Not every client will be an expert on the design process – that’s your job. A solid creative brief makes all the difference to a job, and here’s how to get one.

Many designers have experienced the horror of a client seeing a design for the first time and then complaining, “But it’s not what I asked for”. It’s a nightmare scenario – and one that’s easily avoided by agreeing on a clear, functional brief.

Communication and a decent brief are key to ensuring that what you produce is what the client wants, giving you a better chance of scoring repeat business. They also let you relax into the assignment and show off your creative talents. Here’s our guide to help ensure that you and your client are on the same page layout.

Get a full creative brief
“There’s nothing worse than a woolly brief, unless you have total artistic freedom,” says illustrator Tom Bagshaw,

Perfect clients will provide you with either a concept they want executed, or a description of what your work needs to communicate, and who it’s aimed at. You’ve got to know their expectations before you can meet them.

It’s crucial to have a clear view of what the client wants before you begin any work on the project. Interrogating your client may seem impolite, but sometimes that’s what it takes to extract the information you need.

Confirm the deliverables
It’s easy to spend ages with a client locking down the creative brief – that’s the fun part, where you’re generating ideas to solve their problems. It’s easy to forget to also lock down the technical side of what you’re being asked to produce.

What are its dimensions? What format do they need it in? How will it be used? You don’t want to end up like famed designer Paul Rand, who had to redesign the logo for energy corporation Enron after the company complained that, as a substantial part of his much-lauded original was in yellow, it disappeared when it was faxed.

Find out the real deadline
You’ve worked all night on Wednesday to finish a project for a long-term client that “Must be done for first thing Thursday”– then you find out it wasn’t needed for days later, but they wanted to allow for slippage time. Sounds familiar? “I’ve given up social events in order to meet ‘last-minute’ deadlines that never actually existed,” says book designer David Pearson

“This is a trick often adopted by panicked staff, eager to ensure that they’re not the ones left holding the baby. Once you’re aware of this, a huge amount of trust disappears and you’ll feel much less inclined to take future ‘urgent’ requests seriously.”

Preventing clients from doing this is tricky – especially if you haven’t worked with them before – but in long-term design relationships, try to build up enough trust that your client knows they can rely on you without the comfort blanket of a fake early deadline.

Don’t try to create what’s in the client’s head
A client who knows exactly what they want can be great to work with – unless their knowledge includes a pin-sharp mental image of the end result, too.

“When a client has such a perfect idea of what they want in their head,” says Bagshaw, “you’re unable to use your skill to interpret the brief. There needs to be some room to manoeuvre and come up with something that’s going to work well.”

Instead, discuss the client’s ideas and needs with them so you can understand how they came to what they see in their head, and then put your own spin on it.

Get it in writing
With regular clients, it’s easy to develop a belief that you know exactly what they want. However, unless a job is a direct replica of a previous commission, it’s still worth discussing each brief with your client over the phone or in person, in case what they say isn’t exactly what they mean.

While it’s easy for them to say, “Oops, that should have said...”, it can take a substantial amount of time for you to change your work. Phone or email before you start on the job,” says Bagshaw.

“If the brief is still a bit loose, you need to at least nail down a reasonable budget.” Before you get stuck into the project, though, you should have the budget – including when and how each payment is due – locked down in writing.

Modify the brief
A hopeless or unrealistic brief can cause major headaches – both while you’re working on it and when you’re dealing with the inevitable unhappy client afterwards.

Faced with an unrealistic or overly woolly brief, it’s vital to convince the client to adjust the brief into a form that you can deliver on, both creatively and technically. This can be tricky: avoid giving the impression that you know what they want better than they do, know more about their area of business, or are just trying to make things easier for yourself. Arrogance – or the impression of it – can rapidly spoil a relationship with a client quickly.

Approach open briefs with caution
A truly open brief is a rare thing, but you should know how to react to one when offered. There’s no right approach here. Some creatives love the freedom of an open brief, while others find them scarily vague.

Bagshaw says that his ideal brief is, “Here’s a rough idea of what we want, other than that you have free rein to do what you like,” while Pearson says, “A completely free brief leaves you feeling like there is no problem to solve, and so you run the risk of merely projecting your personality onto the work.”

If you’re in the latter camp, you don’t necessarily have to turn down an offer: probe the client to discover more about the project’s message, aims and target audience, to create some boundaries to work within. Often what is touted as an ‘open brief’ turns out to be rather more restricted than it first appears.

Talk about the money
Most creatives will agree that there’s never a good time to discuss the budget for a project, but you need to ensure at all stages of a project that you’re getting paid in direct proportion to the effort and hours you’re putting in.

“If it’s not actually stated in the brief, someone needs to bring it up over the phone or email before you start on the job,” says Bagshaw. “If the brief is still a bit loose, you need to at least nail down a reasonable budget.” Before you get stuck into the project, though, you should have the budget – including when and how each payment is due – locked down in writing.

Know when to say no
Many creatives are afraid to knock back work, for fear it won’t be offered again. However, there are times when you have to say no – for example, when you’re too busy to deliver a really good job.

Promising the Earth and then failing to deliver can ruin a good business relationship. There are times when an otherwise inspiring brief has elements that make you want to howl at the heavens in frustration, but if you can work around them and complete the brief successfully, usually this is no reason to turn down a commission.

The red flags vary from discipline to discipline. Pearson says: “Many authors have out-of-work family members who are also ‘amazing’ artists and their work simply has to be incorporated into their cover. There’s no easy way to deal with this situation.”

Meanwhile, Bagshaw recommends that designers “Turn down anything that’s morally objectionable to you – if you don’t like the subject or what it’s promoting.”

A brief checklist

An ideal client brief includes most – if not all – of the following:

  • An outline of the project’s goals.
  • A specification of exactly the deliverables needed.
  • A measurable objective (eg to promote the brand, or increase sales by ten per cent).
  • The primary target audience – this should include age, gender and so on.
  • The key message.
  • An outline of the tone and any specific visual goals.
  • The budget – both for the whole project, and how much you will be paid.
  • A full schedule, including approval stages and the final deadline.
  • Details of the process: your point of contact, the approval process and sign-off.

Illustration: Jorge Restrepo