How to end up with the design you love: 11 things to make a perfect design brief

I get a lot of design briefs. One-liner briefs, two-liner briefs, briefs that are not even briefs – but just a mumble of generic words (“Make it cool!”, “Make it interesting”). Think about it: how would your designer know what you think is “cool” or “interesting” if you don’t provide specifics? How would you define “good” design? Is it good because you like it, or because your customers are raving about it? Can you set aside your ego hat and think about what your customers will like and use?

By putting together a solid brief, you create a set of measurements, reference points for your design journey. By referring back to them, you (and your designer!) will feel deeply satisfied as you tick off every goal off the list and as every segment of your client group is considered.

Above all, like I often say – I design for my client’s customers, it is those people that both, me and my client, need to appeal. Think about your customers. Always. And then write your brief.

1. Budget

Be realistic. If you want to have a logo for £50 frankly you should go to fiverr, pay less than that and then spend the rest of your time hating the logo and hoping you wouldn’t have spent that money because now you feel that you “invested” in it and don’t want to spend any more. I’ve been there and I’ve done that and it’s just not worth it.

Your budget will depend on how important you think design is. And I should tell you – that design is important. Are you going to skimp money on a website or logo design – if this is the first thing your customer will see? You can only make first impression once.

Provide your designer with a realistic budget and be prepared that it may not be realistic at all. If you have a tight deadline – this will also require your designer to set all their work aside to focus solely on your brief and if you are lucky they can do that – you need to be prepared to pay extra for the speediness.

What to include:

  • Your budget.

2. Your business

Explain designer what your business is about, what your product is and why you have spent the last X year of your life working on it. Explain to them your business model and make sure they have full understanding of your product or service.

What to include:

  • Explanation of your business in two sentences
  • Revenue model
  • Business targets for the next 1,3 and 5 years – to ensure your design fits as you grow
  • Who is your customer, but more on that later

3. Goals of the project

You need to be clear what you want to achieve with your design. However asking that question even to yourself, let alone providing an answer to a designer, can be difficult. Because sometimes, you don’t know exactly *why* you need a new website, if the old one works fine, but you feel we need it. You don’t know why you need to drop thousands of dollars into paying for developing a brand, but you feel “it’s time”.

Don’t pay for custom-made design just because everyone else in the industry is doing so – but understand why you feel it’s time. Was it your customer feedback – that although they love your product, they get confused who is it for? Was it your investors feedback? Perhaps your logo no longer reflect who you are, since it’s been done by a friend at the beginning of your business journey. Perhaps your website, although functional, no longer reflects the tone of voice that your company developed. All those will be the goals you provide your designer to play with.

What to include:

  • Why is it now you’re willing to invest in design right *now*

4. Target audience

This one is straightforward… one would have thought! Just like a product can’t target “everyone”, neither can do a design. Even if you aspire to be next Facebook, Facebook has started with targeting students. So, keep yourself and your designer focused. Describe the type of person you want to attract with your new website. Specify when you think they will come across the design: is it at the end of the day? Is it first thing in the morning? Remember, if you target everyone, the result will be bland and common design that won’t appeal to no one. Don’t be afraid to be specific.

What to include:

  • Your customer  age, gender, location, profession, habits, likes and dislikes
  • When would they come across your product

5. Emotions

It’s not just about conversion. Often we make decisions with our monkey brain, on the instinct – we feel drawn to one product and not the other. What is the decisive factor if both products, yours and your competitors’, are the same in functionalities? My clients are often surprised when I ask them what emotions they want their customers to feel.

So, what do you want your customers to feel when they see new design? Is it excitement? Is it delight? Is it anxiety? Make them uncomfortable and ask themselves difficult questions? Think about the emotions you want to emulate within your customers and then include it in the brief.


What to include:

  • What emotions you want your customers to have when they see your new design?
  • What action do you want your customers to take?

6. Timeline

In my practice, a lot of clients need the work done “yesterday”. Although this seem to change in recent years, in business, design is still almost an afterthought. Which is how you end up with an awesome product and a shoddy website that is just one click away from the “x” button in the corner and a swipe (to the left) away. Or worse, an app that aims to provide so much to their users, only to lose them at the sign up stage.

So, as soon as you have a distant thought that you might need a designer – start looking for one *now*. This way you won’t be rushed to pick whoever was available at the last minute. Think about key dates: whether it’s Kickstarter launch, whether it’s the website going live at an announced date, is it a meeting with the investors – start thinking backwards and assume design will take at least twice as long as you think. Then let your designer know.

What to include:

  • Key dates
  • Final deadline

7. Designs that you like and why

The “why” bit of this is the most important. Often my clients like certain designs and after being asked why, they realise they only like one specific aspect of it, or after some questioning they even realise they don’t like it at all. The “why” bit links closely to the emotions I talked about before. But this is focusing on your emotions, your personal preferences. In a way, showing your designer designs that you liked and why – opens a window into your head for your designer, a channel of understanding that they can tune into.

If you want to be a super-hero of design briefs, give a moodboard. A collation of designs, colours, patterns that you liked with the brief explanation of why you liked them. Stick it in the PowerPoint and your designer will thank you. In addition to producing a kick-ass design, of course.

What to include

  • Examples of the design you liked and brief explanation why

8. Competition

Include your competitors in the brief, the motivation is simple: you don’t want your designer accidentally emulate your competitors logo – just because your competitors target same audience. Your designer will look into their approach and learn from your competitors’ mistakes making sure your design strategy is better AND it’s different. If you think you are as unique as can be – list similar companies that are in the same space; or companies with the same approach as yours.

