It’s a sad fact that the biggest problem freelancers face, is disagreements with a client once a project has started.

It seems — judging by the amount of problems overheard by complaining designers — is that terms, changes, direction, and payments more often than not become roadblocks to a smooth and successful working relationship, usually ending what could be a continuing relationship between the freelancer, and client.

There is a simple, logical, and professional way for both parties to understand each other with complete transparency. Unfortunately, it’s a step many creatives skip.


Where do most creatives stand on paperwork?

According to a recent survey, 39% of designers don’t require clients to sign on the dotted (or any) line, to take on a project. It’s a fairly safe assumption that a formal creative brief is another form most creatives don’t use.

The same survey reveals that creatives prefer clients who know what they’re looking for at the outset of their design project, and score points with designers. 51% of designers surveyed consider that one of the most important characteristics in a client.

The opportunity to be creative, and design something cool motivates 62% of designers to take on a project, compared to 48% who are swayed by fat paychecks and just 6% who consider a client’s prominence key.

48% of designers say the lack of helpful feedback is among their biggest challenges in working with clients, while 42% point to clients’ lack of direction, and 25% indicate unrealistic expectations as major obstacles.

With all of this in mind, how can a designer, or design staff, achieve all of these, and protect their rights, and sanity? The answer is a creative brief.


Why a creative brief solves problems

Ask someone to sign a contract, and they will usually have a reason as to why they don’t want to sign. A contract contains hard, and fast rules of the business end of a project. The length of execution, change fees, payments and rights of use are some of the elements spelled out in a contract. With careful wording, a creative brief can hold all of that information, too!

When first sitting down in the office, or conference room of a client, or meeting of the different players in your company, it’s time to start taking notes on what is said, asking certain questions, and… setting requirements, and boundaries.


At one firm, which was a very large corporation, we would all sit down in the conference room for a project meeting. Each department head would listen to the project scope, and desired results. Like a puzzle, each step depended on every department meeting the milestones set so the next department could pick up there, and supply the needed elements only they could provide, and so on around the company until it fell upon the art department.

If one department took too long with their part, like a tower with a missing part in the middle, the project would start to tumble down. Unfortunately, it would always be the art department that would be crushed under the weight of the steel beams of incompetence, supplied by other departments.

The creative brief, written up, and sent out by the art department served to hold people responsible. In regular meetings during the project, it made it easier to ask other departments where they stood on their milestones, and why, inevitably, they were late. With a sympathetic, and strong project leader, responsibility, and meeting deadlines will make sure that creatives won’t have a week to create the final project when other departments were to take only two weeks out of a two-month project.

It seems that at most companies this is the standard operating procedure. It’s rare that a project manager can or will keep tight reign on milestones. It’s even more rare that there’s a professional project manager at companies. Usually, someone will be assigned as a project manager, and they might not have enough experience, or the corporate level to demand strict adherence to milestones on a project. In a corporate setting, this usually leads to problems with getting a project done on time. In a freelance situation, your time is your money, and when you end up either working an extra week, or so on a flat fee, trying to charge for extra hours, or working an extreme rush to make a deadline, it’s a losing situation for you, and can lead to a project that probably won’t be your best work. In the end you’ll get the blame, and although unfair, well… welcome to business!

So, how do you protect your reputation, income potential, and show yourself to be a valuable vendor to a client, or a competent project manager to your corporate boss? Start with a clear, and concise creative brief, and an iron fist! If written correctly, the information you include will leave no stone unturned and, no question unanswered. It’s not really hard.

In the long run, a complete, and clear creative brief promotes transparency for all parties, and that is one of the things clients appreciate in a creative project, where they don’t fully understand the creative process.


How to get started

The computer did not, as promised, make us a paperless society. Digital communications added to the lack of memory people have. Computers, in a big way, replaced our ability to remember, and store information in our own brains. An example is when a client doesn’t remember you saying something on an email, like asking to be paid, or trying to find out why the three-day period for a decision on final designs has taken 17 months.

Organization is the key. When I first started my design career, working both freelance, and on staff, I would create a job folder for each, and every assignment, and project. I started by labeling the folder, and then having a short creative brief written on the outside of the folder. It listed the following:

  • Name of the project.
  • Date I received it.
  • Date the project was due.
  • Who was involved in the project, their names, phone numbers/extensions, email addresses.
  • Milestones for materials needed from these people.
  • From there, as the project proceeded, I would write down notes of what was happening on a daily basis.
  • Were we on time?
  • Were there requested changes, and by whom?
  • What milestones were missed, and by whom?
  • When files were delivered, and to whom.

Within these file folders, I placed all printouts of the design stages, emails from other departments/people, and anything else that pertained to the project. Most of my bosses commended me for “knowing where the project was at any time.”

At one employer, where incompetence was encouraged through rampant Peter Principle, I was told my file folders, “made people nervous.”


Of course people were nervous; it held people accountable. It’s not that the folders were set up to embarrass people… well, I admit that it was a part of it because the blame-game was big at that firm, and I had to protect myself from the lying finger-pointers, which really infuriated them to no end, but it was also the only way to keep a 100% on time delivery record.

The plain fact is that these folders were invaluable to juggle what was sometimes two-dozen projects going on at once. Multitasking is nothing more than being organized, and there are tools one can use for that organization. The “Folders of Evidence, and Blame,” as my boss referred to them, were invaluable.

While these were somewhat private creative briefs for myself, it’s best, when managing a project, especially on a freelance basis, to have a written brief for everyone to retain for their own folders, if they have one.


