Dealing with design briefs

You can imagine the scenario: it's late, the job's overdue and you've been wracking your brains all day for the right solution, but it's just not happening. So you run through everything once more. If what you come up with is a request for something 'cutting edge', you know you're in trouble. Getting the brief right is all about avoiding this situation.

Being creative to order is a difficult task at the best of times, so why make life even harder for yourself by failing to nail down exactly what it is your client wants? Where fashion, taste and jargon all collide there's just too much room for confusion. The brief should be an integral part of any design process, rather than being external to it, so take some professional advice and get started early.

The brief is part of a process which can begin in a number of ways, so you would imagine a clear idea of the starting point might help. Unfortunately, being prepared for first contact isn't always straightforward, as noted by the cross-media designer Andrew Faris. "I don't think I have a usual first point of contact. It varies based on the circumstances," he says.

First contact
It's not like your briefs appear on your desktop, neatly formatted at 9.30 every morning. And if, like Faris, you work in more than one media, each discipline is likely to have its own quirks. "Sometimes I work directly with the president of a company, other times with executives, creative directors, art directors, designers, project managers, friends, neighbours, and so on," says Faris. It's a case of 'expect the unexpected.'

So how does it work if you've got someone dedicated to the role of liaising with clients and distilling their needs? Scott Watts is that man for Tank Design (www., a US agency doing great work in both interactive and traditional media for big names such as FedEx and Cole Haan. "We're a little odd," Watts confesses.

The reason Tank considers itself odd comes down to a question of reputation. The agency gets by far the biggest slice of its work from repeat business or word of mouth and that plays a major part in how a brief will take shape: "Most of the time," Watts says, "we don't receive an RFP (Request For Proposal) at all. It's only new relationships where they're generated."

One thing leads to another
Getting to know your client is essential. "By asking questions and talking about what a person's looking to accomplish, you can really hone in on what they mean by their RFP," Watts advises. And along the way you start to develop a relationship with your client, hopefully a good one. "Comfort is key," adds Andrew Faris. "And trust, respect and honesty don't hurt either."

Danny Yount, the Designer/Director of titles for Six Feet Under and recent hit Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, echoes Faris: "Every relationship is different, but in general it's all about trust." Getting this relationship right means a sensible brief will flow naturally. "The real question is," says Yount, "how many people do you have to answer to? Is it a design-by-committee thing or is there freedom in the process?"

Does that mean it's always going to be worse with bigger clients? Not necessarily. "A main title for a major film studio can be a great creative collaboration and a broadcast package design for a small client can be hell on earth," says Yount. "If you have a healthy relationship then you know what to expect and should tune the brief accordingly, so, Yount concludes, "In a larger organisation it's important to have something documented and distributed, but I prefer one-on-one discussions."

This is perhaps giving the whole process an air of foreboding which it doesn't deserve "Usually," Yount observes, "the client is calling you because they believe you can answer to the task at hand. If you've done the homework and listened intently to what they want, then answered it in the most creative way you can, they will see that in the presentation - not the brief." In case they don't, make sure you have it in triplicate.

So you field the call, open the email or maybe get talking at a party. However it happens, you're on the trail of a brief, but it's like grabbing the tail of a fish: you don't know how big it's going to be till you get it out of the water. "One of the issues I run into a lot," says Watts, "is that the quality of the RFP depends on the skill of its author."

This is a particularly acute problem for interactive media. "They may just throw in a buzz word and in doing that may change the cost of the engagement by six figures," says Watts. He's not kidding, all it takes is "just that one line." When you're dealing with something like an annual report, things are perhaps more straightforward, but, says Watts, "It's still important to ask questions because we've done annual reports for 5K and we've done them for 250K."

What clients want
So, ask those questions. "The brief can only be realised once you understand what your client needs," agrees Faris. If your approach is more 'shoot first', then Scott Watts has a warning for you: "You're going to be making decisions that frankly, you don't have the knowledge to make yet." And once they're made, he says, "You're stuck with them." The flipside is equally dangerous: "You avoid making essential decisions, leaving things open-ended but then go ahead and put a price tag to the job. That could lead to a very sticky situation."

Watts has a simple analogy: "You might have someone who thinks they're ordering a Honda Accord and you give them a proposal for a Mercedes." They're both cars, you got that much right but, he says, "right off the bat you get priced out and they get upset with you." A couple more questions and you could have delivered the leather trim and neon underlighting they secretly yearned for.

The design process
The four-stage design process is a fairly well-worn path, but Scott Watts is good enough to outline Tank's take on it: "We call our stages: discovery and audit, design exploration, design refinement and production." The brief comes before stage one and is gradually refined over the course of the process. "During phase one we're going to do the homework to develop a really good technical specification," Watts explains. This document is a properly formed statement of intent, based on a good understanding of the client's needs and desires. "Once that's done and we have a hard spec," Watts continues, "we will re-evaluate our prices." This may come as a shock to some clients but, Watts says, "What we've done is to give them a price based on educated assumptions. You have to manage those expectations."

Next comes design exploration. "It's not our job to come back at this stage and say 'here's your solution'. You can't pay us to go away for two weeks then come back and tell you what right is," says Watts. Consequently an array of solutions are put before the client and the final outcome will emerge from them following further design refinement.

