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Rules of the Game: 5 Common Creative Brief Mistakes to Avoid

November 20, 2017

In the game Dungeons and Dragons (or D and D for short), the person with the plan is known as the dungeon master. He or she creates what's called a dungeon master's guide, which creatively steers the game while adhering to certain boundaries. That, minus the sorcery, orcs, and dragons, is basically the creative's role in product development.

Contrary to what you might think, the brief's boundaries are what gives it power. With just enough structure to guide the creative process but not so much as to quash it, a creative brief tells product designers and developers what brand standards and project requirements they must adhere to while creating the product. Just as the rules of a game tell players how to play and win, the creative brief shares the core challenges, priorities, and goals of the brand.

For individuals like designers and developers who may not be involved in stakeholder decisions, the creative brief is essential. Designers need to know what interfaces and graphics are out of bounds, while developers need to know timelines and resource goals to plan product development.

The person overseeing those designers and developers, likely the firm's most senior creative — should be the one to draft the brief. Alternatively, an outside firm can create the brief for brands with relatively inexperienced creative staff.

Common Creative Brief Blunders

Just as each television show has a creative bible and every political party has a platform, your brand absolutely needs a creative brief before it sets sail on product development. But creative briefs are easy to botch — and even easier to forget about entirely, so watch out for these five creative brief mistakes:

1. Skipping the brief

The cardinal sin of creative briefs is not having one at all. If you’ve created a logo — which basically all brands have — then the next step should be crafting a creative brief.

A creative brief will save time and money down the road. During the design process, so many decisions are made that designers can’t consult company leaders at every crossroads. Creatives must choose colors, fonts, writing styles, and imagery — all of which the creative brief should specify guidelines for.

2. Failing to do your homework

Once you’ve started a creative brief, it’s time to dig. You need to understand your target market. You need to ensure your look is distinct from competitors. You need to know what fonts, colors, and styles are trending. The purpose of this research is to climb into your customers’ heads to find out what makes them smile or frown.

To understand why research matters in creative briefs, check out Zendesk. The customer service software brand initially used colorful illustrations and happy gradients to stand out from its competitors. That worked well until 2007, at which point Zendesk’s look started to blend in with numerous other 2000s-era startups. It chose to rebrand with minimal (but unique) shapes and muted colors. Zendesk’s research drove both its initial design and its decision to evolve, and the result was beautiful.

3. Going through the motions

Years ago, my father told me the value of college depends on the amount of effort I put in. That’s absolutely true, too, for creative briefs. The document’s strength hinges on how much thought goes into its preparation, so it’s essential to build your brief by considering design choices that may need to be made down the road.

I’ve worked with busy founders who delegated creative brief decisions and were later unhappy with the design outcomes. If you’re not going to put in the effort to make your creative brief a comprehensive, well-crafted document, then you might as well not have one.

4. Ignoring the brief

Once you’ve built a creative brief, it’s important to respect it. If a designer turns in work that deviates from the brief, establish good habits by asking him to redo the work so it’s consistent with the brief.

The creative brief can and should be revised occasionally. Logos change, brands undergo face-lifts, and fonts go out of style. Review the brief with company stakeholders every six months to a year to ensure the brief isn’t leading designers astray from brand standards.

5. Copying another company’s style

The importance of brand research shines through with this mistake. Research not only helps you to reach your target market, but it also helps you avoid the awkward situation of your design looking eerily similar to someone else’s.

Look no further than the logo similarities for the now-defunct company Path and the very-much-alive Pinterest. A design mistake that visible is going to draw the kind of attention you’d rather avoid. To ensure your logo isn’t a look-alike, consult the folks at dribbble.com. Most designers I know have the site bookmarked, meaning they see nearly every new and noteworthy logo and can quickly spot copycats.

Like the creative brief’s branding choices, a game of D&D should be unique but also in line with players’ expectations. But unlike playing D&D, crafting a creative brief can significantly benefit the bottom line. Because it saves time and money that would otherwise be wasted on design detours, the creative brief is a quest well worth taking.

If creative briefs are new to you or if your brief isn’t serving its purpose, check out Yeti strategy director Tim Shipman’s blog post “How to Write a Creative Brief That Doesn’t Handcuff Development,” and contact us if you’re still unsure where to start.

is a Yeti Alum. Previously, Josh co-founded Collective Ray, a design consulting company that created user interfaces for web and mobile applications. He’s also served as a partner at Sourcebits and as a developer for Method.
 A dog owner, bicyclist, and yoga enthusiast, Josh graduated in 2009 from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale with a degree in web design and interactive media. His tools of choice are JavaScript, Git, Xcode, and Sketch. Follow Josh on Twitter.

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