The Creative Brief: What It Is, How It Works, And Best Practices For Designers

Starting a new project with a client can be a daunting task. You want to deliver quality work and create something they love, but you don’t want to be micromanaged. This is where the value of a creative brief comes into play.

Creative briefs are often used inside agencies to pass ideas onto designers and copywriters. But freelancers also use creative briefs for themselves, and similarly to gather information from the client. These briefs are like project guides to help designers create something that best connects with the target audience.

Let’s delve into the subject of drafting a creative brief and learn how it should work in action.

creative brief photo writing

The Value Of A Brief

I’d like to note that terminology is somewhat vague, but there are often two types of briefs:

  • Client brief – questions sent to the client to gather their thoughts, directions, and goals for the project
  • Creative brief – often used internally to draft ideas and goals specifically for the designer

Both of these briefs can be called “creative briefs”, although they offer different types of information. However both of these briefs should help to answer all the questions you’d need to complete a project.

The true value of a creative brief is vital project information without continually reaching out to the client. It can also be used as a blueprint for the project by defining clear expectations for the final outcome.

The creative brief isn’t actually the project. It’s just a map of the project to help the designer come up with ideas.

The best creative briefs articulate a very specific problem. Naturally you’ll need to get feedback from the client for this, but if you ask the right questions you’ll find out what the problems are and how the client hopes to solve them.

Creative briefs are not creative consultations with the client. Don’t make your clients think of creative solutions—that’s your job.

The brief is more about gathering information and understanding their goals, their business, and their customers.

This boils down to the client telling the designer what to communicate, rather than how to communicate it.

Vital Questions To Answer

Let’s examine the questions you should be asking clients whenever you draft a brief for a new project. You always want to ask questions for the client brief first, then use their answers to build your own internal brief for the project.

Questions can vary but here are some guidelines:

  • What is the company’s history & background? What’s the company’s market?
  • Who are the customers or target audience?
  • Any specific goals for expressing the brand?
  • What separates this company from the competition?
  • What metrics should be measured to determine success?
  • Any certain milestones or dates set for the project timeline?
  • What type of deliverables are expected at project completion?

Your goal should be to obtain a crystal-clear creative brief that emphasizes the client’s business history, product ideas, goals, audience segments and future aspirations for the company.

You might even consider other brainstorming methods like a SWOT analysis or a Business Model Canvas. No matter what you do, be sure that you take a very firm stance to obtain as much specific information as possible.

Your request for specificity will force the client to take a stance and aid in guiding the project. When clients make up their mind about goals and objectives it makes your job a lot easier.

Remember Your Role: Be Creative!

Do not let the client step on your toes too much. Their job is to provide information about their business and their customers.

As the designer it’s your job to be creative and come up with the solutions.

Creative client briefs work best when they keep a healthy distance between the client and the creative process. You always want feedback and input, but you also need room to experiment and try new ideas.

Your internal creative brief should also be tight and specific. After you hear back from the client you’ll want to apply their thoughts into your own creative brief.

The more specific you can be, the more focused your creative process becomes. You’ll end up moving down guided thought paths and it’ll be easier to decide which idea(s) best fit the client’s needs.

Constraints are always a factor so when writing your internal creative brief you’ll want to consider budget and timeframe. Time and money are the two biggest factors of every project and they’ll always limit your scope. Keep them in mind when drafting your ideas for the brief. You’ll have a much easier time staying on task.

If you’re looking for an example check out this creative brief template from Smart Insights. Also read through this great post by Karen DeFelice for some tips and free creative brief templates.

The team from Casual also released their own project brief toolkit which is widely regarded as an invaluable guide for building your own creative brief template.

project brief toolkit example

Client Briefs vs. Agency Briefs

The creative brief can be used as a catch-all term but it mostly refers to the agency creative brief used for internal work. Check out these tips on briefs specifically targeted towards ad agencies, but applicable to all creative agencies.

If you’re a freelancer you might end up writing your own creative briefs and client briefs. There can be a lot of overlap when working for yourself, but the client creative brief is an absolute necessity for any large project.

By now you may be wondering about internal creative briefs for team executives, managers, and other designers. Most of the time a creative brief covers the same client’s requests, but with added ideas from creative directions. These ideas could include aesthetics or actionable moves like marketing strategies or content guidelines.

Many people ask about examples for a creative brief. There’s a similar question on Quora that boasts a number of answers that all boil down to concise, detailed thoughts.

You want the brief to be quick and concise. Don’t repeat yourself but don’t leave out any information. Detail the action plan rather than a potential path. Offer very specific solutions, and consider the potential outcomes from those solutions.

These ideas apply to everything from branding, identity, and UI/UX creative briefs.

But generally speaking the client brief is the longer of the two. A creative brief is made after boiling down the vital information and organizing that into a plan of action.

Each agency has its own rules and guidelines for developing briefs. Many of the same questions and design patterns appear in agency briefs so you should know what to expect. But generally speaking the creative director can provide guidance as needed.

If you’re a freelancer you should consider how you’d want to split the difference between client briefs and internal creative briefs. There is no line in the sand defining technical procedures so do whatever fits best for your workflow.

Further Reading

Remember that creative briefs are used to solve problems. If you ask the right questions it’ll make problem solving a lot easier, so you should use them to do just that: gather enough info to detect problem(s) and figure out the client’s goal(s) for moving forward.

To dig deeper into the realm of creative briefs check out these relevant posts.

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