How to brief a designer - the ultimate guide

I'm in an accountability group with three amazing entrepreneurial women, who are all trying to create their websites.  When we chatted last week, they were bemoaning the fact that they'd been given "bad logos" from the designers they'd hired to help them.  

I suggested that perhaps it wasn't the designers' fault, and asked them what they'd put in their brief.  
There was a shifty silence...

So I wrote them a guide that I shared in my blog last week, then asked for feedback on it from the amazing design talent I know.  I wanted both sides of the story.  

So here's the ultimate guide - from my perspective, having briefed hundreds of design projects over the years, and from the perspective of talented designers who’ve seen many good and bad briefs in their time. 

The summary:

There are four significant success factors in briefing a designer, and managing the design process.

  1. Choosing wisely.
  2. Making sure you tell them the right things about you.
  3. Making sure you ask for the right things.
  4. Conversations.

Design brief success factor #1: Choosing your designer wisely

Obviously, the best brief in the world won’t get you a great result if you have a poorly skilled designer.  So make sure you’re hiring someone who has a lot of references, who can show you a range of projects, and who can show variety across their work.

You want them to be able to reflect YOU - not impose their style on you.

Design brief success factor #2: Making sure you tell them the right things about you

To answer this, we just need to rewind a bit. 

Everything you’re doing is about building a brand. So, first, you have to understand what a brand is. 

All brands really are, are associations in people’s minds.  And the stronger and more connected these associations are, the more likely a person is to choose and buy your brand.   

So, the first thing you need to decide is, what associations do you want to build? What is it that you want to stand for?

This is called doing your brand strategy.

Your brand strategy is your decision on what you want to stand for: the associations you want to build in people’s minds.  Everything you do, say, design, write, needs to connect to this.

You create your brand strategy by answering these questions:

  • WHY you exist
  • WHO you are
  • HOW you do things
  • HOW you look, feel and sound
  • WHAT you do

Most people call their WHY, their ‘Purpose’ or ‘Mission’,  HOW you look, feel and sound is often called your ‘Brand Personality.’  But it doesn’t matter what you call them. What does matter is that you answer all of these questions, and you answer them in the right way.  (Here’s a free mini video course if you want to know more about this bit).

It’s critical to get these answers in place before you do your ‘branding’ so you have something to judge things, like your logo, against.

You also need to understand what ‘Branding’ is.

Branding is the process of creating signals that help to reinforce the associations you want to build in your customers’ minds. 

These signals can be visual: your logo, colour palette, imagery, packaging, shapes and patterns, fonts.

They can be verbal: your name and nomenclature, your tone of voice, your brandline, the language that you use.

They can also be sounds – like T Mobile’s or Intel’s chimes.  
Or smells – like the bespoke fragrances luxury hotels create for their lobbies. 

They can even be people or characters – liked Jared Fogle was for Subway, or George Clooney is for Nespresso, or the Compare The Market Meerkats.  

But creating visual and verbal signals are where most brands start.  

All together these signals are often called your ‘Brand Identity’ (and separately, your Visual Identity, Verbal Identity, Sonic Identity etc). 

When you brief a designer, you should be briefing them to create your Visual Identity - NOT JUST A LOGO.

If all you get is a logo, then how do you create your whole website?  How do you create a connected look and feel on Instagram?  You need more than a logo.

So here are things you need to tell your designer:

  • Your company name
  • Your brand strategy 
    Spend time particularly on identifying HOW you want to look and feel. Find 4-5 attributes you want your Visual Identity to communicate and pull together some visual inspiration to help the designer understand how you see these words being translated.
  • Your timings
  • Your competitors
    This is so the designer can check for distinctive brand signals to avoid. Are your competitors trying to build strong associations with particular colours, patterns, shapes, fonts?  Part of the design process is developing yours, and understanding which ones to avoid of your competitors’. (Check out Bryon Sharp’s work on creating distinctive brand assets, or Mark Ritson talking about brand codes to understand why this is so important).
  • Your customer – the key target for your branding, often called your ICA (Ideal Customer Avatar) or IC (Ideal Community).

As D J Johnston, co-founder and Strategy Director of Family (and friends), told me: 
“Together with product and brand differentiation, the other key element is knowing exactly to whom (yes, an actual person, not a stereotype) you are selling to. A brand is a connection tool primarily. WHO is the brand for is now more often my first question to any potential client, even more important than WHAT is the brand doing.”

Design brief success factor #3: Making sure you ask for the right things

Here’s what you need to ask for:

2-3 Visual Identity options (options that show ideas for all of the things below and how they work together) not just 2-3 logos!

Within each option you should specify:

  • A logo
  • 2 fonts– try and stick with just two that complement each other. For instance, one serif font and one sans serif.
  • A colour palette (with primary and secondary colours – i.e. a couple you use for the majority of your things, and a few more than complement these ones).
  • A graphic device or pattern(s)
    Now, these are not compulsory (the biggest brands in the world all have this level of detail, but it may turn out too costly if you are starting on your own), but you may want to ask for something like this to give you flexibility in how you create content. For instance, you’ll see I use circles in different way. It just gives me more options when I am creating my content but still helps it feel like the same brand.
  • A set of images/an imagery style
    Ask for a handful of images, or at least some guidance in the sort of images they think support your brand strategy and visual identity.  It will really help you create your website and content more quickly.  It will also look more connected and professional.  Ensure you have a conversation upfront about imagery costs (do you have budget to buy a few, do you require free ones that you credit, or do you just want suggestions of

Design brief success factor #4: Two conversations (minimum)

Good designers are highly creative, collaborative, ideas people, not just talented users of Photoshop.

Ask them for one initial video call where you talk through the brief and your visual inspiration boards.   Then a second call where they explain the Visual Identity options to you. They should be able to explain how each option reflects your brand strategy – WHY they have suggested what they have suggested.  This can really help you come around to one or other option that perhaps you rejected when you first saw it.  (I know you like the colour purple – but perhaps that colour is not reflective of what you want your brand to stand for…)
Use your brand strategy as the criteria to help you judge what you get back – it will get you to a much better solution, much more quickly and objectively.

As Betsy Simmons Fraser, a brilliant independent graphic designer, told me,

“The process should be a collaboration and hopefully offer no surprises or disappointments in the end result.”

And as Sarah Williams, Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Beardwood&Co put it:

I think one of the most important parts of a client and designer relationship (and keys to success) is having a shared conversation around the key words in the brand strategy — and how those translate into visuals — before the designer sets off to put hours against a budget and begin creating. Having a designated conversation to discuss inspiration visuals between client and designer can uncover some big insights ("Oh that's what you mean by feeling human & friendly!"). Clearly understanding the ‘YES/NO/WHY inspiration’ that feels right or wrong for a brand. There are so many visual expressions for every word in the positioning, so having some alignment can really streamline the process and save stress, time, and money.”

And in all of this, please respect the designer’s expertise and keep an open mind.  In Stephen Harnwell Jones' words: 

“Briefing a designer is easy if you communicate to them what you’re trying to achieve. Briefing a designer is hard if you think you can save time and money by telling them how do it.” 

Best of luck with your briefings!

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