What is a Design Brief and How to Write One

design brief

A design brief is an important document that outlines your design project so that you and your client understand exactly what to expect in terms of deliverables and project workflow. It’s a key project management tool that also helps you manage client expectations, so it’s important to learn how to write one to keep your web design projects on track.

Whether you’ve used design briefs in the past or not, you should consider adding them to every project workflow. Here’s everything you need to know about how to write a design brief to keep your web design projects on track, feel more organized, and delight your clients. 

What is a design brief?

A design brief, also known as a creative brief, is a project management document that allows you to identify the scope, scale, and core details of your upcoming design project. It is similar to a proposal or statement of work with the key difference being that in a design brief, your client has already decided that they want to work with you—you’ve already closed the deal, now it’s time to lay out the details.

When you include the right information, the design brief has the potential to be one of your most powerful project management tools. It can be used to inform design decisions and guide the overall workflow of your project; from conception to completion. A well-written creative brief helps you to identify and avoid roadblocks early on, and it can even streamline and accelerate your prototyping, design, and development process.

"The design brief has the potential to be one of your most powerful project management tools."

While every designer and agency tackles creative briefs in their own way, you’ll get the most out of it by collaborating with your client at the onset of a project. This way, your design brief allows you to clarify goals and objectives, get input from important stakeholders, and, ultimately, hold both parties accountable for the final product.

If you and your clients both understand each other’s responsibilities and have a clear vision for what the final deliverables will be before any work begins, you’ll likely avoid many unnecessary revisions or, “We didn’t ask for that” moments during and after the project.

Kicking off a new project with a design brief provides so many other benefits for your project workflow. Here are just a few more benefits that it will give you—and your client. A design brief:

  • Provides designers with the necessary insight, background, and foundation to create the visual design
  • Offers your team a more detailed vision of the client’s expectations, giving you everything you need to delight them
  • Helps keep individual contributors aligned and on track, while keeping the project on time and on budget
  • Gives the client a sense of involvement in the process, and comfort that their goals and vision are understood
  • Provides you with all design specs upfront
  • Helps you understand your client’s taste and identify their “must-not-haves” 

Your design brief is valuable even after you’ve completed and submitted your project. If you’ve taken the time to draft a comprehensive design brief, you’ll be able to use it as the basis for a case study to use in future pitches. If you’re unfamiliar with how to do this, check out our detailed walkthrough on how to write a web design case study that lands new clients. If your client projects are similar, with repeatable elements, there’s also no need to write your creative brief from scratch every time you start a new project. Using a creative brief template can save you time and energy.

Free Design Brief Template: Check out the design brief template to get started.

The anatomy of a design brief

Design briefs can come in a variety of formats, and can include different information depending on the type of project you’re working on and the client you’re working with. To give you a sense of what to include and how to structure the document itself, here is a breakdown of the core sections of an effective design brief.

1. Company profile

Your design brief should include an overview of your client’s business so that all members of your team are familiar with your client, their brand, and any internal factors that can influence the direction or success of the project. 

Here are the key elements to include in this section:

  • Company details, including client name, industry, product lines, etc.
  • Brand differentiator and/or unique selling proposition
  • Brand mission, vision, values, and messaging
  • Key stakeholders, contributors, and points of contact within the business
  • List of direct and indirect competitors

Including these important details about your client’s brand, decision makers, and the context for why they want and need the project can help you get to know your client as they see themselves from a brand perspective. It helps to know exactly which stakeholders are responsible for certain deliverables, and who you should be contacting if an issue arises. 

"It helps to know exactly which stakeholders are responsible for certain deliverables, and who you should be contacting if an issue arises."

You may have already researched your client and pitched them your services, leading to them working with you. If that’s the case, feel free to use the information collected during your research. Just be sure that your client reviews the information to confirm its accuracy and to add any relevant information you might have missed.

If your client proactively reached out to you to work on a certain project, they should be responsible for sharing this information with you, upfront. However, they may not know that it’s their responsibility to share this information. 

