Make a brief a platform for creativity

When I was redesigning my website recently I decided on a tongue-in-cheek new footer. Even though the idea behind my help page was tongue-in-cheek, I’m serious about the advice it gives.

Need help? Consult my help page. Need help using the help page? Download the “how to use help” PDF. (What’s a download?)

I didn’t really think that people need help using my website so I used that page to instead explain how to choose the best creative partner for them.


I’ve worked mostly in client services, with small and medium-sized business and sometimes larger organisations. I know that not everyone likes dealing with clients, but I like the variety of people and the challenges they bring.

The work’s mostly rewarding, frequently challenging, and sometimes frustrating. I’ve found that one of the best ways to eliminate occasional frustration is to start projects and relationships in ways which emphasise creativity.

I try to ensure everyone understands that the most effective solution to a problem will probably be something that no one’s thought of yet. That prior work—often in the form of specifications, personas, user-stories or wireframes—should inform, not dictate that solution. That approaching a project in this way will encourage a process that’s respectful to everyone, be creatively fruitful and above all successful.

How much for a website?

I think every designer has their own “how much for a website” email story. We joke about these enquiries but they don’t just demonstrate potential clients’ misunderstanding of the commissioning process. They present us with an opportunity to do what we should do best, communicate well and build trust while developing relationships.

If you’re part of a design team, think back to an enquiry you received recently. How specific was it? Was it embarrassingly vague, fastidiously complex or somewhere on the spectrum in-between?

Some enquiries are little more than an attempt to start a conversation, a “hey, we’d like to talk to you about a project.’ Some offer more insight and others provide requirements so detailed they verge on becoming specifications, complete with personas, user-stories or wireframes.

While professionals have experience in starting new projects, a prospective new client may have little or no experience of commissioning design work. Their vagueness allows us to set the direction and tone for a conversation and use that opportunity to hear a client explain their business and learn how our work can help them. It’s during these early conversations that we can begin to build relationships.

When we handle early interactions well, we earn the opportunity to help shape a client’s brief which will ultimately lead to a more creatively flexible project.

Not every client offers an invitation to talk. Instead some offer insight and outline specific goals that coincidentally often follow the order of questions they’ve found on agencies’ request for proposal forms. Agencies routinely ask prospective clients to complete a request for proposal form, so clients have learned to format their information in a similar way.

It’s important to remember that a request for a proposal isn’t the same as a creative brief, even though the two are regularly conflated.

Mike Monteiro’s the founder of Mule Design and the author of Design is a Job. In his book he shared his agency’s screener questions. They start with questions like “what’s the primary business and structure of your organisation?” Before moving onto ask about motives and goals and how the client rates the importance of strategy, design, engineering, writing and finally cost. This helps Mule Design to quickly understand a client’s priorities. Do they value cost over design? How will they measure success?

Mule Design communicate their confidence through their screener questions. Their final question is one that most of us think, but too few ask:

How many people are you talking to and when do you expect to be making a decision?

Most importantly of all, Mule Design don’t ask questions that demand a client suggests a solution, because it’s those solutions is what we’re ultimately paid to create.

It doesn’t fit the brief

It’s common for clients to provide detailed requirement documents that verge on functional specifications. These sometimes include site maps, wireframes and detailed descriptions of a site’s content structure and functionality.

This documentation may be useful in the future, but we need to ask why they are sending it to us now. Do they think that we’ll be able to estimate a price more easily? Watch out for this, as designers often make the mistake of discussing price before a client has agreed in principle to hire them.

Have you ever worked under a brief that was designed to be a checklist, intended to judge creative work, rather than as a platform for it?

A brief shouldn’t be prescriptive, nor should it contain solutions as no designer likes to see their job attempted before they’ve started.

A prescriptive brief is often a client’s attempt to add predictability to a creative process that should embrace the unexpected. In the worst cases it provides a framework under which work that doesn’t conform to predetermined expectations can be rejected, simply by saying, “It doesn’t fit the brief.”

Solving problems, not defining them

People who crave predictability often see creative work as akin to anarchy and a seemingly risky process with an undetermined outcome can be a daunting prospect. The way some people attempt to compensate is by solving problems instead of defining them.

