Have you ever delayed billing because there was no agreed milestone to trigger payment? And when was the last time you had a disagreement with a client about the scope of a project?

Poor briefs cost you time and money

Design Institute of Australia (DIA) research has indicated that, on average, designers are giving away one-third of their time. Improving the quality of your project briefs – their structure and detail – can improve the earning capacity of your business by reducing at least one cause of lost time.

The rare client brief

In an ideal world the client provides you with a brief at the beginning of every project. This brief is clearly written, contains the aims of the project, the background information that you’ll need to understand the scope of the job, the financial and time constraints, and a succinct list of deliverables.

In the real world you find yourself in a meeting where a number of the client’s staff seem to be inventing a loose wish list for the product on the spot. Or where the client tables a project document of which thirty pages is a legal contract and one spartan page is a broad statement about the product.

The reality for many projects is that the client does not provide a written brief. They discuss their thoughts and desires with the designer, perhaps handover some sketches or models or prior art, and then ask the designer for a quote.

More often than not the designer ends up writing the brief. However, that means it is no longer a strictly a brief (ie the client’s instructions). It now also doubles as a fee proposal or quote.

Designers sometimes express a preference for briefs that are short and relatively unconstrained. They like having freedom to interpret the project needs in the broadest way. However, if you are the one writing the brief and it has now become the basis for your contractual responsibilities, a short brief is not likely to be in your interest.

The advantages of the designer-written brief

While we all have days when we wish we didn’t have to write briefs, designers who write their own briefs are provided with significant advantages. The designer is the one who is in the best position to outline the optimum path a project should take and the milestones it should contain.

Many smaller clients, and staff of larger clients, have little or no experience of purchasing or directing professional services, and their ability to prepare a useful brief is limited. Product development is not as straightforward as asking a dentist for a quote on fillings or an accountant about the preparation of your fringe benefits tax.

In product development, unlike the building industry, there is no benchmark based on the probable construction/manufacturing cost: a product can be designed on a shoestring or made into a major research exercise. There are multiple paths that any development project can take, with vastly differing costs and time lines.

The first advantage to the designer who writes the brief is that you define the scope of work. Think clearly about the tasks you’ll need to perform, the order in which you’ll do them and the time to allow for each, as the brief serves as your quote calculation document.

A designer-written brief is also likely to be a better process document. It will be structured to suit a designer’s normal workflow and is more likely to result in an efficient project.

And obviously, if you write the brief you can ensure that the terms of the brief are not to your disadvantage – you can limit your exposure to risk, and provide yourself with the flexibility to get the best outcome.

The content of the brief

A brief is a document that defines a project by specifying the nature and extent of the work being requested and the objectives and constraints of the project. A designer-written brief will also be a quoting guide, a contractual document, a process-control document, a financial-control document and a project-review guide.

From a client perspective, a well-written brief can save money by enabling a designer to quote more accurately. It helps the client understand whether what is being proposed meets their needs, and ensures a better outcome by providing succinct information to review the project against.

From a designer perspective, a well-written brief protects the designer from misunderstandings about the work to be performed. It also helps the designer avoid unexpected overruns.

A brief should always contain:

• a summary statement of the task

• a list of the aims of the project

• a list of the major requirements that must be included in the solution

• the project stages or milestones required

• a statement of financial constraints

• a statement of time constraints

A brief may also contain:

• the reasons why the project is being undertaken

• market-research and end-user information

• previous project histories that have led to the brief

• any other information or research that will help inform the task

The myth of the lineal process

The classic brief defines design as a lineal process. It describes projects in stages and gives the impression that there are distinct stopping points. This is a source of conflict for designers, as the process of design can be far from lineal.

In projects that have outcomes and financing that allow for a flexible process the project often loops back over earlier stages as new information is gathered during the product-development process.

Even though it may not accurately indicate the process the designer will follow, using a lineal, staged approach in a brief is useful. It helps determine the amount of work that needs to be done and provides a basis for continual invoicing and cash flow. It also provides a comfortable and understandable description of the project for the client.