It can help to create or use a design brief template, form or questionnaire for your client to fill out with all the details you need to know before you start the project. If you want to be strategic about the types of clients you work with, consider posting the form on your “Contact Us” page on your website, to effectively screen clients. Those who put in the work upfront are more likely to be organized, responsible, and clear about their objectives.

When working with larger clients—especially when projects involve multiple stakeholders—you should also formally acknowledge who within their organization has the final approval for the project. This transparency not only helps keep everyone accountable, it also strengthens client relationships.

Take the time to get to know your client and/or their team in a kickoff call, and be sure to ask any clarifying questions. This is a good time to clearly state if you foresee any potential challenges or misunderstandings. Add any relevant details to your creative brief as needed.

You might also like: 4 Crucial Steps to Building Strong Client Relationships.

2. Project overview

Provide a detailed description of the project, including as much context and background as possible in the project overview section of your design brief. You can get the answers you need for this section in the design brief by asking your client in your kickoff meeting or when they fill out your questionnaire. 

Your overview should define the scope and scale of the project and its deliverables. Here are some example questions you can include in your design brief template to ensure that you’re consistently asking the right questions:

  • Are you building something new?
  • Are you redesigning something that exists?
  • What other assets do you expect at the completion of the project?
  • How much involvement do client stakeholders want (or need) to have?
  • What are some potential challenges or obstacles you foresee?
  • What is not included in the scope of the project?

Now that you have a clear idea of what they want, it’s time to investigate why your client wants to work on this project. You should try to answer this question by identifying the web design problems your client faces that compelled them to hire you for this project.

Sometimes, by digging a little deeper into the why, you can discover alternative solutions that strategically meet the needs of your clients.

You might also like: Get to the Heart of Your Clients' Ecommerce Dilemmas With the 5 Whys.

3. Goals and objectives

design brief: 2 pencils on a yellow background

Designing websites may be a core offering that is central to your business, but to a client (especially those in ecommerce), a website is their business. Using numbers or plain language, share measurable results for what this project is trying to achieve.

Goals reflect the main purpose of your project, while objectives represent the smaller, measurable milestones that, together, add up to achieve the goal. Some sample examples of goals and their corresponding objectives for a website build or redesign could be:

Goal: The client wants more traffic to their website

  • Increase the amount of weekly sessions by 20 percent by X date
  • Grow proportion of new monthly traffic to 40 percent of total by X date
  • Set the year-over-year traffic goal to be 20 percent higher than the last year

Goal: The client is looking to drive more revenue from their website

  • Increase daily revenue by 50 percent by X date
  • Grow the total average order amount by 25 percent by X date
  • Reduce cart abandonment by 15 percent by X date

Goal: The client wants to increase engagement with their online content

  • Reduce average bounce rates by 10 percent by X date
  • Increase the average number of pages viewed per session by 25 percent by X date
  • Increase average time on page per user by 15 percent by X date

Once you’ve established the goals and objectives and have recorded them in your design brief, you can “work backwards” and identify the technical steps you need to take to achieve them.

By establishing goals and objectives upfront, you’re not only suited to make more informed decisions around your design, you’ll also be able to prove your business value to the client beyond their website aesthetics. This sets you up to become a trusted partner, leading to a better quality relationship with your client over the long term.

You might also like: Leading Successful Discovery Sessions: Set the Stage for Client Projects.

4. Target audience

Make sure to develop a solid understanding of the users who will be interacting with your client’s website. Understanding your client’s target audience will inform your design decisions.

If you’re lucky, your client will already be equipped with relevant research about their target audience and be willing to share it with you. However, not all business owners will have this information. If you find yourself in this situation, you have two options. You can try to use this opportunity to offer user research services as a value-add to the project. If your client isn’t interested, try asking them who their ideal customer is, and work together to build an audience persona through discussion.

Your audience persona should include demographics such as age, gender, and location, as well as psychographics like media consumption habits, values, and related interests. This information can reveal important details about what resonates most with your client’s customers online. 

