Successful projects require successful project planning and careful documentation.
This is true in predictable environments like manufacturing, where a range of traditional project management practices dominates project planning.
But what about creative environments? What does it look like to plan and document creative projects successfully?
Traditional project management documents don’t account for taste. They can list out how many images or words or sections a deliverable should have, but they aren’t good at describing how those images should look or how the content should make people feel. They can describe the what in terms of Excel entries and due dates, but they can’t describe the beauty or artistic direction of an illustration, nor the affective intent of a piece of marketing copy.
The creative brief meets this need. It’s a project document that does describe the visual, storytelling, and creative aspects of a project, setting expectations and defining parameters. And this matters: Of the PMI’s seven reasons why projects fail, as many as five can occur when stakeholders disagree about project specifics, including creative elements.
In this guide, we’ll show you what needs to go into your creative briefs, plus strategies and best practices for creating them.
What is a creative brief?
A creative brief is a document that defines and sets parameters for the creative aspects of a project, including design language, key creative messaging, audience, scope, creative requirements, and more. Creative briefs serve as a single source of truth for design, visual, and messaging elements in a creative project, helping project teams and stakeholders to align and buy in on a project from the outset.
What a statement of work and other scope-defining documents do for projects in general, a creative brief accomplishes for projects involving significant creative resources (graphic designers, illustrators, writers, content marketing, conventional marketing, and so forth).
More traditional project management documents don’t always leave room for visual and creative elements — yet any designer will tell you how crucial it is to have a single source of truth for those visual elements.
Some creative projects may have multiple scope-defining documents, especially longer, more complex ones. For example, a statement of work could define the scope of work and the schedule overall, while a creative brief shows creative teams what they need to know about how the visual elements should (and shouldn’t) look. The creative brief and the design brief are the same document in many projects, especially design-intensive projects.
Items that should be included in an effective creative brief
Most organizations that use creative briefs regularly already have a set format for them, and these look different from company to company. If you’re a consultant or freelancer tasked with building one, start by asking if your client's company has a template available.
If not, start with these six essential items for an effective creative brief: objective, key details, background, audience, brand voice, and deliverables.
You may determine you need other sections we haven’t listed, like a distribution plan, a key consumer benefit, an attitude, or a call to action. You may even come up with sections unique to your business or industry. Use our list of six as a starting place, then tailor your creative briefs in whatever ways make sense for your company or your clients.
Teamwork has tons of prebuilt project management templates. Don’t start your next creative brief from scratch — our design project management template or content plan template could be great places to start instead.
The creative brief must include a primary objective and should position it early and highly visible in the document.
Sometimes the objective of a creative project is obvious. Say a creative team needs a digital illustration of a duck. “We need a digital illustration of a duck” may be sufficient if the workflow is simple enough.
But as organizations grow in complexity, they add staff and freelancers and sub-deliverables within broader initiatives. Soon enough, no one knows why they’re drawing a duck, where the duck is supposed to go, or that the duck was for an early childhood audience rather than a marketing piece aimed at adults.
This is why objectives matter: Everyone needs to know, at a glance, what the point of the creative project is. Good objectives answer questions like these:
What does the creative project need to accomplish?
Where does it fit into an organization’s plan?
When the project is finished, what criteria or scenario will demonstrate that the project succeeded?
In addition to any other crucial high-level information that doesn’t appear elsewhere in the creative brief, key details of a creative project include:
Project timeline (if not specified elsewhere)
Method of distribution (how does the project get handed off, and to whom?)
Every project has a purpose and a reason for existing, which is explained in the project background. For a new full-scale digital marketing campaign, the background might be that a company’s previous campaign ended or didn’t perform well, or that the company is new to digital marketing.
For creative projects, this kind of context is crucial. Creative work often involves a marketing team, freelancers, a design team, and maybe even an advertising agency. Many of these parties don’t know the background already like your internal team might, and they deal with multiple clients frequently. A great creative brief spells out this background as clearly as possible for all parties.
Combining background (where we’ve been) with goals and key details (where we want to go) gives the professionals involved in the creative project a much more refined sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Going back to our duck illustration example, knowing your audience matters greatly. A duck in a children’s book may take a different creative approach than one in a hunting-oriented ad. The larger, more wide-ranging, or more open-ended the creative project, the more important it becomes to define your audience.
Some creative briefs will go further on this point, providing visual reference material that the target audience is consuming (book covers, TV shows, video games, and so on).
Because creative projects frequently rely on freelance talent, consultants, and others that may not already know this information, include any available information about your brand voice. Doing so reduces the likelihood of receiving work that matches specifications but doesn’t quite feel like your brand.
Here are a few brand voice considerations:
Do you have a logo and guidelines for its use?
What about set font families for specific deliverable types?
Color schemes that must be incorporated?
Style guide for copywriters?
You already know that the creative project will produce creative assets of some form, but is it clear how many and what types of assets will be created and delivered to the customer? Creative projects quickly go off the rails when the creators and the end recipients disagree on what kinds of content is in scope or how many deliverables there will be.
Stating the number and type of deliverables in the creative brief can set expectations properly. And if something seems amiss, project stakeholders can raise a red flag in the brief stage — before you allocate any creative resources to the project.
