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Posted 1 Jan 2014

The Design Brief or Specification Document

, 1 Jan 2014
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Design professionals are susceptible to the same assumptions and biases as the rest of us.

Red Cell Innovation Inc. helps our clients solve business problems with technical solutions, from custom machinery to e-commerce.

When creating a new software application, website, or mobile app for a small business, often some creative materials such as a logo, web design, or user-interface is required, and it’s time to reach out to design professionals.

Where to Start

Before asking one or more designers to submit designs, time should be taken to write a solid design specification, sometimes called a design brief or creative brief. The quality of designs received will be reflective of the quality of the brief.

The art of the brief is to give enough information to inspire the designer without inadvertently planting an idea that will limit or bias his or her creativity.

Writing a Brief

An Introduction

Explain what is being designed, and possibly why. How will it be used, and by whom? From where are we starting, and what does the finish line look like?

Be as specific as possible e.g. “a logo for business cards and envelopes”, or “a control panel for a monitoring station”.

About the Client

Introduce the client and the nature of the client’s business. Consider concealing the client’s identity. This is not for fear that the designer will contact the client, but rather that he or she may encounter information that could steer the design in the wrong direction; for example seeing an old logo or web design that the client hates.

Tell the designer about the brand, especially if one has been well established. What colours does the client’s logo contain? Include any pertinent details about the client’s industry and even its competitors.

A design brief can alleviate unexpected results.Constraints

List all established constraints to avoid wasted time. Stating that a website design must be high-contrast for accessibility, or no wider than 960 pixels will allow the designer to focus on only what is practical.


Brief the designer on the goals and target market for this design. Provide any available demographics if applicable.

Are there colours, or colour palettes to adhere to or to avoid? Or other traits, like “the client likes/hates rounded corners”. Choose your words carefully. Mentioning that the client hates rounded corners will help eliminate those designs before we even start, but saying that the client likes them could result in 25 designs, each with round corners.

“I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it” is a surprisingly common paradox.  What values, feelings, or messages should the design convey? Are there themes to consider or avoid. Consider using metaphors or comparisons to express intangible traits. “Like that Mac guy in the Apple ad, but less of a jerk”, “more like the Beatles than the Rolling Stones”, or “smokes dope, but doesn’t inhale”.


Provide sources of inspiration. This should be as varied as the expectation of diversity.

If “the Victoria’s Secret website” is the only source mentioned, you will probably receive something that resembles the Victoria’s Secret website. If five different clothing websites are specified, each having its own style, the designer will be forced to get a sense of the client’s preference without fixating on one particular style.

If possible, detail about what or why the client likes about each: the typography of one site, the mood of another, the proportions of a third. Make note of any exceptions: “love the colours but it feels claustrophobic”.


Supply any elements that each design must include. If placeholders are to be used, they should resemble their final content in colours and proportions. For graphic design, supply any text that will certainly be present such as phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Request that any paragraph text be greeked, or direct them to so that evaluators will not be distracted by content.

If designs will/should contain photographs, markings, or drawings, supply a collection of images that the designer is allowed to use and make it clear that other images are not allowed. This keeps the designer focused on layout instead of image selection and likewise enables the client to focus on the designs instead of the photographs.

Evaluation is another topic, but whether the design will be evaluated and decided by committee, the boss, end-users, or third-parties, avoiding any possible biases or influences now, will avoid headaches later.

Design professionals of all media, be they graphic, architectural, interior, or industrial are susceptible to the same assumptions and biases as the rest of us. Approaching the task of procuring creative services methodically ensures miscommunication and unnecessary billed hours.


  1. First published in Moving Business Forward (Winter 2013).
  2. Photograph © 2012 Ron Harvey, used under license. Reproduction or redistribution is prohibited.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

Yvan Rodrigues
Systems Engineer Clearpath Robotics
Canada Canada
Yvan Rodrigues has 25 years of experience in information systems and software development for the industry. He is Senior Systems Developer at Clearpath Robotics

He is a Certified Technician (C.Tech.), a professional designation granted by the Institute of Engineering Technology of Ontario (IETO).

Yvan draws on experience as owner of Red Cell Innovation Inc., Mabel's Labels Inc. as Manager of Systems and Development, and the University of Waterloo as Information Systems Manager.

Yvan supports open-source software. He is a committer for SharpKit (C# to Javascript cross-compiler) and WebIssues (Issue/Ticket Management System), TinyMCE (JavaScript editor), and contributes to MySQL, Ghostscript, iTextSharp, Bacula, FreeBSD, and Xamarin.

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Comments and Discussions

QuestionVery good article! Pin
Volynsky Alex3-Jan-14 6:51
memberVolynsky Alex3-Jan-14 6:51 

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