For example, are your client’s customers more likely to use mobile more than desktop? Do certain colors resonate more with their lifestyle? What UX or UI considerations are missing? What additional universal design principles can you apply to improve site accessibility?

If your client already has an active website, advanced segments in Google Analytics reports can provide both demographics and psychographics insights. It’s a great starting point if your client is unsure about who they’re attracting to their online store and why. Your client may find that their target audience isn’t the type of user visiting their website.

By defining the target audience in your design brief, you’ll be prepared to make informed decisions during the design process.

You might also like: 5 Questions You Should Ask Your Clients Before Every Web Design Project.

5. Design requirements

When it comes to the design requirements section in your design brief, be sure to include the relevant details so that you’re not making several rounds of revisions or chasing your client for files that are the correct size. 

By including specific design requirements in your design brief, you can ensure that you and your team have everything needed to work efficiently and meet client expectations. Including these details upfront also reduces the risk of revisions or complete redesigns.

While requirements may vary for each project, you can include any of the following details about your deliverables:

  • Asset dimensions/resolutions
  • File formats
  • Required color palette
  • Image assets to be included
  • Associated copy documents

It is also worthwhile to include any reference materials in this section. These could include brand guidelines, mockups, mood boards (check out these intuitive mood board apps), and anything else you feel could assist with the completion of the project. 

You may be collaborating more closely with your client on this aspect of the project, especially if they—or other members of your team—will be working on creating certain assets or design elements (such as logos, graphics, videos, photos, etc.) while you’re designing and building the website. Communication here is key. Get as much information recorded in your design brief as you can. 

The more thorough your supporting documentation, the less chance you’ll experience challenges or delays while working through the design itself.

6. Budget and schedule

design brief: open calendar

If you work in an agency, budgets and schedules can be seen as an afterthought and left for the client services team to deal with. However, these project components are just as vital for creatives as they are for your account services counterparts, and are imperative for the freelancers to address early on in the design process.

The budget

Getting a clear understanding of your client’s project budget allows you to effectively manage their expectations about project deliverables, while also managing how your team uses their time. 

When initially meeting with your client to scope out their project, make sure you allocate budget across all disciplines: research, design, copywriting, development, coordination, testing, and review. That way, you’re much more likely to avoid scope creep or feature creep.

Without a clear budget, it can be easy for you or your team to dive deep into a job and lose track of how many billable hours you’ve logged. To help manage time spent on billable tasks, use one of the best time tracking apps to stay on track and within the budgetary limits of the project.

The schedule

Projects need to stay on track and be delivered to your client on time to stay profitable—that’s why you need to include some form of a schedule in your design brief. Your schedule should be realistic and account for potential changes or unexpected challenges.

It can be tempting to commit to completing a project on a compressed timeline, but that often does more harm than good. Give yourself some breathing room in your workback plan so that if you do need more time, or if your client takes longer than expected to provide feedback before your next project milestone, it doesn’t mean you and your team will be working 12-hour days just to get back on track. 

An effective schedule should not only highlight the final deadline, but also identify any milestones between the beginning and end of the project. It is crucial that your team can mutually anticipate completion dates for concepts, final designs, development work, and review periods.

While schedules are vital for keeping your team on track, they can also give your client some insight into the design process. Some clients simply won’t know how long it takes to research, design, and build a website. It’s important to set the expectation of what’s realistic when creating your design brief. This, just like the entire design brief, ensures your team and client are on the same page from the beginning.

You might also like: A Web Designer’s Guide to Project Schedules.

Start using the design brief in your project workflow

Done well, your design brief has the potential to be one of your most valuable project management tools. It’s worth the time to learn how to write a design brief to keep your web design projects on track. Try to incorporate these tips into your design or development workflow so your projects begin with a strategic start.

We’ve put together a sample design brief template that you can use as your starting point for each project you work on. Feel free to make changes and update it as you see fit. Download your design brief template below and let us know what you think!

Free Template: Check out the design brief template to get started.

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