Steps for developing a creative brief
We’ve covered the six important elements to include in a creative brief, but there’s still plenty of work to do. Once you gather information on all those elements, it’s time to build the creative brief.
Follow these steps to ensure you cover everything effectively and efficiently.
Bonus tip: As you get started, here’s a refresher on why project templates can be a game changer for you and your team.
1) Decide on a name for the brief and project
It may seem a little basic to start by picking a name, but picking a clear and memorable name for your creative project brief is highly strategic. Contributors and stakeholders are awash in documents, chats, and emails (the average business user receives 121 emails daily, and your high-value stakeholders likely receive far more than that).
Choose a name that clearly identifies your creative project and distinguishes it from other similar projects. It should be easily searchable, containing the client name, broader project name, and anything else that makes it easier to identify the project. You may even want to include a brief description under the name that shows readers at a glance what the brief is about.
2) Utilize existing material
As you build your creative brief, make sure to use the wealth of existing material related to the project wherever it makes sense to do so. Do as little from scratch as possible.
You likely have a wealth of existing research, messaging, brand guidelines, historical data, and project-specific information compiled by this point. Use all of it to your advantage.
For example, as you create the audience section, it’s not up to you to determine this information. Most companies already have customer data and recent market surveys on hand. These materials provide the basic audience framework — you just need to fill in the narrative around the data.
The “don’t start from scratch” principle shows up throughout this process, too: informing milestones, populating competitor research, etc.
3) Document milestones and deliverables
All but the simplest creative projects will have internal and final milestones, and these should be documented within a creative brief (at least at a high level). The creative brief should also list all deliverables so that there’s no confusion among creators, clients, stakeholders, or anyone else.
4) Identify the target audience
You’ve already done some thinking and planning around your target audience, so make this clear in your creative brief. Discuss who the audience for the project is — who will receive, read, see, or benefit from it?
Some projects have multiple audiences or personas, perhaps with different priorities or desired actions. If this is the case, note it here.
Defining your target audience is about more than just basic demographics (age, socioeconomic status, occupation, etc.). Include information about typical behaviors within your target audience as well as your audience’s current posture toward your brand or product. Do they love you already, or are you dealing with skeptics or a hostile audience?
5) Research your competitors
You want your product to be uniquely yours, but designing in a vacuum isn’t a good practice. Take time to discover who your competitors are and how they’ve approached similar projects. You can analyze end products, marketing campaigns, or whatever else correlates to your project.
In this process, do what you can in these areas:
Identify what they’ve done that appears to work well.
Identify competitor choices that didn’t perform well, or that left room for easy improvement.
List how your creative project will exceed or outperform the competition.
List gaps in the market that you can fill.
6) Develop the critical message
The critical message of your creative brief is the key to the entire document — and it’s often the hardest element to create. The critical message should have a lot in common with the project’s objective but should go further, hitting exactly what your target audience needs to get out of the project.
In a marketing campaign, the critical message is the core message to the advertising audience. It should include:
Their pain point
Description of life with that pain point removed
Snapshot of how your company removes the pain point
In something a little less wide-ranging, like a new ebook or physical product, the process of defining key messages looks similar. Craft a critical message around the creative deliverable's core problem, and focus on how the target audience's life will improve without that problem.
7) Organize your brief
Pulling together all the needed elements for your creative brief is a process in itself. But the real magic happens when you organize those elements into a cohesive, logical narrative that’s both compelling and clarifying.
Using the sequence that we provided earlier gives you a good foundation. Starting with the project objective and then moving through key details and background information typically works well. Still, you should feel free to customize the organization of your brief in whatever way best tells your story.
8) Share your creative brief with your team
Last, it’s time to share your creative brief with your entire team — including all in-house team members, vendors, stakeholders, and anyone involved in the creative or design process. Usually, this happens in a kickoff meeting, with all interested parties attending and providing feedback in one interactive meeting. Using a kickoff meeting is a great way to streamline the feedback collection process — something you certainly don’t want stretching out into a weeks-long event.
At this point, your creative brief is intended to be a conversation starter, not the law of the land. It will inevitably be missing a few important details, and some aspects won’t be accurate. And that’s 100% okay — in fact, it’s kind of the point.
No matter how much stakeholder outreach you do, you’re bound to have at least a few essential elements listed incorrectly or even missing. By sharing your creative brief and soliciting feedback, you gather ways to improve the document before it does turn into the law of the land.
Once you iron out any inconsistencies or problems with your creative project details, share an updated creative brief (over collaboration apps or email this time, potentially) and seek the necessary approvals and buy-in.
Once the appropriate stakeholders have signed off on your creative brief, save that document in an easily accessible place, such as your project management platform, so that all involved in the project can reference it as needed.
Check out Teamwork’s easy-to-use templates today!
If there’s a theme to our approach to building creative briefs, it’s “don’t start from scratch.”
This is true when you’re rounding out project-specific details, and it’s just as true when you’re building the creative brief itself.
Building creative briefs from a reliable template will save you considerable time, and you’ll see a boost in accuracy and completeness, too.
Check out Teamwork’s impressive catalog of prebuilt templates. Use templates like these within a full-featured project management platform like Teamwork to supercharge your creative brief process (among countless other processes throughout your organization).