It usually starts with a brief conversation in the hallway – or a short email: “I’d like you to design a quick brochure for my program. I have an important meeting next week and would like to have something to share and leave behind.”

Great. You bring together your team (if you’re lucky enough to have a team) to come up with new copy and an interesting design. Or you will do it yourself.

A few days later you present your shiny draft to your colleague – your internal client.

“Hm,” she responds. “You know, this isn’t quite what I had in mind. I was actually looking for something more corporate, less nonprofity. The audience I’m trying to reach is rather different from our usual one.”

Sound familiar?

Well, this happened to me at the beginning of my career more often than I’d like to admit. I thought I understood the request. I might even have talked to my internal clients before starting the copywriting and designing. But it was a very brief conversation. In hindsight it’s clear that I often neglected to ask some pretty important questions about the project.

The solution? A creative brief.

On the website of Mohawk, a North American paper manufacturer, you’ll find an excellent description of a creative brief: “In the best cases, a creative brief is a document created through initial meetings, interviews, readings and discussions between a client and designer before any work begins. Throughout the project, the creative brief continues to inform and guide the work.”

Introducing the creative brief to your internal clients

It may feel awkward when you first start out. Your colleagues may look at you strangely when you mention to them that you’d like to put together a creative brief before starting the project. It’s not how you’ve done things in the past, and it sounds like a lot of work.

Explain that it’s simply a project description. You’re putting everything on paper to make sure that you understand their needs.

Here’s how to develop a creative brief

To put together a creative brief, I would try to cover the following:

  • Start with the background. Write down what the project is about and how it fits into the larger scope of your organization’s work. You want to know why you’re taking it on.
  • Find out who the target audience is. Is there someone specific the client has in mind?
  • Clarify the call to action. What should happen after the newsletter has been read? The annual report has been received? The message has been tweeted? Is there a specific action that your internal client is hoping for? Can you measure the outcome?
  • Identify the key benefit for the target audience. What is the most important take-away? Try to write it down in one sentence.
  • Be clear on the desired tone and feel. Is it corporate or playful? Does it need to follow certain established standards such as brand guidelines? Or can you go wild?
  • Identify whether there are any mandatory elements that need to be included. What about logos of partner organizations or supporters? Social media icons? Contact information?
  • Determine whether there is additional research or other background information that could be of use. If you’re starting a writing project for a new program, you may need to have some additional information to understand what it is about.
  • Find out what format(s) the final product will take. Will it be a print project? Glossy or matte? A PDF that can be downloaded from your website? Are there any concerns about accessibility you need to keep in mind?
  • Consider how you will distribute the product. How will you get the final product into the hands of the target audience? Via email? Via Canada Post? If so, do you have the budget for postage and are there any restrictions? Do you need to design an envelope that goes with it? Is that in the budget?
  • Once we know all this – how about timelines? When do they need it? Is the deadline firm? Will there be enough time to review the draft or final proof?
  • Determine the budget. A small budget may shift a glossy brochure to a PDF.
  • Be clear on the decision points. Who needs to approve the copy? Who has final sign-off? Will anyone be on vacation or away during this time? If so, what will you do?

Yes, this is a long list. But once you’re used to the format, it becomes almost automatic. And you find that you will be more creative because you won’t have to worry any longer about designing against expectation.

Your creative brief will become a key part of your work

Once the creative brief and initial approach have been discussed and approved by you and your internal client, you’re ready to start your design or write your copy.

Using a creative brief consistently will help you stay organized and on track. You’ll be better prepared to channel your ideas into great solutions.

If you’re like me, a creative brief will become a key part of your work. Your projects will hit the mark. You will be more creative for the right reasons. And you will earn the trust and respect of your internal clients because through your work, they will be more successful!

Markus Stadelmann-Elder

Markus Stadelmann-Elder

Director of Communications at Maytree
Since arriving in Toronto from Switzerland in 1992, Markus has worked and volunteered in a number of communications roles, including leading an in-house design team at Lavalife, Toronto’s largest online dating company, and managing the communications team at Variety Village. In January 2009, Markus joined Maytree, a charitable foundation focused on reducing poverty and inequality in Canada and building strong civic communities.
Markus Stadelmann-Elder