The 4 Parts of Every Creative Brief

September 2, 2020
“I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”
— Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917)

This quote is attributed to many sculptors, such as Michelangelo, Picasso, and others when asked how they create such beautiful pieces of art. I have always believed this response applies to the design process as well. But how does a designer know what they don’t need?

A design project is a lot like building furniture from Ikea with only the instructions. You have these instructions and know what you are going to build; chair, bookshelf, table, etc. or in the designer’s case; logo, ad campaign, website, infographics, etc. The project starts with only a document that in some capacity describes the desired end result and what is needed along with way. The designer then creates or determines what particle board shape or photograph is correct.

For the designer that set of instructions is the creative brief. This is a set of answered questions that are the guiding light to verify if a project is creatively on target. Creative briefs come in a variety of forms or formats. I have seen some creative briefs that are two pages and others that are approximately 4 sentences. Sometimes these documents are approved by the client and others they are strictly internal. These questions will be answered in a variety of ways and I have seen many different sets of questions used to determine the creative brief from different agencies/companies. The questions asked and the answers provided greatly determine the outcome of each project. Regardless of which creative brief approach is used, four categories of information are always covered; background, audience, message, and objective. Each category covers different questions and impacts the project’s success.


Knowing who you are is the most important thing in business and that is especially true when investing in visual communication or marketing. You are asking someone else to speak on your behalf and they need to know who you are. This set of questions wants to know about your company or organization, the past, present and future. The basic “What you do and why do you do it.” But also its history and how that has set the stage for the current situation. Determining and understanding your company’s competition helps establish or strengthen your unique selling point within your market. For many projects, short-term and long-term goals are addressed as they help assist the design strategy.

The Audience

No matter what type of visual communication we are making, we need to know to whom the message will be targeted. Essentially, know your audience.  These questions determine the audience’s demographics or psychographics. These two categories cover just about everything. Demographics is statistical and measurable data that can be gathered without complicated surveys such as; age, gender, location, income level, ethnicity, home ownership, disabilities, education level, employment status, and marital status, etc. Psychographics are the values, opinions, attitudes, beliefs, interests, activities and lifestyle of a person or group. Knowing your audience is key. Once your audience is determined and personas are created, another set of questions identify your audience’s history and involvement with your company.

The Message

The target audience is identified but what is the message? The messaging portion of a creative brief is similar to the objective but specific to what the audience should think. This needs to describe the point of the visual communication effort but should not create the final message.  The message is typically high-level and straightforward. For a music festival, the advertising message might be something like “Live music on the beach with today’s top artist”, “30th anniversary of history internal music festival” or “Where food and music meet.”

Why should they believe this message? Will they believe it? The credibility of the message and your company will be addressed if challenges exist. This is determined by your audiences’ history with you and their current opinion of you. Be honest. If they are incredulous, that is a different messaging strategy than if people already know and love what you do. If you have messaging out there and your audience is familiar with it, or still don’t believe it, that is helpful. The visual communication can reinforce the message or reiterate a previous statement.

What is the main take away? What is the most important thing know about this? Sometimes there is more than one message. As ads, logos, brand promises, infographics and the visual communication is built, it is common to add more information throughout the process, even though this often complicates the message and makes retention muddy. Knowing the main take away forces the creative to be effective. For most tactics there are rules; 7 words long, 10 seconds of attention, 70 words for 30 seconds. The main take away allows us to summarize when space is limited.

The last portion of the message section refers to the tone. Will evoke feelings of exuberance and cheer, or seriousness and pragmatism? Trust, efficiency, and professionalism or refined and sophisticated. Any of the example messages for a music festival can be concepted, designed and executed a variety of ways and defining that tone will be one factor that keeps a design on target and everyone happy.  

The Objective

The objective addresses the outcome and the desired action or feeling of the audience. The actions are typically direct and measurable and usually a part of acquisition advertising efforts. Attend this event. Buy our clothes. We help people. Save the Rainforest. Visit our website. Donate today. Determining your audience’s feelings or perception of your visual communication is difficult to know without market research, but defining it atop the project is a litmus test during the creative portion. What should the audience think or feel? Trust. Aspirational. Safety. Confidence. “Oh man, that looks cool.” “Hey, they’ve really changed.” This emotive thinking directs the concepting, messaging and art direction. The tone is often established by a company’s brand and maintained through marketing efforts. Your company has a tone, if you don’t know what that is for your company, that is a topic for another article.

The objective of a creative brief should be explicit and describe what would make the project a success. Ticket sales increase 5 percent. 500 more unique visits a day. Two percent more sales in the first three months. Or customers take you more seriously as your business is presented in a way that changed perception.

I have worked on projects with and without a creative brief. The projects with creative briefs always created results that pleased both my client and myself. It set the foundation for the rest of the project and was the creative gauge. Remember a design project is building Ikea furniture with only the instructions. Better instructions equal better results. If you are writing a brief, be informative and brief (as the name implies). If you are being interviewed, be honest and give good answers. Have you had experience creating or working with creative briefs in the past? How have creative briefs made your projects successful?