objectives, and the book won a couple of design awards.

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