How Important is The Brief? It’s our Salvation, Without Question

illustration - maze
Illustration credit: Phyliss Gilbert

In the many years I’ve been working in the digital media industry I kept seeing recurring patterns–whether it be in a board room as a project manager or as a freelance designer, it was the same potential slow-train wreck I can foresee. Be it from your manager or the client, it comes at you like a tornado with chaotic elements and guess what? You’re the one to make sense of it and solve the puzzle. We love puzzles, as long as it’s a  game and it’s solved within a reasonable amount of time.

When we have projects at work with higher stakes the pressure will mount and surprises are common spoilers–they tend to turn up at the most inopportune time as well. What if we can minimize the surprises and steer the ship in the right course through the rough waters, and get home? The brief. It is our compass and guide-map all in one. Let’s take some scenarios which we may face:


Scenario 1: We serve “everyone”

You’re a PM (Project Manager) and meeting with a client for a web presence project, this is the first sit-down together (which you’ve insisted after an email with a jumble of sentences was all the info previously).
Client: I want something really edgy and not boring…
You: …what’s purpose of the website?
Client: Security for homes, our last webpage is so ugly , can we get a couple of fresh looking designs to look at?
You: who are you targeting? your customers I mean
Client: people who need our products, it can be home owners, or corporate businesses—so everyone really…


Scenario 2: Just get it like Amazon 

From a conference call, you’re a PM and your supervisor assigns you an operation task from a spreadsheet with a line of shorthand notes he’s taken from his boss. It’s marked as “urgent”.
Your Manager: …this is the complaint we have– it’s a problem we’ve been having repeatedly. we need you to fix it asap
You: …where does the issue occur?

Manager: our website
You: which one? we have more than several website types, the e-commerce site or the corporate website…if we count all the countries, there’s 21.
Manager: yes that one, I think the complaint is coming from Poland or Turkey, not sure
You: do you have the link or URL where the bug is?
Manager: I can’t find it, Talk to (name of colleague from another division) if he’s away then speak with his manager. Look at Amazon and see what they’ve done with it. Get it like them.


Scenario 3: Do you have it in black?

Client: …and this promotional piece needs to have a lot of red, some black
You: why is the color red preferred?
Client:  Our key competitor (name of company) uses blue a lot, it’s overdone. I personally hate that color. Either red or black.
You: what will be the message you want to get across?
Client: that we’re better than the competitor, and cheaper—but better quality, more classy.

Believe it or not if you haven’t experienced it, the above discussions are commonplace today. You may have just 10 minutes to squeeze out key information to get started in the right direction. The biggest challenge is to understand what the requirements of the mission is and if the messenger (or the person making the order) doesn’t know how to articulate it, you’ll be looking at potentially a time-sucking maze of misunderstanding and confusion. Below is a quick list of key questions you can pull out and fast-track a brief gathering in the most rushed environment:

  • Objectives
- What are the end result of the task/project? prioritize them in order if there are multiple. (eg. generate revenue via ecomerce/ banner ads, promote an event, increase traffic, branding, etc)
  • Target Audience
- Who is the end-user? Who are you targeting to view the product? Who are they? age, sex, sub-culture, socio-economic
  • Message
– That is the promise the service/product making to the TA? Why will they believe what we say?
  • Content
- In bullet form, specify the sections and sub-sections (if any) of how you’d see the content structured ( eg. About Us, Company profile, Forum, Products & services  etc)
What are the mandatory elements? (eg. logos, addresses, etc)
  • Functionality & Deliverables
– What are the functions expected? How will it be executed? What technical components are needed? What are the deliverables produced in the end?(eg. dynamic? Content management system, shopping cart, Database, eNewsletter management, animation, etc.)
  • Preferences- 
Is there are preferences to color/font or a particular style? is there the general look desired? (eg. corporate business / commercial / light-hearted)
• Budget & deadline
What is the target cost range? When does it need to get completed by?

Tailor it to your area of specialization 

Depending on which area of specialization you’re in, you’ll need to flesh out areas which are relevant. For example if you’re Brand analyst, you’d probably add sections such as Market summary & competitors info etc.


“We Target Everyone” is not an answer

If your client doesn’t know who they are targeting, this is trouble. Start fleshing them out there, knowing who you are targeting will answer many other key questions to follow. Drill them down to age groups, gender, sub-culture leanings, profession, socio-economic info etc.


Follow up with a written brief

Once you have as much info, write it up and fill in the blanks where it was not answered to help guide the client. It can be a 1-page email or document, the length/ time investment is depending on the task/project. Send it no later than a day later after the briefing as it would be fresh in their minds. Email it with a note that they’ll need to approve it before you progress and if any elements are not right, they should edit it. Having dialogue in person or on the phone is one thing, approving written docs is another–they are taken more seriously. They will read it and respond. Once the final draft is approved, send them a copy and keep one for yourself for future reference—you will refer to it for sure down the line. If they do not collaborate, should you throw yourself into the predictable maze of despair? I wouldn’t.


Could you describe it in words please…

If a client cannot describe what they want in words, why would be any easier when the task/project has started? If it’s sketchy from the start, don’t expect for it to get any better later in a reasonable amount of time. If time is a factor, then getting the requirements of the task/project in a few lines of text is a worthwhile investment which can save you hours, days, weeks of labor.


Who is the one approving?

who’s signing off or approving the work? Are you speaking to the right person to get the brief? are there multiple people who has the right have a say in the matter? find out who they are before progressing, get them all to review the brief and have their edits included. Fixing & negotiating conflicting agendas/interests via a simple A4 paper is far easier than having to deal with conflicts mid-way through with the production already ticking away billable hours.


Expect Changes & accommodate

It’s the nature of the beast with a fast paced environment—there will be changes, big or small. The ideal way is to always refer back to the brief and measure how it affects the initial time  & cost estimate. Inform the client that the changes affect the cost/time/quality and make note of it—save the new version of the brief with denoting the changes in a different color etc. The brief will help save you from having discussions like “ I actually said instead…” “I understood it to be…” It’s written down clearly what was expected so it should ease the misunderstanding gap. For example, if there’s a change in the deliverables of the design/functionality since starting it would justify you to ask for more time/costs. It works both ways, if the change is eliminating some components it means lesser time/costs also. The brief provides a platform for both the provider & client to measure fairly.


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