Humans are wired to see images. More than half of humans are visual learners. Our brains process visuals incredibly fast: in just 13 milliseconds.
We’ve long been visual beasts (think of the most early form of communication, hieroglyphics). But we’ve embraced that with vigor in recent years. Consider the popularity of visual media like Instagram, emojis, and YouTube. People simply aren’t reading much – they’re skimming. An eye-tracking study indicated emails were read in less than a minute. As well, visuals have gotten more advanced – considering images like infographics, which are part graphic, part text; or interactive images used on websites.
That’s what makes the visual portion of your creative process so important. You can’t just slap some fonts and colors and logos on a banner and call it good. You need to think it through, and have the visuals (picture, graphic, infographic, video, slide deck, and so forth) be an integral part of the planning process.
In today’s visual marketing world, all the elements – be they web banners, posters, or fonts – need to work cohesively to tell your story. All must be in harmony to convey the correct mood, tone, and message you want. An image needs to stir emotion and evoke reaction. Outlining those requirements and synchronizing points ahead of time can save a lot of time. Anything less won’t slide with the modern audience.
This evolution is why a creative brief is so critical.
What is a creative brief?
A creative brief is essentially a mini project plan with a creative bent. It gives the basics any project plan requires – such as the brief overview of the project, the deliverables, and the due dates. But it also gets into detail about visual elements. Phrases and words like look and feel, mood, aesthetic, and tone come in to play here.
Note: a cousin to a creative brief is a project brief. It may contain less specific design instructions, but still outline the general direction of the project and key milestones.
Why do you need a creative brief?
A creative brief is a document that helps get all of your creative players on the same page. This brief tells the artists, the photographers, the layout and graphic designers what your project is, what your goals are, and gives general look and feel direction. It is also used by writers and likely seen or signed off on by executives. It, proverbially, herds all the creative cats.
Knowing what you want up front – and documenting it – can help you address basic questions. You’ll get the administrative details out of the way, such as how many images are needed and by when. You can share examples of what you want in the finished product. All of this helps ensure the project is managed expertly and efficiently. It helps your meetings run efficiently, and eliminate back and forth time discussing angles and examples. It helps freelance designers scope projects and give you accurate quotes. And it may even help you avoid ending up on “Clients From Hell,” as an example of someone who “only knows what they want when they see it.” With a creative brief in place, you eliminate the guesswork.
The opposite is, of course, also possible. Without a brief, you leave a lot of room for assumption and interpretation. Without a brief you may go through endless rounds of revisions and field frustrating phone calls – and spend excess money and time to get things right. Marketer Mark Hadley, commenting on a lack of briefs, says: “This can leave both parties disappointed: clients may be frustrated they do not get what they want (or expect) and the designer or writer may feel their client is being difficult or indecisive.”
Aside from efficiencies and clarity, a brief can also help you look polished and buttoned up, too. This may be especially important if you are working with a new agency or client with whom you want to have continued business.
Does a creative brief kill creativity?
It’s a fair question. After all, if a brief is too tactical and decisive, there may not be much room leftover for your artist to imagine and dream. This is where I encourage you to ensure your briefs and discussions encourage ideation and creativity. Give examples of what you like (or don’t) but don’t hem in your artist to doing the design exactly that way. One tactic I encourage is for you to provide your artist with a list of adjectives or sentiments you’re trying to achieve with your campaign. Let them play a little.
But do you really, really need a creative brief?
Sure, you can proceed without a brief. Yes, the brief is an extra step. But it is a step that can save you oodles of time. And also it enables you freedom: As creator of the creative brief, you get the hall pass to use your right brain and tell your colleagues what you see as the vision for the project. You put the first stamp on the project where you get the chance to inform the tone. That’s pretty cool.
