Starting a project without a design brief is a bit like setting out on a long backpacking trip with no map or compass…only worse. There’s really no harm in wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, especially if you have no destination in mind and there’s no fear of getting lost. (This might be called fine art.)

But daily, designers go into the wilderness without a map or compass (some of their own volition), often pressured to begin work without a sense of direction. While no-parameter design might sound like every designer’s dream, this approach is a recipe for failure. (More benignly, a designer loses the satisfaction of doing effective work.) Even the most innovative, risk-taking client has specific goals to achieve and audiences to speak to. Many fear the delay caused by developing a good brief. The opposite is true: There is nothing like no brief, or an incomplete one, to stall a project. The stall is just later, when it’s more costly to start over.

Clear direction describes the project’s purpose, hoped-for results, audience, core message and any procedural requirements. The result is broad enough direction that leaves room for creativity, but unique and specific enough to paint a clear picture of who the client is (and isn’t). Together, these foster relevant solutions for that specific client.

As designers, our frustration working without client direction might be tempered if we consider that clients don’t knowingly want to sabotage the process. The client contact has bosses to satisfy, budgets to mind, deadlines to meet—and sometimes egos to satisfy, not to mention hiring and managing a designer.

Here are some possible reasons why it might be difficult to get a solid creative brief before starting work. By understanding what might be happening, you can direct questions and the conversation better.

It is easier to comment on what already exists than shape what does not. This is just basic human nature. Explain to the client that the information collected in a brief is what drives the design solutions. Without it, you wouldn’t be designing a solution that was unique to their needs.

Not understanding how the designer goes from point A to point B. Clients might wonder how exactly the designer will go from, We want to be the leader in widgets, being recognized for our exceptionally unusual customer service, to developing a cool-looking symbol. Sometimes we designers can’t say how we lept from one idea to the next, arriving at our final solution. Imagine how hard it might be for a client. If a client can’t fathom the leaps, they may not understand the value of taking time to create a meaningful brief. How we designers get there is why we’re in this business. But how is murky. And people don’t feel comfortable with murky.

This land between the logical business/marketing objectives and the tangible final design solution is the murky place. The designer had a good map, but wandered down side paths, looked up, looked down, looked around, sniffed the air, scribbled, turned over some rocks, took a good nap, and bingo, ideas emerged. Clients have to get comfortable with murky, which is possible if the client starts out making the right choices: designer, planning and budget (topics for future posts).

Eagerness to see ideas. The project might be a long time in coming. The client may love your work and trust you (This is great but dicey). The key people who should provide direction might be too busy to contribute. As humans, we are hopeful that things will turn out okay. Deep thinking requires thoughtful time set aside and that’s pretty hard to come by these days. Explain that you, too are eager and enthusiastic and want to produce the best possible work and to do that, you need the proper tools.

Self examination is hard. Settling on what you are also means settling on what you are not. Eliminating possible attributes and strengths from one’s business offerings might seem like shutting doors. This especially holds true for identity work, where the entire organization’s reason for being, and their values and attributes must be solidified and articulated. This is not an easy process. The result can be a conflicting or contradictory design brief, resulting in the wrong solutions. Explain to the client that trying to keep all doors open can lead to a confusing identity. And that it’s better to communicate clearly to the few important people rather than sort of communicate to the many.

Internal politics. Too often, personalities foil the potential of a good design process. There might be either no key decision maker or too many. The project “owner” doesn’t have the full authority they want or need, departments have conflicting goals, personal likes rather than business goals drive approvals, the unheard voices wait to be heard when it’s too late to change course…or to costly to.

Belief that good planning and staying within budget aren’t related. Good planning is too important to skip, especially where budgets are tight. Most designers’ estimates are tied specifically to a projected amount of time spent. When that time changes, so does the cost. As the designer, going over the risks and implications in person or on the phone can be especially useful, even if it’s in writing.

Not understanding the value of good design. It’s up to designers to articulate the difference between what they can deliver if a good plan is in place, versus what they cannot deliver without a plan. We all have a different way to describe what good design is. Now is your chance to put forth your philosophy.

David Airey has a great blog post about working with a design brief. Another excellent post on the subject in How magazine covers the importance of a creative brief and how it leads to success.

If you’re a client, how have you responded to a request for this information? Or have you found that designer’s didn’t ask? If you’re a designer, have you been asked to work without a clear plan? If so, how did you address it? Share your thoughts.