Creating a brief


I’ve looked at other creative briefs available on the web and frankly; I’m not impressed with what I saw. The examples available didn’t cover enough to really let the client know all of the steps nor did it cover the creative’s end of the project. Here’s a brief that you can use as a template for your next project:


Client/Client contact information:

Name, phone number, and email address for the person or the team on the client side.


Title of project

Prepared by:

Name, phone number and email address for the person who is responsible for in-house project management.


Detailed description of EVERYTHING that needs to be done! Include absolutely everything you can think of that will be included so any scope creep can be billed separately.


Start time: Date goes here.

Client delivers images/logos for brochure, web banner, and web site. All proofread copy delivered by client.

1st Milestone:

Sketches for design of all components – (set date).

Client revisions/approval by (set date).

Revised sketches delivered by (set date).

Client revisions/approval by (set date).

*Further revisions will change milestones. Adjusted brief will be resubmitted to client.

2nd Milestone:

Second stage design – (set date).

Client revisions/approval by (set date).

Revised images delivered by (set date).

*Further revisions will change milestones. Adjusted brief will be resubmitted to client.

3rd Milestone:

(Set date)

Presentation of completed designs to client for viewing/approval.

*Further revisions will change milestones. Adjusted brief will be resubmitted to client.

4th Milestone:

(Set date)

Uploading, or delivery to printer (set date).


Fee: $ (total fee for project)

Deposit: $ (set fee – should be one-third to half of total fee). Deposit due at start time.

1st Milestone: $ (percentage of total fee)

2nd Milestone: $ (percentage of total fee)

3rd Milestone: $ (percentage of total fee)

4th Milestone: $ (*ideally, this should be the final percentage of the entire fee for the project)

* Changes beyond the first round (further changes) will be billed separately at a rate of $ (set hourly rate) per hour.


Client purchases all rights to design/copyright for work rendered. Transfer of copyright is contingent upon full payment.


This, of course, is just the basics as an example. The more you list, going into the smallest details, the more you will protect yourself against “misunderstandings” as the project proceeds. The biggest problem with any project is the “but I said…” or “I thought this would be…” and the ever popular, “I thought we were going to add this?”

While a contract spells out rights, payments, and promises kept only through legal wording, a creative brief shows all parties how the project will proceed, and, most importantly, how payments will be made. With a contract, people may see it at the beginning of the project, but won’t look at it again until you are threatening to sue them for breaking your agreement. The creative brief reminds people every step of the way that you won’t work for free, excessive changes will cost more.

Still, a creative brief may need to include the demographics of the customer/target audience. Although I haven’t experienced it myself, I have heard from other designers about clients who set the design standards of a project, but later complain that the work doesn’t reflect their consumer base.


Make the language clear

One example I can relate about a language misunderstanding was a company president who kept using the word, “sophisticated” for a design project. With every design sketch, she would say, “No, no, no! I want sophisticated!”

After eleven attempts at “sophisticated,” I finally asked her to show me some examples of what she liked, and I would take it as inspiration. After she pointed out a few examples, I realized she was wrong, and severely nuts! What she really wanted was something whimsical. This is a great, and painful, example of miscommunication, and how much work just one word — one descriptor can cause. I was on staff at the company so it wasn’t as big of a deal as if it was a freelance assignment, which would have been a disaster if it were a flat fee. It was just an extreme waste of time, and a tick that showed up on my annual performance review as, “failed to satisfy the president’s wishes in eleven rounds of changes.”

This is yet something else that needs to be included in the creative brief. Words can be misinterpreted, or misused. Sometimes people use their hands to describe what they want, moving them up, and down, and sideways to specify size, layout, or “sophistication.” Your job, as the creative lead, is to pull out from the odd babbling what it is they really mean, and place it into the written brief so there are no extra rounds of design that cut into your fee, or take you away from other projects.

Demographics are another important point to clarify for the creative brief. Who is the intended audience? The answer might be “everybody,” and it might be “18-28 year-old men who live in their parent’s basement.”

Remember to ask these questions so when you are ready to write up your brief to present to the client, there will be no holes that might trip up the project down the road. If there are any holes, or misunderstandings, the time… and money, will come out of your end, and that can add up over a year to thousands of dollars.


When trouble arises

Anyone who tells you they have never had a problem with a design project is either a liar, or a psychotic. There are projects that run up against certain questions either during, or after a project is complete. Usually it’s getting paid when a client questions how much work has actually been done, and why the project costs more then $79.


Seriously, we laugh at that statement but we all know it to be true. In cases where you must sit down with the client, and go over all aspects of the project, and show proof of requests, changes, and costs incurred by you, the folder will hold all of the answers. Naturally, the client might not agree that the answer they sent in an email, telling you that all designs are approved is really what they meant, but that leads to another avenue — court.

If you are forced to go to court or mediation, the project folder is a legal dream — maybe an orgasm! Everything in writing, in one place and ready to present as the record of each step. Even if you have no contract (you should have one!), the project folder, and the creative brief will show intent, agreement, and steps taken to complete the project.

You will also find that creative briefs are handy for repeat clients. In web design, it’s important to retain clients to service their ever-changing web needs. As technology evolves, and companies grow, the original creative brief serves to remind you of how the client prefers to work with you. Reviewing past project files, and briefs can also remind you when it’s time to contact a client to pitch updates to their site. It’s a wonderful tool that’s valuable to your business. So, run out to your local office supply store, buy some file folders, design a creative brief sheet with your logo on it, and you’ll see how easy a great creative brief, and project folder can make your life and business.


Do you use a creative brief? Has it helped your projects? Let us know your experiences in the comments.

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