How to take a design brief

As a freelance designer, more often than not, you may have to extract from your clients what they need rather than they supply you with a full brief.

Understanding your clients' needs from the outset is paramount in protecting your bottom line. Ensuring that you thoroughly understand the brief, especially with a new, unfamiliar client, more often than not means you deliver on time and on budget, with your profit margin intact.

Every agency or freelancer will structure their charges in a different way. If you can charge by the hour without an agreed cut off point or set costs agreed up front, specifically stating total hours the work encompasses, then count yourself lucky! Most clients, however, will want to see costs set in stone – especially costs they deem intangible: the creative process behind dreaming up concepts ahead of the artwork and print (or web production).

If a client refuses to sign off a concept because they say their requirements have been misinterpreted, they will often expect several additional hour’s worth of consultation and design work for the agreed price quoted for the concept unless you can prove you acted in accordance with their instruction.

To do that you need to get your brief signed off by them before you even begin work. Or, alternatively, you could charge a much higher cost for the concept work, but then you run the risk of losing the work to a competitor.

So, how to make sure you fully understand their needs? Below is a template brief which you may find useful:

Put simply what do they want (a corporate ID/brochure/website etc)?

What does this piece of work have to achieve? How does that fit in with overall company objectives?

Target Audience
Who, specifically, are they aiming this work at?

Some research you may already have undertaken ahead of the meeting; how big is the company, who owns it, existing product ranges, company literature & website will give you a good idea of what this company is all about. Ask as much as you need to know at the briefing meeting to gain a better idea about future direction and the role of your work within that.

Where will this piece of work be used? If it’s a direct mail piece, is it to be sent to cold prospects, warm prospects or existing clients? If it’s a brochure how and where is that brochure going to be used. This is an integral part of the brief that allows you to understand fully what the function of your work will be. This is a good time to ask what the durability of the work is likely to be – how long do they expect to use this brochure for? The answers to these questions will give you a good grounding in what the value of the work is to the client – and therefore how much time and investment they will be looking to spend on your creative time and finishing touches.

Creative Starters
It’s good to get some pointers on what the client does and doesn’t like and this can be extremely subjective. If you have free rein on the design, it’s useful to know if they’ve had a brochure done in a certain colour before that they absolutely hated. Perhaps they’ve seen a few websites they like, or elements of websites that they feel would work for them – the navigation bar they’ve seen elsewhere for instance. Clients often don’t know what they want, but a lot probably know what they have seen elsewhere and definitely don’t want. Prompting them to look at your own portfolio or other examples of work is a good way to building a picture of what makes your client tick, meaning you are more likely to get the concept right from the start.

Creative Details
Are they expecting illustration, photography, stock images that will incur charges? (Or will they be supplied by the client and if so in what format/resolution?) What about any special fonts? Now is also the moment when you get a feel for additional print finishes being appropriate/affordable. What format do they want the artwork supplied in if they're handling the print themselves.

Corporate design guidelines: is there an existing corporate ID, corporate colours or any ‘design rules’ that you need to stick to within your design work? Is there any legal text or other copy that must appear on your work and if so where must it appear?

The important one is their expected delivery date, and any other interim sign off stages – perhaps they need the concept for a meeting.

Type up the full brief once you are back at your desk and fax it over to the client for sign off – it will protect you some way against any disagreements arising from a client that you haven’t met the brief.

I would also prepare a schedule with dates and actions required by each party, again I fax this for their files; if the deadline slips you have something to go back with to demonstrate why it happened – say the client didn’t sign off the proofs by the date requested.

Every time you meet or take a call from the client requesting changes to the brief, put the client’s request for changes in writing and confirm with them what impact this will have on costs and schedule.

This may sound like a lot of paperwork, and it is advisable to build in administrative charges in each quote that allows you to effectively service the client in the above way. In the long run it will ensure a smoother process and protect both you and your client.


15th July 2005

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