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How (not) to brief a designer. And more.


Designers are trained to think ‘outside the box’ and to empathise with the user. However, one thing we don’t do is read minds. Which might come as a surprise to some. The truth is – we rely on your brief to understand the task at hand. This usually works fine but can sometime cause issues: on one hand designers are notoriously bad at saying ‘no’ [1] and on the other, clients find it difficult to verbally describe what they want/need and often they don’t even know themselves. I was recently asked to quote for some design work. The email I received contained the following[2]:


“Hi Michel,

Thank you for taking a look at this. This should be a quick job, as I already have the concepts done up of what I want. Just to give you a bit of background of who we are – Sensorium Therapy is a spa offering Ayurvedic Massage & Spa Treatments in Belfast. If you want to have a look at my current branding it is http://www.sensoriumtherapy.com or we are also on Instagram. If you could quote me for changing of logo, not design of as I have that done (right – that makes perfect sense), website banners, icons etc. (sure – we do a lot of ‘etc.’ work). And would you be able to do a moving element for some of the work? Stop motion style. If you could give me a quote I’d appreciate it, my email is [email protected]. I need the logo, banners and icons asap, the rest can wait until next week. Thanks!”

Design and more
Design and more

The Problem

There are several issues with above email but before we get into that, let’s examine why a properly written design brief is so important for a designer[3]. The brief to a designer is what the North Star is to a sailor. Whenever we get off the path (which happens to all designers) we need a point of reference to get us back. Without a brief, this is impossible. Secondly – a good brief should include what success looks like. So when we present the final work, we can stand back and determine whether or not success was achieved and if the work is likely to add value to you as a client. It’s true that good design happens without a brief but you significantly increase the likelihood of it happening with one.


Let’s look at the content of the email. First, the sender (let’s call her Carol) assumes that the job will be a quick one. Thanks Carol – that’s really good to know as I prefer to sip flat whites and listen to podcasts instead of doing work. [4] Next, Carol drops the ‘C’ word – concept. Whoa! Carol must have already worked with a designer because there’s a concept done. This job keeps getting better and better. Every designer knows that coming up with a concept is sometimes the hardest part but on this job that’s already done, well – lucky me. All I need to do is design, apparently.[5] Finally – the list of requirements is finished with the cherry on top – ‘etc.’. Can I design ‘etc.’? Can I ever – I only specialise in ‘etc.’! Let’s look at the rest of the requirements:


Website banners – yep, I can quote for that. Quantity and dimensions would have been nice to know but I have some templates I can use to get the ball rolling. Icons – ok, I’m assuming that Carol is looking for icons for her website/website banners rather than for print, so that should be ok. Again, quantity, size and style would have been good to know but I can give her a cost based on similar work I did for another client recently. Then there’s the ‘etc.’. Which in fairness, could turn out to be nothing more than a business card. That’s a relatively small job which I could throw in for free. But the ‘etc.’ could turn out to be a photo shoot, 3D animation or a PPC campaign?


Designers use a unique set of skills coupled with experience and intuition to generate value for clients. Time is usually a large part of how the cost of their work is calculated. When we’re thrown something like an ‘etc.’ in a brief it’s often a tell-tale sign that the client doesn’t know what they want. It also tells us that the work we produce probably won’t be appreciated / valued. It makes us question the brief, the product/service and the person/business that wrote the brief [6]. Speaking of time – the deadline apparently is ‘asap’ or as soon as possible. I have no idea what ‘as soon as possible’ means to her but I’m guessing she wants it in the next few days as following that she says that the rest of the stuff, ie. ‘etc’ and the stop motion animations can wait until next week. Which is a relief – I was beginning to worry that Carol was unreasonable.


Unfortunately – I get a lot of emails like this – short, void of any relevant detail and written by people who are clearly not bound by the same rules of physics that I am. If I was smart, I’d set up an email rule to block any emails with ‘Quote for quick job’ in the subject line. But I have a problem saying no. I’m also too poor to turn away business – even from Carol. I did ask Carol for some specifics. I’m still waiting on a reply.

Another designer changing career


As designers, we’re sometimes forced to rely on intuition when producing our work. Or selecting who to work with. As soon as I received the email from Carol I knew that I didn’t want to work with her, at least not for any prolonged amount of time. I’m sure she’s an absolutely lovely person etc.

[1] which we as a community need to do more often.

[2] Names (persons and company) are fictitious.

[3] I’m writing this from the POV of a designer because that’s what I relate to, I’m sure a well-written brief is crucial in any industry

[4] And those Netflix shows won’t watch themselves.

[5] Why the concept designer didn’t do that I’m not sure.

[6] It also makes us question our career choice but that’s another post.

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