The Right Way to Write a Project Brief


Like any creative company, Design Incorporated, a UK design agency, depends on good communications. It needs its clients to explain exactly what they need, how they want it, and what they want the product to do.

And like most creative companies, Design Incorporated has received its fair share of poorly written briefs. The company has even categorized them into five forms.

“The Closed Book” leaves the creative team with so little room for interpretation the client could have done it themselves. “The 360” gives the team no direction at all. “The Chameleon” changes constantly as the client adds influences and feels new inspiration. “The Collision” is filled with contradictions, and “The Dreamer” is packed with high expectations and demands… combined with a low budget and an instant deadline.

It’s an experience that every creative worker can recognize. Clients put all their effort into trying to understand what they want their product or their marketing material to do or say. They figure out the features or the message, and in their heads they know exactly what they want.

They just don’t know how to tell the people responsible for creating the idea. The result can be expensive. According to one study, for every billion dollars that companies spend on projects, $75 million is put at risk through poor communications. That failure to communicate is the main cause of a third of project failures and reduces more than half of project successes.

So what should companies do to ensure that their creative agencies understand their ideas and can implement what they want? What should they put in a project brief—and what should they leave out?

One group of researchers conducted a study. Georgios Koronis and Arlindo Silva of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and Hernan Casakin of Ariel University’s School of Architecture, wanted to understand how to construct a design brief which would best foster creativity.

They recruited 158 first year undergraduates and gave them a project brief to design a new kind of home-use, orange juice extractor. The students were told that they couldn’t use blenders or “blender-type” designs but the instructions then varied in six different ways.

A baseline brief simply told the students that the juicer needed to be low-cost, easy to manufacture, machine washable, and have a small footprint. Some students received quantitative information about the juicer. They were told that it would cost $20; could not use more than two manufacturing processes; should suffer no significant damage after 100 washes; and fit within a volume of 15x15x15cm3. Another group of students were shown a physical example: a picture of juicer. A fourth group read three paragraphs of contextual information that explained the health benefits of orange juice and the problem the new juicer needed to solve.

The researchers also combined some of the content in the brief. Some saw the contextual information with either the product image or the quantitative information. And one group received a brief that contained an image and the quantitative information.

Having received the brief, the participants spent 15 minutes sketching and annotating three different ideas. They then passed their sheet to the person on their left for modification and improvement. Once the participants had completed their designs, expert judges gave each design a score out of five for novelty, appropriateness, and usability. By matching the scores to the brief, the researchers were able to identify which briefs had the best results.

What they found was that the designs that included a picture of a sample product produced the lowest novelty scores. (Even though many of the students who saw an image of a sample product asked for more pictures in the mistaken belief that they would improve their creativity.)

When the designers saw a sample image in the brief, the researchers argue, they became fixated on that example. They believed that the client had included the sample because they liked it, and they looked for similar ideas. The result was that instead of thinking of new approaches, they produced variations on the single theme.

“Examples of existing solutions, also known as precedents, may cause design fixation and reduce the fluency and diversity of ideas, a consequence of which is a reduction in the production of novel outcomes,” they write.

Adding contextual information did help to mitigate the negative effect of the physical samples but the condition that produced the highest novelty scores was the baseline: a simple description of the juicer’s basic requirements. That minimal information gave the designers the most amount of freedom.

Two Design Rounds for Internal Teams…

The success of a brief though isn’t only determined by the originality of the designs it generates. Those designs also have to be appropriate and usable—and there’s a tension between those results. Creativity falls in the sweet spot between the new and familiar. Ideas that appear to land ahead of their time, such as the Apple Newton Message Pad, don’t always fail because the technology isn’t ready. They also fail because the public doesn’t yet know what to do with them. Ideas that are too different or too quirky are too strange for people to want to use. It’s possible that one day we’ll be wearing a new form of Google Glass but their uniqueness when they came out—despite the apparent usefulness of being able to take directions without looking at a phone—quickly doomed them. For creativity, timing matters.

The vagueness of the study’s baseline brief produced the most original ideas but it also generated the second-worst appropriateness scores (after a combination of quantitative information and a physical example.)

The most appropriate results came from the brief that combined a physical example with contextual information. That was also the brief that produced the most usable results, even if they weren’t the most creative.

So clients preparing briefs for creative agencies need to balance three results. They want originality: new ideas that will help them to stand out from their competitors. But they don’t want those ideas to be so novel that customers and clients don’t understand them. They do want those ideas to meet their requirements, and they want them to be practical enough to put into production.

Adding contextual information to the brief can help designers to merge their creativity with practicality. Including information that explains what the product will do and why it’s important will help to direct designers towards effective results. Adding sample images of rival products might increase fixation and limit creativity but it will also will help to ensure that the designs work.

One ideal option then could be to assume two rounds of design. In the first round, provide only basic and contextual information to kickstart the initial generation of ideas. Tell the designers roughly what you want, and why you want it but leave the rest to their imagination. That should generate a wide range of original ideas.

If those ideas turn out to score low in usability or appropriateness, bring the designers back by showing them examples of rival products. The next set of results may be less creative than the first round of ideas, but they will now be more practical and usable.

…Complete Briefs for External Teams

That design process itself though would lack usability—at least for external teams. Your own creative teams can be as experimental as they wish and undertake all the drafts they need. But while design studios accept that they’re going to receive feedback from clients, they still want to land as close as possible to the final design with their first draft. Frequent misses lead to repeated complaints from design studios that clients don’t know what they want until they see it.

“Incomplete information is the main problem,” Iván González Castro, Project Manager at CID Group (Prowell Group), told Approval Studio, a maker of design software. “Clients often don’t know what they want or where to go. They want to rely only on creativity without planning or strategy because they think it gives a solution to all their problems.”

Faced with a brief that provides only partial information and that will inevitably lead to at least two rounds of design, studios will ask questions and attempt to fill in the gaps before they begin work.

So while a brief for an internal team that prioritizes new thinking should begin only with a combination of basic requirements and background information, a brief for an external team should contain as much information as possible.

List the requirements, and include numbers where possible. Designers should know how many manufacturing processes the product can include or which demographics a brand should appeal to. Add as much contextual information as possible, including the benefits of the product and the doubts that customers harbor.

But leave out images of rival products. The brief should give the design team enough direction to understand where they need to go but leave them enough room for interpretation to enable them to generate new ideas—without copying the work of your competitors.

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