How to write a 3-line design brief

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As a brand builder, all the ideas in your head mean nothing until they become alive in the world. And one of the most critical conduits between your brain and the world is a design brief. For the uninitiated, a design brief is the instruction manual you provide to a designer who is going to figure out what your product or packaging is going to look and feel like. Design briefs tend to be cumbersome things, but they shouldn’t be.

It’s not uncommon to see design briefs three or four pages long. They’ll be filled with company values, opportunities, strengths, ambitions, and “personality” of the company or product. I’d put most of this in the bin.

Let me explain.

One of the most important jobs we have, strategically as brand builders, is to make sure whatever creative magic is produced by designers is the right kind of creative magic. So we often mistake thinking the more information, insight and knowledge on a brief, the better. It’s an easy mistake to make.

None of those values, personalities, attitudes, matter unless the brand communicates these things about the person using it. A design brief is not about the brand. It’s about the brand being a symbol for the person who buys the product.

Two questions to unlock your design brief

  1. What does buying/using this brand/product say about a person - what does it represent/symbolise?
  2. How do specific design elements help communicate that to others?

You should know exactly what you want a product, packaging, app, or retail store to say about a person. You should also know exactly what type of person you’re selling to.

What does the bottle of beer say about a person when it’s sitting on his table? What does the carrier bag say about his life? What does it mean to wear that jacket? Or ride that bike? Or eat that ready-meal? What does it say about a person if you use that typeface on your app that posts to Instagram? If it’s not crystal clear what the design says about him, or if what it represents is the wrong thing, the design just won’t fly.

Product and packaging design usually goes wrong not when it’s “ugly”, but when it’s unclear. If it’s confusing, or doesn’t fit with all the other cues the brand sends out, a design will struggle.

Preparing a brief

As you hone your brief down, your thought-process might look like this.

  • Based on what we know of the commercial opportunity, who do we think the customer is, or who do we want him/her to be? What does it feel like to be that person?
  • What might they feel the need to communicate about themselves or the tribe they wish to belong to? Maybe they need to feel adventurous or worldly. Maybe they need to feel sophisticated, like an inventor, or perhaps down-to-earth and approachable. The list is infinite, but treat this “need to feel” as an itch they think your brand can best scratch. In your customer’s head, when he puts on your watch, he might want to feel transformed into a Jason Bourne, a fantasy he lives out (in his head) on his boring daily commute into the city.
  • What is true about the history/reality of your company/product that might align with those customer needs?
  • What is our brand's unique point of view on the activity our customers engage in using our product(s)? How is our design proof of our values/worldview?
  • What specific design elements might exemplify your customer's self-descriptors? It might be specific colours, patterns, fonts, features, the simplicity or complexity. Everything communicates something. What specifically communicates the right things?
  • Visual Authenticity: Does your company already have visual, narrative, or written assets (hidden away in archives?), we can adapt that communicate the right thing?

Briefing it in

Your 3-line design brief looks like this:

  1. Objective: Transform this brand into a visual symbol of _____ for our target customers, who are ______ .
  2. Using our product is a symbol of our customers’ self-image _____, demonstrating they most value _____, and are recognisably part of _____ tribe.
  3. The key design elements (style, features, tone, inspiration from) that communicate this are ______, ______, and ______.

Then add the design’s functional needs and your practical deliverables. Now, you have a design brief.

When it comes to briefing designers, I’ve found it very effective to write this 3-liner, use inspiring visuals (but never from the same product category) and then have a series of ongoing conversations with my team about their approach to answering it. Often, explaining what a design is NOT is just as useful as explaining what it should be. Don’t try to share everything you know in a brief. Hone down the things that matter, which, in a blink of an eye, a customer will decide is either for them, or not.

Case Example: Machines for Freedom


I'm a big fan of the cycling clothing brand Machines For Freedom (check them out, they're pretty awesome), in part because they seem to have a very clear point of view on cycling, who their customer is and what the brand represents. I haven't worked with them, but I'd guess a MFF design brief might look something like this: 

  1. Objective: we must be the most powerful symbol for what it means to be a modern, strong woman on a bike. 
  2. Using this product [for this functional purpose] is a symbol of our customers' self-image as being a powerful independent spirit, flying in the face of tradition. It must demonstrate that she values feeling highly feminine and fierce, being contemporary and forward-thinking. It must help her look recognisably a part of her tribe of young modern feminist women who champion each other. 
  3. The key design elements that communicate this: the fit must be form-flattering, polished (shine?), a complex mix of contemporary art and music (leather?) and unapologetically feminine references (i.e. crystals, flowers, etc) avoiding falling into the trap of looking "girly". 

Obviously, this might not be exactly right for MFF, but it should give you a sense of the kind of wording you might be looking for applying your own thinking, your own customers, and other category products.

    What do your design briefs look like? Please join the discussion in the comments!