Receiving a brief that includes answers instead of questions should serve as a warning as it usually indicates that a person is nervous about hiring, or is unfamiliar with working with designers and so is trying to stay in control by circumventing the design process.

It can tell us that the client already has an idea of the work they want to see. More worrying is that work is probably something they’ve seen somewhere else. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in a brief that contains a ‘sites we like’ section. Those are the creative equivalent of the slick haircut photographs you’ll find on barber shop walls.

Never acknowledge even the existence of that prior work. If a client mentions it, politely remind them that they’re hiring you to design a solution to their problem, not copy another designer’s solution to someone else’s.

If you receive a prescriptive brief you should use it to foster discussions that develop trust and build relationships. It’s in some people’s nature to want to define what a designer makes even before we start work. Why would someone want to control the design process this way? It’s possible that they’re simply not used to hiring designers, that they’re unfamiliar with both the commissioning and the creative process. So they try to shape them both into something that feels familiar. We need to resist this as much as we can, by explaining to a client that inspiring solutions only come from a unpredictable sources.

Strike up a conversation

When a brief dictates design specifics, use it as an opportunity to speak to the person who wrote it. And I do mean speak, don’t email, just pick up the phone. Introduce yourself and ask questions about why a client is presenting solutions so early. This approach will help both of you and it will also help to differentiate you from the other 29 agencies the client wrote to. As Mike Monteiro wrote:

Make friends with the person who wrote it. Strike up a conversation with them and get as much detail as you can.

We should never take a brief at face value and should question, challenge it, interrogate every part of it. A brief should help to define a strategy that should be followed not just in the next piece of work, but in the months and years following that. The strategy is as much for the client to follow as for their design partners.

When we receive a brief, it’s our responsibility to question not only “what” has been written, but “why.” It doesn’

mean being awkward, simply that we’re already thinking about a problem. As Mike Monteiro wrote in his article These 8 Tricks to Selecting a Design Partner Will Amaze You:

Your designer’s goal should be your success, not your happiness. So don’t work with anyone who just automatically bends to all of your whims and wishes.

Asking “why” doesn’t only help clients and designers to understand what’s at stake, it sparks conversations that will inevitably lead to opportunities. It’s the most important question we can ask when presented with a brief.

A fine line between control and chaos

A client may be the best in their chosen field. They might be an expert in making their product or delivering their service, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the best qualified to write a brief. That’s where designers should step in—not to write the brief for them—but as a joint venture.

Writing a brief often walks a fine line between control and chaos and it”s a designer’s role to help achieve that balance. If designers want to avoid being presented with a brief that lacks strategy and contains predefines solutions, we shouldn’t allow a client to write a brief in isolation. Instead we should make it clear that before we can help them to implement a strategy, we must first help them to define it.

It’s essential that a brief should have a clear, singular voice that states a single, simple purpose. Ideally it should be written by just one person, someone who has the power to accept what may become an unpredictable design process that in turn might lead to unconventional work, but that’s not always possible.

What can designers do when there’s not a single person who can take responsibility? We should work with a client to help them develop that singular voice, a voice with the clarity to communicate their goals in the most concise way. Before we ask a client to think about what we’re going to make, we should encourage them to think about their business. After-all, they should know it better than we do.

We should always start by listening and understanding their business goals. After-all, we should always aim to see things from a client’s perspective as we’re ultimately working for them and no one else. This is not the time to be talking about a user’s goals, but the goals of the business, be they to communicate better or to sell more. This focus on a business’ needs rather than a customer’s could be seen as a conflict with the goals of user experience.

To be the most effective, we shouldn’t conduct these conversations via a written brief. No, the best way for designers to start building a relationship with a client is to sit and talk with them face-to-face. As well as helping to earn their trust, these conversations also establishes us as organised and serious about what we do.

When we understand what a client is aiming to achieve, we can help them to reduce the brief to a set of clear goals, understood by everyone who’ll contribute during the project and long after it. A brief should simply outline a client’s goals, that might include:

Every brief should express business goals like these. It should describe challenges, explain opportunities and even talk about dreams. A brief’s most important role is to inspire people to do inspiring creative work. To achieve this it must be a friend to creative thinking, not its enemy. It should act as a platform for creative thinking, not a set of chains to drag it down. Above all it should inspire and never limit creativity. It must respect the creative process while at the same time communicating the problems a client is trying to solve.