What to include on a creative brief
So now you have the backbone idea of what a brief is and why you need it, let’s get specific. Ideally, a creative brief will include the bare bone statement of what you want to achieve in the project – enough description anyone (art director, your boss, and so forth) who reads it will understand the general concept. Call it the elevator pitch, the short description, what have you. Just get a few solid notes about the idea out on the page about what this thing is. You can discuss it in more detail in follow-up meetings.
The following elements are wise to include on a creative brief:
- Project title, slug line, and due date.– This is the quick-hit. The most critical part of the brief. Put this info right at the top, in bold or red, so it is clear and no one can say they missed it
- Project overview statement– Next, include a quick sentence or two describing what the thing is and what you need. For example, “Campaign X launches in December. We need six web banners and one infographic by November 28”
- Deliverables– List how many things you need, specifically. Spell it out up front. This will help your designers and creative folks scope the work, estimate the time needed, and create an accurate project quote. Make sure it is very clear how many files your designer will be handing off. For example, if you need three variations or options for each image for revision one, say that
- Specs– Along with the number of deliverables you need, outline exactly what pixel dimensions, file weight requirements, file formats (.psd, .tif, .pdf) you need. It’s tedious but it will save time. Trust me
- Contact info– Please don’t forget this! Ideally you will list all contacts for the project – who’s in charge of final signoffs, who is managing the project day to day, who are the writers, the designers, etc. Provide email and phone numbers too. This saves everyone time in case of question or emergency
- Key messaging– Here is where you can get into more detail about the campaign. If your copywriter has already penned your campaign slogan or value proposition, include those here. If not, this is where you at minimum will include the general campaign idea and any key vocabulary will be used. This is also a great spot to include the adjectives or words that evoke the overall emotional tone of the project
- Examples– This is important! Include samples, from your own organization or others you’ve collected, to give the designer a visual cue what you are looking for. Or what you are not looking for. Obviously don’t instruct them to copy these outright, but cue them with an aesthetic or look and feel you like, and point them to the specific examples for reference
- Budget– Depending who will see this document, you may include budget information here, such as overall campaign budget, and line items for graphic design and copywriting
- Due date– Reiterate it at the end. Don’t give the team members any excuse for missing a deadline
Use a template
I’m a big believer in using templates for repeatable work. And creative briefs are an excellent candidate for such a task. I’ve created a rudimentary table template you can use as your own creative brief – just copy and paste the following into your word processing program and reference it the next time you’re assigning out a project. There are also great examples to be found on the web, and you can also download our creative brief for video projects.
Title of campaign, for example
Creative brief version # (or date) – this comes in handy if you need to update your brief, which is likely!
Project due date:
Put it here in red. Don’t forget to add the date as well as time, if that is critical (end of day, close of business, noon)
Project overview statement:
Fill in 1-2 sentences here about your project
Total assets needed:
Just list a number here – total assets. Example: 2
Web banners: 200×200, .png format
Your name, email, and phone number go here
Notes to designer:
This is where I tell a small story or list adjectives/emotions I am trying to convey. For example, we are creating a campaign about freedom and want to evoke light, flying, air.
Ask additional questions
If you want to go deeper in your exploration phase, to ensure your creative lands properly, you can get deep into the customer’s mind. What language does your audience speak? Also, what are their challenges – and how might your product be their solution?
So, do I really use a brief every time?
Honestly, no. Some projects need to be executed ASAP and there is not time for a brief. And, there are some designers with whom I’ve worked for so long we speak the same language, understand what each other needs, and can get by with bare bones such as an email that lays out the hits – when the project is due, how many assets are needed, and an example or note.
I usually skip the creative brief step only if I’m the sole person working on a project. Anytime there is more than one cook in the kitchen, I try to put together a brief – even a rudimentary one – so there is a paper trail documenting the engagement.
Follow your roadmap
When used correctly, creative briefs can be immensely helpful. They provide a roadmap to the project to help ensure deadlines are met, and they provide a written documentation of a project’s evolution that can be referenced for future audits or updates to a campaign.
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