How to Write a Design Brief in Pictures and Songs

Posted By on May 8, 2013

One is the Loneliest Number in Any Design Brief

A creative or design brief has to reduce all the things that could be said into the ONE SINGLE THING that is most important. Lots of product managers and marketing managers and client types try to wangle two or even three (!!!) points into the brief, as if more is better. It’s not a pig in a poke.

One is the loneliest number because it’s darned hard to reduce all the things that could be said to the one that will make a difference.

Go ahead. Listen to the song. One main thing is all you get to say in any communication.

Go ahead. Listen to the song. One main thing is all you get to say in any communication.

A design tip for the person responsible for designing the brief: in addition to limiting the maximum length of a brief to one page, I recommend limiting the maximum character count of the creative strategy statement to 100 characters, perhaps shown in 30 point type. A character count will force the author of the brief to keep it short; bumping up the size of the font will remind both creative team and reviewers what the brief boils down to.

Do this and you’ll never have to scratch through a Three Dog Night.

The Target Audience Should Answer The Who

Show the creative team visually who you want to talk to.

Show the creative team visually who you want to talk to.


A design or creative brief always identifies the target audience that your landing page, blog post, web banner, or You Tube video project is aimed at. I like to picture the target by bringing in images of say, the wanna-be-gnarly 55+ Harley-Davidson motorcycle buyer, fat gut and all, who remembers the lyrics to every song by The Who.

Tell Me What’s Wrong

In account executive speak, this section of a design brief is often called “the situation” or “the problem we are trying to solve.” Give your team insight into the customer’s problem and they’ll figure out a clever way to solve it. In my post on how to use Pinterest to write a creative brief, I show the female buyer of Starbucks Via coffee at retail with a picture of a woman standing in front of a grocery shelf of a gazillion instant coffee brands. The problem the packaging had to solve was how to make Via stand out in a sea of choices.
I like the Mighty Diamonds reggae version of Tell Me What’s Wrong.

The Objective or Purpose Says “What Do You Want From Me?”

Every brief needs a simple sentence that tells the team what you want the customer to think, feel or do. It’s almost always an action. In business speak, the objective or purpose section might read, “We want our bank customers to download a new mobile app that lets them make purchases safely online.” I am surprised that I like Adam Lambert’s version of What Do You Want From Me? :-)

End a Design Brief with Support and Sacred Cows

Include all the major copy points, the rational and emotional reasons why your target audience ought to act, along with links to any consumer insight or relevant research. Be sure to spell out what we used to call “sacred cows”; these are the mandatories like “find room for all the affiliate logos” or “avoid wordplay because this has to work globally” or whatever. I haven’t shot any cows lately, so you’ll have to imagine hearing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with my bucking bronc photo.

bucking bronco at rodeo

I give you my horse since I don’t have a sacred cow handy. Just put in the mandatories in a creative brief and no one will will get hurt. Photo Copyright 2011 Cynthia Hartwig

Cynthia Hartwig

PS I have always admired Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian, and his no BS views on communication. Here’s an example of his perfect brief. Weigh in on what you think makes a great brief and what song titles I’ve missed.