Guest masterclass: How to brief a designer for the results you want


Worried your company's designs are a bit naff? Don't break up with your designer, shake up your briefing process instead. Christie Brewster, Lead Creative at the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Creative Director of Albertine Studio, shares her top tips for collaboration success

Credit: Christie Brewster, In Unison

Credit: Christie Brewster, In Unison

A great design - the visual identity and how you use it - is essential to engaging the right audiences and making an impact in the market. Why are all those pop-up banners you see at conferences blue and grey? Are you really blue and grey? And if you're in the business of classical music, what do you have if you take all the music notes away? If it's nothing, it's time to think about briefing a designer.

Too many people go about this in the wrong way. They tell designers what they want rather than what they want to achieve; they leap to outputs before they've nailed their overall look. I talked to my long-time design collaborator, Christie Brewster, about how to get the briefing process right - and get the best results.

You are a very accomplished designer and I love working with you because you constantly challenge my expectations. Tell me a bit about how you became interested in design and how you became a photographer, too.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in photography, typography, painting, design and drawing – anything that allowed me to get lost in another creative world for hours. As a child I would tear up various magazines and reformat them into my own creation, I’d style a shoot for my sisters and make them pose for hours, only to get ‘the shot’ before I was satisfied.

My interest in both design and photography platforms has always been a collaborative body of work. I enjoy working with the structure of a publication and how imagery works within it: sometimes it’s about making text work over photography, while other times it’s about letting the image speak for itself - there is a fine balance. I’ve always loved challenging these elements through graphic design and asking myself, “How can this be better?”

You are based in Sydney but work with clients all around the world. How do you manage that process - from briefing to review to getting sign-off?

Making global relationships work well is the same as any great relationship – communication.

Some key considerations that have been proven to work well for me are:

  • 24-hour response time - Providing my client with a quick update that includes when I can action their request ensures that, one: they know they are important to me, and two: they don't have to ask themselves, “Did they get my email?!” My main source of communication is email, but I also use online software such as Slack or Trello as well as Google Hangouts from time to time. Swift and efficient communication is key to these successful relationships.

  • Clear and transparent communication – Sometimes a client requires something within 12 hours, and because of the timezone their expectations are I can always achieve this. Most of the time I’ll try to make this work where I can, but other times I’ll have prior commitments - a quick note to let my client know my circumstances is all it takes. They often appreciate the truth and are happy to negotiate a more flexible deadline.

  • One account manager – It helps to have one client contact who manages sign-off and review on behalf of their company. This results in an efficient workflow process for both sides.

  • Make deadlines/appointments/actions in my client’s timezone – It’s important for my client to know when I’ll be providing them with the next draft, print file or update, so providing it to them in their time one not only helps me work out my exact deadline, it also make their life easier!

  • Express gratitude – Be genuine and sincere and, for goodness' sake, say thank you. “Thank you for reaching out…”, “Thank you for working with me on this project”, it’s just plain common sense.

What are the most important things that attract you to a new project?

  • A clear concise brief that excites me to work on the project

  • A client who who is open to change and ready to explore creative options

  • A deadline

  • Expectations outlined from the onset

What three things make a really great brief?

What is this required for? Where will it be used? Who will be using/accessing it? What is the point of it? Is it trying to sell something?
  1. Context – It’s really nice to learn a bit about the company I’m about to work with, so a background on their brand or a mission statement will set the scene.

  2. Purpose and audience - What is this required for? Where will it be used? Who will be using/accessing it? What is the point of it? Is it trying to sell something?

  3. Brand guidelines - Are there any existing brand guidelines I should be aware of? Are there any fonts/images/colours that need to be considered?

And what three things make a really bad brief?

  1. Vague goals about what the purpose the project needs to achieve

  2. No set deadlines

  3. Too many people included in the briefing process. It’s concerning to see various names c/c’d on a briefing email - should I reply all? Are these people accountable for sign-off? Who is Rebecca? It’s great to have one contact managing the project, which means they can collate all feedback from the company. Or if others need to be included, flag this at the beginning of the project.

We hear you! So what does this mean in practice? What are the effects of a really great brief over a really bad brief?

  • Less time wasting which means more time efficiency

  • Easier for me to be able to estimate my time which in turn gives the commissioner a better understanding of the cost involved

  • Saves the client money – Ultimately a clear brief at the beginning saves time and various adjustments down the track, which means it’s easier on the commissioner’s budget

Let's imagine our reader is ready to take the plunge. What things should they look out for in their communication with a designer during the briefing process? Are there any warning signs?

After contacting your chosen designer, expect a response within 24 hours. This means, one: your designer values your custom and, two: will generally be a good communicator. Pursue a designer which seeks to understand you and your brand mission, who seeks to understand wants, needs and expectations of the project and asks about lead times, deadlines and deliverables.

Look out for designers who:

  • don’t consider your email request within two days – ask yourself if you want to be working with them

  • don’t consider the brief and delivers something completely off brand

  • avoid cost estimates – you want to ensure your both on the same page, so make sure you have a clear understanding of how much time your designer is investing in your project and if this matches your budget

And, finally, what would be your dream commission, in case one of our readers has one up their sleeve?

I love to travel, so anything that would involve working with global brands on creative projects would really interest me!

Christie Brewster is Lead Creative at the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Creative Director at Albertine Studio. You can find her at