The design-briefing or: how do I tell my designer?

Good communication is a challenge in every project. A briefing even before things get started can help enormously. Originating from military jargon, the term has also been established in marketing and design, just as its implementation. The English term (to) brief can mean both “short” and a discussion of the situation. This already shows what a briefing is: a short introduction to a project.

Why is the design-briefing so important?

A briefing is the basis of a successful collaboration. Even experienced designers often underestimate the value of the briefing. The goal is an open exchange in which both client and designer can clarify every important question. In order to achieve a higher level of trust and to be able to speak openly, a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) should be concluded beforehand. This trust is necessary because both parties are disclosing sensitive information about themselves. Avoiding questions because they are uncomfortable or touch on economic issues – e.g. the target price of a product – can jeopardize the project.

What does a good briefing look like?

Unfortunately, there is no exclusive truth for the perfect briefing. What exactly the briefing looks like depends on the situation. From a casual meeting to a multi-page document, anything is possible. What is relevant, however, is the result. In the exchange between client and designer, a clear project description must emerge which answers all the important questions. The briefing is not the only opportunity to exchange essential information, clarify questions and follow up but the earlier this is done thoroughly, the better is the basis for good design work.

There should be no taboos in the briefing and designers must critically reflect everything that is said: What is this all about? What are the most important points? Are the client’s assumptions plausible? With targeted questions, the designer has to get to the heart of the project initiatively and sum up the relevant aspects, similar to a journalistic interview. Based on the briefing, it has to become clear whether the assumed form of the project is realistic at all.

A good briefing may even already contain a roadmap for the final task. It does not only take place before the assignment, it is also its cornerstone. Thus the designers already do quite a bit of work in advance. In our experience, about five to ten percent of the total effort can be attributed to this phase. Not exactly a small amount. Nevertheless, it makes no sense to take shortcuts here. Commitment and critical inquiries can also create a particularly trusting relationship.

What can go wrong? How do I prevent it?

However, a briefing is not without pitfalls. Designer and client exchange a large amount of information. It is easy to get caught up in nitty-gritty details and lose focus. First and foremost, connections have to be understandable and the essence of the product or project must be filtered out. Ideally, the customer puts himself in the designer’s shoes and asks himself which information they need in order to implement the project in the best possible way.

Design is a matter of trust, so the chemistry between agency and client has to be right. A shared view on the project must emerge which may differ from the client’s own initial conception. Both sides form an idea of the matter and look at the project from their specific point of view – and for this very reason, one should always understand or ask for the assumptions that are not expressed.

Even in collaborations that have been entrenched for years, the relationship should be left aside in the briefing and one has to look critically at the task. But even a good relationship with the customer can be dangerous: Especially in the case of recommendations, it is possible to forget the critical distance and neglect the briefing. A practical tip: It is better for the designer to take the lead and ask what he or she does not understand than for the client to give a long lecture.

What must be included in a briefing?

Even though a briefing can take different forms, some information has to be conveyed in any case. For example, a concrete project name constitutes the beginning in order to talk clearly about the task. Precise language with concrete designations is the be-all and end-all for understanding. The most important three questions for the first project description are: What is the purpose of the project? What is the subject matter? And: What result is to be achieved? Brief description, intention and purpose should be discussed in the briefing.

Many projects involve innovations that are difficult to describe. Here it can be helpful to draw comparisons to other products or solutions from competitors. The briefing also defines which parties and people are involved. Responsibilities must be clearly assigned. A precise description of the task and differentiation from other tasks and responsibilities can help.

What can I use for orientation?

Designer and customer agree on the scope of the project at this point too. This includes the time frame but also the financial framework. In terms of timing, milestones can be set. Effort, cost framework and price information such as the target price and investment costs should not become a taboo subject. Only in this way, the designer can create a product on an appropriate scale. For us at WILDDESIGN, the 24 Design Factors have proven to be a comprehensive checklist in the briefing. Depending on the project, you can focus on certain aspects that should be paramount in the briefing.

The 24 Design Factors are also helpful in the case of a so-called pitch, a competitive presentation against other suppliers. Here it is important to compile a clean briefing in a written form. Only in this way the customer can compare the offers of the applicants objectively. The 24 Design Factors describe the project comprehensively and from all angles. It is usually a good guide, even for inexperienced clients.

There is no one right way to a perfect briefing. There can be different approaches – the important thing is that in the end both sides talk about the project and mean the same thing.

What are your experiences with briefings? Do you use the 24 design factors? Feel free to write us a comment!

Related Links:
24 Design Factors
Briefing Template
VDID: Fees and Contracts
Creating The Perfect Design Brief – Peter L. Phillips

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Lydia writes about design processes and our medical design projects.

Originally written by Lydia Münstermann, 25. May 2021. Last updated 23. April 2023


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