Buying creativity

If we accept that a brief should come after an agency’s been hired, how should a client choose an agency to work with without one?

If the last enquiry, request for proposal or brief you received was anything like the one sent to me, it included a question about the likely cost of a project. However the purpose shouldn’t be to ask about price but to invite potential design partners to discuss a project.

Perhaps there’s a misconception about what commissioning design means. It’s not like buying a product, it’s buying creativity, expertise and knowledge. More than that, it’s entering into a relationship. How can a client decide on an designer to work with? In the 1960s, David Ogilvy offered advice on exactly that in his book Ogilvy On Advertising. In it, he wrote:

Sir or Madam,

(He was formal like that.)

If you have decided to hire a new agency, permit me to suggest a simple way to go about it. Don’t delegate the selection to a committee of pettifoggers. They usually get it wrong. Do it yourself.

(I don’t know what a pettifogger is, but if it’s anything like a committee, I don’t want to meet one.)

(If you’re interested, a pettifogger is “an inferior legal practitioner who deals with petty cases or employs dubious practices.” I’m sure I’ve met at least one.)

Start by leafing through some magazines. Tear out the advertisements you envy, and find out which agencies did them. Watch television for three evenings, make a list of commercials you envy, and find out which agencies did them.

(This was the sixties after-all, but today clients can apply that general principle to websites.)

You know have a list of agencies. Find out which are working for your competitors and thus are unavailable to you. By this time you have a short list.

(And this is where his advice hits home.)

Meet the head of each agency and his (or her, of course. This was the sixties remember) Creative Director. Make sure the chemistry between you is good. Happy marriages fructify, unhappy ones don’t. Ask to see each agency’s six best print ads and six best television commercials. Pick the agency whose campaigns interest you most.


Ogilvy’s advice may be fifty years old, but its still relevant because it respects the process and creative people by basing hiring decisions on personalities and past performance, not on how well someone is judged to have passed any challenges set by a request for proposal. I adapted his advice to form my own on choosing the right creative partner:

Start by browsing the web to finding designs you like, designs you feel are either effective in clearly communicating a message or give someone a quality experience. These designs needn’t be from your industry because an experienced designer will be able to work across sectors.

Save screen captures of the pages you find most interesting, print them if you can and add notes on why you found them compelling.

Finding agencies

Find out which agencies designed those websites. You’ll sometimes find links to designers in a website’s footer, so compile a short list of people to contact. Don’t include designers who’ve worked for your competitors and who will have a conflict of interest.

If a designer’s information isn’t listed, call a site’s owner and ask them who they worked with. Most people will be only too pleased to make a recommendation. This is often the best way to learn about the experience of working with a particular designer. Armed with someone’s contact information, get in touch.

Evaluating agencies

When you’re contacting an agency, ask to meet with the owner and their creative director if they have one as it’s important that the chemistry between you is good. After all, you could be working together for years to come. Many small studios have no creative director, so ask to meet with the lead designer instead.

Don’t launch straight in to your requirements, instead ask to see their three best website designs and three best digital product designs if they’re relevant. Once you’ve seen previous designs from every agency on your shortlist, commit to one agency based on the work you like best.

Be an agency’s best client

Ask what the agency charges and offer to pay a good percentage of their fee in advance, followed by regular scheduled amounts. Cashflow is important to every business and it matters that your agency spends their time working to solve your problems, not chasing you for money. Never haggle over the agency’s fee. Remember that you’re buying professional expertise, not a second-hand car. You wouldn’t negotiate with your accountant or lawyer, so give your creative partner the same respect.

Ask your creative partner to commit to working with you for at least three years—based on performance and results—as this will give them greater security in their business and ensure that they’ll be around to support you in the future.


Even though the idea behind my help page was tongue-in-cheek, I’m very serious about the advice it gives.


Availability

I’m available for hire to consult on and design products and websites. Based in North Wales, I travel regularly to work with clients world-wide.

Available from January 2020

Talk soon

For work enquiries email

Or call us on +44 (0)1745 851848

Studio

Stuff & Nonsense Ltd.
Eversleigh, Lon Capel,
Gwaenysgor,
Flintshire, North Wales,
LL18 6EJ, UK