The final stage is all about putting everything together, creating finished work, but all four stages come after the opening brief or RFP has been written. "To get to stage one we want a signature," says Watts. But even that is not categorical. "If it's someone we've already worked with and they just give us a call and say 'Let's get started' we won't let that stand in the way of doing something cool," he explains. But that signature is a necessity.

While it's part of a process, the brief still needs to be as accurate as possible. This is the thing you want signed, because it defines the goals towards which you will begin working. "I find it's very important to have a solid brief in front of me at the outset of any project, regardless of medium," says Andrew Faris. "And by solid, I don't mean lengthy, just concise and meaningful." This should come about as a result of your conversations with the client. Remember, says Faris, "The clearer the brief the better. The briefer the brief the better."

Danny Yount draws a similar picture for the broadcast industry, saying what you need is: "A brief synopsis of the assignment, the problem that needs to be solved, and general ideas on what approaches can be taken to solve the problem." Although his does sound a more informal situation: "You must have this as clear as possible prior to the conceptual phase. It's extremely important."

This is another occasion where relationships are involved. As Andrew Faris points out, "Since you want the people that are going to be involved in the creation of the work to be involved with the brief, defining it requires a collaboration from the entire creative team." The whole process of designing to a brief just keeps wriggling away from a clear definition.

Dotted lines
That being the case, it makes sense to have regular meets and regular sign-offs as the project evolves, particularly in a field like the internet which suffers with see-sawing cost syndrome. Faris concurs: "There may be several iterations of the design directions before one direction is finally selected. Once you have sign-off on the design direction there will probably be a couple more design reviews."

If it seems amazing that we've got this far without mentioning the actual look of the final piece then you haven't been paying attention. "I've had people say 'I'm not crazy about your proposal because it seems a bit 'cookie cutter' rather than custom to me," says Scott Watts. "My answer is that it's a process. The custom part is the solution. You're paying us to find that solution. We can't tell you what that is right now otherwise you're giving away the goods!"

Once the dust has settled, the conversations have died down and the ink has dried, you should have something resembling a brief. And oddly, if you've done the job right, that brief should be academic: you will understand your client and work from that understanding. Andrew Faris takes up the story: "Once I have a clear request I take some time to just let it sink in. I make sure I fully understand the problem at hand and let it swim around in the subconscious for a while." Then it's out with the sketch book: "Once I start to have a good sense of what the content is for a project and how it may need to be structured, I begin working with the computer." Faris gives us a pugilistic analogy: "Here I start to get comfortable with the work area, feeling out the edges. Kind of how I would imagine a boxer feels when stepping into the ring with a new opponent."

Faris wants to go another round: "You have to take a minute to get familiar with what you are working with," he says. "Some design sparring. Deconstruct it." Of course, you may be a wrestle-mania fan, in which case your approach would vary somewhat. You get the picture though. "Once familiar, ideas start to take shape, and I follow the leads until a few push to the top," explains Faris. Next it's back to the client for some feedback, and if you're a wrestler, remember to change out of that leotard first.

Positive results
Returning to the opening scenario, if you made sure to ask all the right questions and paid attention to the answers, then followed the four-stage process, you should be able to give a comprehensive answer to the question as to what your client wants. How, though, can you ensure that your answer will meet with approval? "Well," says Mr Faris, "I guess there are no guarantees."

All you can do is your best, which according to Faris means "being open to your client's thoughts and really listening to them. If you've done a good job listening to and understanding the problem then you should be well on your way towards developing a fully rounded brief that will ultimately lead toward a successful project." And of course, if you have consulted along the way and got signatures on key decisions, you have a back-up plan.

Dream clients
Not every job is going to be flawless, agrees Danny Yount. "A careless client can change their minds many times throughout the process," he says. You just have to remain focused. And if you're lucky, you'll get a client who knows what they want, has good taste and trusts that they are in good hands. Those are the jobs that make your professional life worth living, "Those are the people I work very late in the evening for," agrees Yount. "They are the reason I get to do what I love."

Andrew Faris has a calming message: "In my experience, if you've done your work and kept involved with your client along the way, there shouldn't be any big surprises come project completion. Most likely there will be some final tweaks to the work and then congratulatory hi-fives all around for a job well done."

Not goodbye, just au revoir
The process now comes full circle: you need to tie the final sign-off to the opening relationship. Becoming a valued advisor for your clients rather than just one of many options is the goal. Don't say goodbye; do what they do at Tank: "We say 'Can't wait to hear how this turns out. Keep us posted'." Stay in touch, that way you're top of the list next time around.

These are the worthwhile clients, the ones you get to know and do your best work for. The ones you naturally think strategically for. Don't get carried away though, advises Scott Watts: "Nothing is more frustrating than someone trying to rethink things that just don't need rethinking." You have to develop a feel for what is needed for a particular project. Jumping straight in and brainstorming all over the place could easily seem like over-familiarity. This is a job for someone with good interpersonal skills.

If you get it right, a brief will help ensure your work is well received and that will free you to concentrate on issues of quality and creativity: "To me," says Danny Yount, "creative work is fulfilling when I've done something that is not just 'cool', but has meaning. Something that gets to the very heart of what the client is searching for, and makes a strong connection with the audience." That's what you should be focused on - you can't afford to let a poor briefing technique handicap you.

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