What to include:

  • Links to your competitors websites

9. Tone of voice

Powerful? Knowledgeable? Fun? Familiar? Your brand has a voice – and it needs to transpire through your design strategy – whether it’s in the email newsletter you send, or website or packaging for your product. Make sure your designer understands what your tone of voice is, or what you want it to be. You may work with a copywriter on this and it’s strongly advisable, especially for writing website body copy, but your designer is the person who will be transpiring this work visually – and people (think: your customers) engage with images much better than text. Think about that.

What to include:

  • Elements of tone of voice
  • Style guide if you have one

10. Any previous design work

It is especially important if you have a style guide – anything that your previous designer produced – which dictates specifics such as font, colour, photography, tone of voice. It is also useful to let your designer know what didn’t work with your previous designer. Any points of disagreement, anything that didn’t work for you or the designer — be as honest and transparent as you can be. Simply by talking about it – you are making sure you are not going to fall in the same culprit again.

What to include:

  • Style guide if you have one
  • Raw files of logos, custom-made graphics
  • Honesty about your previous designer, what did and didn’t work

11. Who is in charge

Yes. I know it’s you. But really – is there anyone else in the company who will have a voice over the design approval? Is it your business partner? Your investors? It’s important to be transparent about this, so that at the last minute before approval, your business partner doesn’t come out slashing everything you and your designer have developed so far. It might take the designer longer working with two people rather than one. But it is much better than work on a brief, almost finish it and then have to re-do it all again – now incorporating everyone’s opinion about it. More time spent re-doing the design – the more expensive it is for you. So, be honest about it and plan ahead.

That’s it. By considering all 11 aspects in your design brief, it will guide you and your designer through the process, set milestones and result in the design you and your customers will love.

5 quick steps on hiring a freelance designer for your business

I have been on both sides of the fence: a business owner looking for someone to design my app, and designer working with the client on their brain baby. Most important thing to bear in mind: while looking for a designer, don’t look for a machine that will just do what you tell them to do. Sorry to break this, but you are not going to get a design which you love this way. Instead, look for a professional who will listen to you, understand your business goals, who will ask questions about your product, who has a tried and tested approach, who will work together with you to produce the design you (and your customers) will fall in love with.

If you can find someone specialising in your industry – even better. Don’t just focus on the type of design. Of course, no point of working with a packaging designer if all you need is a website, but if you find someone who has extensive experience in your industry – that’s the goal. They will have understanding of industry practices, “what’s hot and what not”, and also steer clear from generic stuff of your competitors, too.

1. Ask offline first

When they realise they need a designer, people often start considering platforms (Upwork, or worse, Fiverr), but the catch is, top designers get work through direct referrals, and although you may find their work on sites like Upwork or Behance, the best stuff is found offline, especially if you’re looking to find someone you can go back to again and again as your business (and design needs) grow.

Instead, post in two places:

  1. reach out to your friends and friends of friends (make sure the post is public, so your friends can tag their designer friends!) and
  2. post in relevant Facebook groups (e.g. London Startups) asking for a reference for a designer and see the offers come in. Make sure to check your “Other folder” on Messenger!

2. Look through portfolios

Once you have those recommendations in, briefly explain designers what the project is (e.g. a website, a logo etc) and ask for their portfolio. They will either send a link to their website, or email a PDF file – either is good. The reason behind explaining the task, is so that designers can include links to relevant work. For example, if you are looking to design a website, their work on packaging wouldn’t show you their web-design skills. And vice versa.

3. Do an interview

Choose a few designers based on their portfolios, then schedule an interview – whether face-to-face or Skype. Don’t get put off by the designers working remotely and who only can access you via Skype. A number of my projects I did with clients I never met face-to-face before, but keeping our conversations via Skype actually kept me and my clients incredibly focused.

Talk to them about your brief. I will cover how to give a clear brief in the next blog post. But for now, be as specific as you can, tell them about your business, your goals, especially the goals you are looking for to achieve with the design, your budget and the date you want or need the design to be ready.

During the interview, ask them to talk through their development process of one or two projects in their portfolio that you liked. By doing this, you will have better understanding of their creative process (and their character as they talk more!).

4. Money talk

Some may be able to give you a rough price and timeline estimate during an interview, however most often, they would need to take away what you told them and assess amount of effort and time they will need to put into your brief. By now, you would probably have 2-4 designers getting back to you with the quote, and only about half of them you feel that you actually “clicked” with, so bear that in mind, trust your gut feeling and don’t let the price be the only factor you consider.

When you receive the quote and timeline back, if the price is within your budget – that’s great! However if it isn’t – ask the designer if they’d be able to offer you a lower price. Some designers might be able to lower the price somewhat. Some of them might not: they might have already included the consideration that you’re a small business in the quote they’ve given you.

At this point, I would say something outrageous. Go with those designers who actually stand their ground with regards to price. Consideration is simple. If the designer has the ability to say “No” to a potential client, chances are – they don’t have a problem getting new clients who are willing to pay the price they are quoting. This should be a good indicator of a good, in-demand designer. They also gave you a non-inflated price, which means they know the value of their work – another pointer of an experienced designer. Someone who you should probably work with.

5. Spec (free) work

Don’t. Just – don’t. If this is someone who came recommended to you, someone portfolio you actually liked and whose interview you enjoyed – don’t ask them to work for free to “try them out”! Majority of self-respecting designers wouldn’t agree to that anyway. But also, would you ask an accountant to do your taxes for a year “To test the waters?”, would you ask your solicitor to file a patent on your behalf “To see how we get on?”. No. Designers are professionals and are no different.

If you are worried about giving them a multi-stage contract all at once, agree on a smaller piece of work to be delivered first and see if this is the right fit. If it isn’t – cut your losses and start the process again if needs be.

Hopefully though, by using the process described above, you’d be able to select a good designer to begin with, who will deliver the design of your dreams.

What is your advice on finding a designer? Share your tips below.