The quality/time/cost trade-off

A fundamental conflict between client and designer can arise from the client wanting to pay the least amount of money for the desired outcome and the designer needing to justify the time they will need to spend and how they’ll use it.

Detailing a list of tasks under each stage heading both helps the client to visualise the complexity of the project and ensures that the designer does not under-estimate the path that they’ll need to follow. The more task detail you include the more likely it is that you’ll quote accurately and the easier it will be to justify the time to the client.

Ideally, the fee proposal or brief should lead to a negotiation of project scope, cost and duration. Unfortunately, designers are often faced with competitive quoting where the first offer is taken to be their final and only position on a project. The successful tenderer is often chosen on the basis of their initial quote.

To avoid this scenario, it is valuable to table an un-costed brief and have a face-to-face meeting with the client in which the scope of work is explained and the possible trade-offs are discussed. Based on the agreements reached in this discussion you then provide a costed quote that matches the client’s priorities.

In any project there are trade-offs between what is produced, at what cost and in what time frame.

You can have high quality in a short time, but you’ll need to pay more for the resources required. In general, you can’t have a high-quality outcome in a short time for no money. This trade-off is the essence of negotiating costs and the scope of work.

Designers are often their own worst enemies. A designer’s desire to achieve the best outcome for every project is a common trap in design consulting. Designers are notorious for providing more than they’ve quoted to supply. If the client has agreed to a brief that outlines a ten-hour project then you should plan to provide the best solution available in ten hours.

Pitfalls of brief writing

Don’t over-promise – include precisely what the client requires and avoid the temptation to promise extra activities, features or constraints. Anticipate and exclude extensions – if there are foreseeable ways in which the project may diverge from the intention of your quote, make sure you document and exclude them.

For example, if you are counting on one design iteration based on a finished and tested PCB then make sure that alterations to the design based on PCB revisions are specifically excluded.

Document and cost, or exclude, external expenses – make sure it is clear who is responsible for external expenses such as prototypes and analysis services. Don’t commit to unrealistic time frames – if the client is requiring time frames that you know are unachievable refer to the quality/time/cost trade-off.

Ensure that the project can afford the resources that will be required, that the price is realistic, and that you have considered the risks to your business if time frames slip.

Avoid being responsible for project overruns that are not in your control – this is closely related to over-promising. Don’t take on responsibilities that you are not being recompensed for.

Identify and exclude activities that are not quantifiable – in product design, component and process sourcing can be lengthy processes out of all proportion to the core design time. In projects where the client is looking for the lowest possible price be sure to separate the core design tasks from sourcing and subcontracting tasks.

Other things to consider and document are time overruns by other suppliers, reworks caused by changes to brief, design iterations by other suppliers and delays in client decisions.

Structuring the brief

The content of the brief can be structured to help the client visualise the scope of work, to ensure that each aspect is costed and to isolate risk. The brief may be organised as a list of:

• stages and project milestones

• tasks, in detail and broken down by stage

• materials and external services required

• project aims

• requirements for inclusion in the solution

It may also include or take the form of:

• a list of reference documents (what did the client make available?)

• a discussion of the method to be used

• an anticipated parts list of the solution

• a scope-of-work statement

• a list of project exclusions

• a list of deliverables

• a chart of responsibilities for both client and consultant

• staff allocation for the project

• feature-based specifications

• a list of research requirements

• a list of analysis requirements

• design fees by stage

• a billing schedule

• prototyping requirements

• responsibilities for tooling sourcing and liaison

• responsibilities for production management

• general trading terms and conditions

• a project timetable

Keeping it real

Clearly the extent of the brief and the things that it attempts to document should bear some relationship to the financial value (and risk) of the project. Many studios find it good practice to have two or three standard brief structures that cater for the generic requirements of small, medium and large projects, with progressively more complex controls as the project value increases. 

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Ken Cato AO

Ken Cato AO

As an eminent designer and successful businessman, Cato has built an 
award-winning global design company over 43 years, with offices in 12 countries.