I’ve recently been immersed in the tools and techniques of design thinking, and have rediscovered the power of a creative brief as a tool for giving gentle direction to a project. Adopting this tool also has the benefit of underscoring the creative nature of the work we do.

A creative brief is a construct out of the marketing and communication fields. It’s a document that communicates to designers the vision and parameters of a project so that they can do their magic to come up with sparkling graphics or text and conceptualize a campaign. Whether you work alone or collaborate with colleagues, you might benefit from crafting a similar document for your projects.

Some of the elements of a creative brief are fairly mundane: the background of the project, and the necessary parameters like timeline and budget, among other details. These sections should contain high-level, need-to-know bullets and not a full narrative. To me, the heart of the design brief, and the value it can provide when doing design work for learning and performance, is a section I call “Inspiration” that contains these items:

Goals and objectives. While communicating the official learning and performance objectives may be part of the task, it is just as important to articulate some of the underlying goals. Perhaps you want new hires to have a warm welcome into the organization, or you want your management team to feel real ownership for the morale and engagement of their direct reports. Articulating the deepest needs for the project is critical to having a design that achieves the visionary, sometimes less tangible goals that led to the more concrete learning and performance objectives for the project.

Intended audience. Folks who advocate for design thinking spend a lot of energy getting into the mindset and experiences of the people they are trying to serve. They use tools like personas and empathy maps to truly capture the perspective of the intended audience so they can craft recommendations that will be appealing and impactful. I find these tools to be quite useful in considering design decisions throughout the process; they are not only a good starting place, they are also important touchstones along the way.

Call to action or most important messages. This element of a creative brief forces you to consider the big idea – the core of your project. I have found that noodling on the call to action has completely transformed the focus of some of my projects. Naming performance objectives might be a part of a call to action, but it seems to me that a “call to action” is more crisp and motivational than some of our performance objectives, which can be rather clinical. It’s so easy to get caught up in the complexity of the content, and this element highlights exactly what we want people to do as a result.

The “why.” Focusing on “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) has long been a standard part of course introductions  – we take time to highlight why people would want to do (and learn) what we are asking. This isn’t about why the organization wants to move in a particular direction, it’s about what we think will move people to go there as well. A compelling “why” is critical when there are so many activities and initiatives competing for attention.

Desired tone. Here’s one we don’t often consider from the start that can be quite helpful as a catalyst for brainstorming options. What tone do we want to strike? Serious, playful, warm, clinical, calming, vibrant – there are so many different ways to go with tone. Just as importantly, the wrong tone in the project can lead to its rejection by stakeholders, so it’s important to know what you are going for up front.

Visuals and branding. Any designer who has found out too late that a client wants to use the organization’s templates and strict color schemes knows how important it is to communicate any visual or branding requirements. Even without a branding guidebook, deciding on and communicating general parameters can be helpful. Do you prefer photographs or vector diagrams? Bright colors or muted ones? Is there an important metaphor in the call to action that needs to be carried through in the visuals? Giving some up front considerations to visual look and feel is an important design consideration.

A creative brief doesn’t actually have to be a document; it can be the agenda for a brainstorming session you’re having with your team – a way of getting on the same page with the overall goals and nuances of a piece of work. Some designers might chafe at being handed a starting list like this, worrying that it will shut down their creativity. In contrast, such work up front can actually be a catalyst for creativity, and can lead to recommendations that are so on the mark that everyone is delighted.

That said, it is just as important to leave room for emergent ideas along the way. I love this quote from Design Thinking, by Nigel Cross, which points out the iterative nature of our work, including changing minds about the focus of the design:

Richard MacCormac [British architect] spoke of defining the problem through attempting solutions: “Issues which are the stuff of the thing often only come out when you try and produce a scheme, and therefore the design process defines objectives in a way in which a brief could never do…. What you need to know about a problem only becomes apparent as you’re trying to solve it.” This confirms a view that a design brief is not a specification for a solution, but the starting point for an exploration.

As I’ve been putting together my workshop on design thinking, I’ve been deliberately using design thinking tools (gotta walk the talk!). I have to say that the design brief in particular has been useful to capturing some of the ideas that swirl at the start of the project. I think I’ve often held these elements in my head, but it’s been useful to bullet-point them and check back as the project has progressed. I pass this along as food for thought for your own projects. I’d love to hear if you do something similar and how it works for you.

These resources provide more detail on the creative brief:

And, if you’re of a mind to learn more about design thinking, you can check out my upcoming workshop for ATD Education, or give me a call.