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15 Confusing Types of Briefs That Designers Hate With a Passion

Kevin Whipps March 31, 2021 · 9 min read
When you get an assignment in the form of a design brief, the idea is supposed to be a detailed document that tells the designer what they need to do for the client to be happy, right? But sometimes, those briefs aren’t clear, concise, or even documented on anything other than a napkin, and that’s frustrating. But even more irritating is that designers come across these crappy deals all the time — so much so that there are whole websites dedicated to showing off these bad directions. We don’t have a whole website to dedicate to that, but what we do have is 15 of our most hated design brief styles that we’ve run into over the years, and although we know there are hundreds more out there that will set any designer’s teeth on edge, these are our favorites — the best of the worst, if you will. Enjoy.

The “Contradictory Statements” Brief

“Can you make this logo a little bit bigger, but feel smaller?” or “I like the bluish tint to this image, but can you make it more yellow?” or “I love this design, but my boss hates it.” This is an easy equation to figure out, if you went at it from a mathematical perspective: X=X, and Y=Y, but X≠Y, right? Yeah, clients don’t always get it, and you shouldn’t take that type of gig, either. Not unless you’ve got a sadomasochistic vibe going on, anyway. Confusing-Briefs-1

The “Can you make X like Y using Photoshop?” Brief

So the client hands you materials for their latest project, and with them come a few caveats: “Can you tweak the design of this object to make it look more like this?” Of course, there are a few classics in this one, too. Old into young (or the reverse), change the color of the outfit or hair on the model, change one car into twelve — you get the idea. And sure, we can do all this because Photoshop is a magical unicorn that anyone can call upon to make all of their wishes come true, right?

The “Payment will come once the design is received” Brief

Want to ram your head into a wall? Accept this type of brief. It’s the kind where the client doesn’t value your time, so they want you to do all this work for free and then decide if they want to pay you. It’s funny, I tried that same thing at Sears the other day. I took one of their tools out of their store, used it, and when I didn’t like it, decided I’d take it back without having ever paid for it. I’ll let you know how that all works out for me once I get out of jail. Confusing-Briefs-2

The “You’re the designer” Brief

Vagaries abound when you get some briefs, and when they hit you, it’s going to suck. Now I get the idea that if you go to a tattoo artist you want to have them do something that they would enjoy doing — you chose them because you like their work, so it makes sense. And I can see how that logic would also translate to designers, because after all, we’re all artists, right? Well yes … and no. So when a client comes to be and says, “I want this, this and this, but do it how you’d like it because you’re the designer,” I know it’s not going to end well. Oh, and I also make sure to get that money up front. Confusing-Briefs-3

The “I dunno” Brief

“I want a logo.” No seriously, that’s it. That’s the entire brief, because the client has no idea what they want. What colors do they like? “I dunno.” What styles work for you? “I dunno.” Can I hit you in the mellon with a baseball bat? “I dunno.” Well I have the answer to that last one, so let me go into my closet real quick and grab my old Easton.

The Scopeless Brief

This one is a bit better than the “I Dunno” model, because at least there are some rules and boundaries to follow. But the key word there is “some,” because what starts as “tweaking the website” turns into redesigning the whole thing from scratch and an exasperated client who says, “What! It was in the brief!” And you know what? They might be right. It’s on you for not seeing the black hole of despair that this job was going into, so next time say no. At least then you won’t have to try to dig your way out of a bookcase like in Interstellar.

The “Tone Deaf” Brief

A well-done design brief has a tone to it: a way of not only describing what they want, but also the way they want the results to feel. When a brief doesn’t have it, it can seem, well, tone deaf, and often that ends up being a design that doesn’t sit well with anybody. In those scenarios, I often create my own tone, which I call, “Grumpy designer with a bone to pick.” Needless to say, it doesn’t go very well.

