brief encounter

The brief is the key to a good design outcome. Einstein said if he had an hour to solve a problem he would use the first 55 minutes to formulate the right question and the last five to solve the problem. A good design brief is the definition of that right question. In design practice a good brief is extremely rare (I recall only one genuinely complete brief – thank you Nancy Bobrowitz/Reuters!) and its importance is easily overlooked in the rush to results.

Most design briefs are only a production specification, possibly including some vague musings on the brand, but with short-term specifics favoured over direction. The missing element is usually strategy – giving direction, focus and clarity of intent to what is otherwise just a shopping list.  A common reluctance to examine fundamentals makes clarifying design strategy about as easy as nailing jelly to a wall…

The nerd instinct – a natural inclination to emphasise comfortingly quantifiable facts: production, budget and timing details – usually sidelines broader, potentially more significant issues, which are overlooked or ill-defined.

For an effective communication a strategic design brief, connecting design and desired business outcomes is essential.  Nailing the ‘strategic’ can be difficult, but at root product/corporate/brand strategy stems from answers to some very basic questions, such as:

How do we see ourselves?
How do our customers see us/our product/our brand?
How do we compare with the competition?
What makes us special?
Where are we going?
How do we want to be perceived?

Simple as these questions may be, getting clear answers can be tricky.  Such questions are sometimes only properly answered at the highest level of management and may not be openly debated.  Gathering and distilling responses requires patience and diplomacy whether carried out by client, designer, or both.  The client’s insider perspective and specialist knowledge can be complemented by a good designer’s outsider viewpoint, commonsense thinking and eye for simplicity.

A design strategy is a plan to implement a design or series of designs that will satisfy both immediate needs and fully support longer-term corporate or brand strategy. It might focus on the key communications messages for a series of annual reports; how an organisation will use various media to communicate to its audiences; or the evolution of a brand in response to its market. The bigger the project, the greater the need for a clear strategy to align the design brief with the aspirations and direction of the company/brand.  The simpler the distillation of the strategy the more effective the outcome is likely to be.

Why bother?
The answers to the above questions are meat and drink to designers and help produce the relevant inspiration that characterises great design work – communications that not only look good, but also work really well.  The goal-setting that occurs as a result of identifying strategic requirements also provides a clear framework for judgement of the results of the process.

Accidental synergies between client and designer occasionally deliver inspired solutions. But for consistently effective results, effort needs to be made at the outset to nail strategic ‘jellies’.  The reward is an efficient, productive and manageable process of design – and a more effective end result.

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