Product Design

To Brief or Not to Brief? A Guide to Creative Briefs

What is a creative brief and how is it used?


In the design field, creative briefs are often the de facto way of distilling and imparting information pertinent to the creation of a specific tactic or project. Creative professionals and a variety of agencies use these documents to guide the development of deliverables like visual design, copy, websites, etc. Often, the requester (typically a client) develops the brief and the creative working team approves the document before beginning the work.

When done well, creative briefs:

  • Provide just the right amount of information without overwhelming the reader
  • Highlight the key elements needed to design the perfect solution
  • Anticipate and answer important questions
  • Provide statistics and insights to help guide the overall design process
  • Simplify complex requests
  • Shed light on mysterious client goals
  • Inspire the creative team
  • Unite a team around a common objective

In other words, a good brief saves time and streamlines the creative process – basically, it makes things easier. Yet, unfortunately, delivering the perfect brief is anything but easy.


For one thing, it takes time. A lot of time.
As anyone who has written a solid brief can attest, arriving at the approved, final version requires at best, several hours of dedication or at worst, weeks or in some (dire) cases, even longer.

Likely in part because of this, brief writing is a task for which few volunteer. Which leads us to our next point.

It’s a task (probably) riddled with ambiguity.
For starters, who owns the creation of this brief? The PM? The creative director? The client? The account director?

There are many schools of thought on this and no clear winner. Even if you’re fairly familiar with a project, you may find your draft riddled with placeholders and unanswered questions and yet somehow still four pages long.

The final result may not get used at all.
We’ve all witnessed it: the creative brief that is completely useless. It gets a passing glance before ultimately finding its way to the recycling bin. Maybe the details changed, maybe they weren’t right to begin with, or maybe the brief was never needed at all.

This is the worst case scenario, because someone spent valuable time crafting this useless brief and yet the team still has to spend time figuring out the creative request regardless.


We at WillowTree believe in the power of collaboration and find it far superior to most creative briefs.


When working with clients, we seldom use briefs. We dive into our work head first and love to help clients think through the best approach to meet their goals as a team.

We tend to find it faster and more productive to have direct, honest conversations with our teams and clients rather than relying on forms and emails and annotated PDFs. We know that speed to market matters, and so does quality. And a brief-free approach helps us meet both needs in most cases.

That said, there are still times when creative briefs can be extremely useful. Here’s a quick checklist to help you evaluate your creative brief needs.

Brief needed No brief needed
The information I want to communicate is clear and well defined. I have a general idea of what I want to communicate, but it will probably change as I continue to ideate.
I don’t have direct access to the people who will create this content. I have regular communication with the team developing the content.
The people creating this content are unfamiliar with the related business goals. The people creating this content are familiar with the business goals and may have recommendations of how we can meet them.
I want to use the creative brief process as an independent exercise to help me refine my thoughts and strategic objectives. I want to collaborate with others as I refine the approach.
This brief will be used by multiple agencies and will meet a variety of needs. I can talk directly to the project team about my request.

So before you start writing your next creative brief, take a minute to think through whether you really need one at all. There’s a good chance that a direct conversation is a more efficient and effective way to meet your goals.

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