The “Unrealistic Expectations” Brief

How’s that old saying about champagne dreams with beer budgets go? It’s probably similar to how some clients figure that you can do anything with Photoshop, whether it’s cleaning up lint on an outfit or, you know, recreating the 1776 Continental Congress’s signing of the Declaration of Independence from a different angle. Again, magic unicorns and all that, because I can’t pull that miracle off, nor would I want to with that tiny of a budget. Or, as one user on Twitter put it:

The “Unlimited/Limited Budget” Brief

Here’s a variation on the previous listing, but with a twist. “We want you to do the best job possible. The sky’s the limit!” So you do it, spend hours perfecting this project for the client, making sure every pixel is just so, and then they say, “Wait. That’s too much money.” Yeah, there is no such thing as an unlimited budget, just like there’s no such thing as unlimited breadsticks at Olive Garden. That number is 412. Or when the cops drag you out of the restaurant as you scream, “YOU CANNOT CONTAIN MY UNNATURAL LOVE OF BUTTER AND GARLIC! IT IS LIMITLESS! LIMITLESS!”

The “Fresh Start with Baggage” Brief

Rebranding efforts can be fun, right? Sure, it sounds like you’re getting a fresh start, but just like when you try to reconnect with an ex, it doesn’t go well. Inevitably, there’s baggage. “Bob from accounting feels like we need to keep this part of the logo,” or “We want to start anew, but keep the same colors,” or “You kiss different,” which is a really weird question to ask, Bob from accounting, but admittedly, I’m trying something new and let’s just keep this to ourselves. Confusing-Briefs-4

The “Broad Audience” Brief

If I own a company, I know who I’m marketing to. I’ve got an idea in my head of the perfect customer, their demographics, and everything else that they do. And the client should have that same concept in their heads, but if it’s not in the brief, or they don’t have any clue, then how is the designer? Sure, I can design something for the few billion people in the world who might see the company’s logo, or, you know, design it for the actual people who will use the product. Or not. At this point, I’ve got a whole bag of cares that I’m not giving.

The “Subjective Decisions” Brief

Want to know what drives me up a wall? Being told that something is technically wrong when it’s a subjective decision. “I don’t like the red in that logo because it doesn’t speak to me. You did it wrong.” No, that’s a subjective opinion, and if I used the red that you specified in the brief, then I didn’t do anything wrong, you just don’t like it. See what I mean?

The “Clean Up What I Drew” Brief

I don’t know if this one needs any explanation, because we’ve all had to have seen this one before. Someone “draws” up a logo for us and asks us to “clean it up” or “make it look cooler” so that they can say they had a hand in designing their new look. This happened to me recently, when I was sent a Word doc — of course it was Word — with the “logo” they wanted, followed by lots of apologies. I did the job completely Microsoft Office-free and they were happy with the results, but that time I got lucky. Next time they’ll use MSPaint.

The “Different but the Same” Brief

Whenever I hear a client say that they want something to look, “different, but the same,” I run into a nearby room shouting, “OHGODMAKEITSTOP!” until someone inevitably turns and looks at me like I’m insane. And they’re right, I am insane — particularly if I take the gig. Look, making a few quick changes is one thing, but sometimes enough is enough.

The “If this, then that” Brief

Caveats are fun. A poorly done brief will make you think that one person is the decision maker, when really it’s someone above them — or above that person, or that Bob in accounting also has to sign off before you’ll get the rest of your money (Damn that Bob). I don’t like caveats. Same with caviar. Or cavities. Really, anything starting with “CAV” for the most part, especially Chevrolet Cavaliers.

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About the Author
Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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  • I literally laughed when reading this. I like your voice. Great article. 6 years ago
  • Wow Kevin, you were in rare form on this one. Hilarious! Do you feel better now? lol 6 years ago
  • OMG, so relatable. I once had someone ask me to transform their stick figure sketch into a logo. Thankfully it was a quick fix and they loved it. 6 years ago
  • OMG! My daily struggles! LMFAO! 6 years ago
  • I once ran into a client who had a very detailed brief, asking for a combination of plush animals and Mel Gibson from the movie Braveheart. >__> 6 years ago
  • How about "I know what I want when I see it." No further direction than that. 6 years ago
  • I can do you one better than the "I'll know it when I see it" -- a client that says "This is close, but not quite it," to every submission, with no hints as to how to get closer. 6 years ago
  • What about the classic "Can you make it pop?" 6 years ago
  • hahaha true true 6 years ago
  • Great post, all the true hehehe 3 years ago