This blog series has, thus far, been about top ten designs that I like or recommend. Today I am changing tack a little and offering a little bit of advice for other designers and their clients.

The fourth alphablog post explains what to include in a design brief.

In his renowned book ‘How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul’, Adrian Shaughnessy writes the following:

“Graphic designers need briefs. A graphic designer who doesn’t need a brief is not a graphic designer: he or she might be an artist or a metaphysical poet, but they are not graphic designers. The need for a brief is hard-wired into the designer’s psyche. In fact, although designers constantly demand freedom, they really crave constraint.”

In an ideal world a thorough design brief will be supplied prior to a designer beginning any job. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. The client often doesn’t know exactly what they want until they see what they don’t want – by which point it’s too late!

So I, like many other designers out there, have constructed a questionnaire for my clients to fill in before I start work, which aims to get the client thinking more intimately about the problem they are asking their designer to solve.

To start with you need the nuts and bolts – the basic information required for the designer to complete the job. But more than that, you need your client to think a little outside of the box and tell you what their company means to them, how it operates and how they are distinct from their competitors. Particularly for a logo design job, this information is vital. Graham Smith of I’m Just Creative writes a compelling article about this part of briefing here.

So the following list includes some of the important aspects to include on a written design brief. And remember, designers – if it’s not provided, write it yourself and get approval by the client to ensure both parties are singing from the same hymn sheet!

No. 1. The name of the company/client

It might seem basic. It is basic. But if you get it wrong, it’s a basic mistake! Make sure you know the accurate name of the company, correctly spelt and with any permutations that can be used.

No. 2. What needs producing?

Again, very basic. You need to know what needs to be designed! If it’s a logo, define the boundaries – where will it be used, what should it literally say? If it’s stationery or printed materials, what quantities will be required and what size? Find out every last detail about the deliverables required. If your client doesn’t know, offer your expertise and help them work it out. And of course, is there a deadline or timescale to work to? Just remember to find out early on so you know the parameters from the outset.

No. 3. Who is the client?

Particularly for a logo, this is where you need a direct and succinct description of the company in their own words. I tend to ask for a maximum of 100 words as this helps the client narrow down and be specific about who they are. Often the client hasn’t actually thought to do this themselves and they learn a bit about themselves by writing this! It will give you a lot of your direction for starting the job, as well as a yardstick against which to continually measure your solutions as the project commences.

I also tend to ask for a short list of the primary products or services the client supplies or provides to their customers. This will also clarify the main objectives and market in which the client operates and give you a clear idea exactly what they do.

No. 4. Tone of voice

By this I mean the way the client aims to appear when they communicate with their customer base. The tone of voice is usually described using adjectives such as confident, professional, clear etc. Sometimes a client will favour a much more jovial tone, citing humour or friendliness as key adjectives. Others are much more straight, speaking with a tone of trustworthiness, experience and diligence.

Again, this exercise can help the client to understand their brand a little more deeply and focus the way they communicate consistently. It will also give you another measure to check that you are producing a design that will fit in with the client’s approach.

No. 5. Competition

In the market in which the client operates, who will be their likely competitors? This might be a simple question to answer if they have done some research or have already been trading. There might be several competitors offering similar services, and knowing them and how they communicate will help the client know how to fit in or compete in that market. As the designer, knowing this will also help you see trends in visual style, clichés to avoid or meaningful colour combinations etc.

A pertinent question to ask is “what sets you, the client, apart from these competitors?” It might be that they have a USP (Unique Selling Point) which can give a hook which inspires your design.

No. 6. Target audience

Who does the client want to appeal to? Who will buy from them? Will it be local businesses? Powerful executives? Mums with toddlers? Knowing this will help you pitch the right style and tone.

No. 7. Aims

Why has the client approached you? What is it they hope to achieve from having you design their logo/website/brochure? Is it wider appeal? A fresh new look? Make sure you know what they’re paying you for, aside from a pdf, website or printed piece of artwork – can you deliver it?

No. 8. Benchmarks

What inspires your client? Is there a visual style they have in mind? A colour they love (or desperately want to avoid)? Do they like wordmark logos, or something with a symbolic element? Have they produced other collateral in the past which serves as a visual point of reference? Most of all, try to anticipate where NOT to go with your design – it can save on a lot of heartache and revisions later on.

No. 9. Other ideas

This can be a dangerous thing to ask, but does the client have an idea in mind already? Sometimes this will give you a shortcut to a perfect solution, other times you might need to use some professional discretion to dissuade the client’s ‘creativity’ and offer a more suitable concept. In any case, it’s worth knowing from the start!

No. 10. Budget

Financial budgets are notoriously difficult to get from a client. They don’t want to tell you if they have a lot, in case they can get you cheaper. And they don’t want to tell you if they have little, in case you won’t do the work! If you can get an idea from them it will help you work out (a) if it’s worth your while accepting the job; and (b) how much work/time you can dedicate to the job.

Most designers will be asked to quote for a job and will arrange a fee before starting work. The difficulty comes when the client’s and designer’s idea of value are poles apart. I find that by filling out a design questionnaire including the questions laid out here, I am more able to gauge the extent of work that will need to go into solving their brief. If a client comes back and says they need a new logo for their part time business, aiming to gain a simple mark that will identify them on their website and in local advertising, I know that the job won’t involve the same amount of research and development as a rebrand for a £5m company looking to compete in a new market. Lining up my estimate is easier if I know roughly what the client can afford, and I can make necessary recommendations based on their budget. And sometimes that recommendation is, “sorry, I can’t work to that figure, but why not try doing this instead…”.

So hopefully that gives a few ideas of things to confront or ask before starting a design job. I know that my design work has certainly benefited from clearer briefs, and I’m sure yours will too.

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