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Dani Nordin is the founder of the zen kitchen, a graphic/web design and branding studio on the outskirts of Boston MA. The studio aims to help clients create a brand that tells their story in a way that relates to their audience as human beings, not as just another demographic. It also helps clients communicate their message in ways that have less harmful ecological consequences by supporting sustainable printing practices and finding ways to provide more information via the Web.

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Going Back to the Creative Brief: When Clients Can't Vocalize What's Wrong by Dani Nordin
About six months ago, after a couple of client communication breakdowns that were much more stressful than I needed, I decided to implement a firm policy at the zen kitchen that all projects, with the exception of some minor production work that comes into the office on occasion, required the completion of a detailed Creative Brief. This brief, although not nearly as extensive as some others I've seen, tells me what I'm doing for the client, who the client is and how they want to be perceived, who their customers are, and what those customers need to hear from my client. The brief is still in development (I'm realizing that there are a few more abstract questions I have to add to it), but it's been one of the single best productivity tools I've found for working with clients - especially relatively difficult ones.

Every designer, at some point or another, runs into this problem: you have a client who wants a design (brochure/logo/whathaveyou). You talk to the client about the design, about their company, and all the other things that good designers talk to their clients about when you're beginning the process of creating their design. You do gobs of research and come up with what you feel is the perfect design for them. But the client doesn't like it. And they can't come up with a solid reason why - just "I'm not sure - it's just not working for me."

Recently, in the middle of a branding project that's still in development, my client, a soon-to-be online retailer of green computing products, had already chosen a logo design from the concepts that were presented to him, and we were getting ready to finalize the logo, when all of a sudden he decided that the logo wasn't working for him. He couldn't quite vocalize why, it just "wasn't feeling right." At first I was a bit anxious, worrying that we would end up having to go back to the drawing board and incur extra fees and time delays because he didn't like the logo. But after a bit of conversation, I decided to try a different approach. The following is a rundown of our conversation:

Me: "Let's go back to the Creative Brief for a moment. What about the message we're trying to convey doesn't seem to be communicated with this logo?"

Client: "I think it conveys the green message well - I'm just not seeing the computing aspect of the business represented. It feels like it's just another green company."

Me: "Okay, so what works for you about the logo?"

Client: "I like the icon you created. I like the font choice and the color choice."

Me: "Okay, now what's not working for you?"

Client: "It feels like these two worlds - eco-friendliness and technology - are two separate entities that have been forced together. They don't feel as integrated as they should be. The point here is that the two worlds aren't mutually exclusive; they can exist together."

Me: "Okay, so overall it seems like you really like the logo, but you'd like to see the two concepts a bit more connected to each other. Does that sound about right?"

Client: "Yes. Exactly."

By the end of this conversation, which happened on AIM Chat, I was able to help him finalize the logo, and we hit on the perfect design in about half an hour, with no panic on either person's end, and no need for extra time or fees. Before I started using my Creative Brief, I found it near impossible to deal with situations like this, since I could never quite figure out what to say. With the Creative Brief, I have a specific set of criteria I'm looking to fulfill with my design, and I can start examining the design against the criteria one by one to figure out exactly where the problem is.

A good Creative Brief doesn't have to be complicated - for most projects, a few questions are enough:

1) who are you?
2) what do you do?
3) how do are you viewed now?
4) how do you want to be viewed?
5) who are your customers? what are they like?
6) what ONE message do you want to communicate to them? (the best designs keep it simple - say one thing and say it clearly)
7) how do you want them to feel when they get this communication?
8) what do you want them to do or think when they get this communication?
9) what's your budget? (yes, you should ask this)
10) who's providing content (text/images/etc.) for this?
11) what are the specific things you need done? Brochure, website, logo, etc.?

You can go as detailed or as broad as you want - just make sure that whatever you use works for the way you work. For example, my friend D'Lanie Blaze of Jailhouse Graphics has questions like "Coffee, Tea, or Tequila?" as part of her creative brief - a fun way of getting to know her clients that stays true to the personality of her business. The Brief available for download at Creative Latitude (which I think is the one that Neil Tortorella uses) has about 10 pages full of questions - more than I could ever think of asking. the zen kitchen's creative brief is available for download here - it's still in development, but it's worked well for me, it's an easily updateable Word document (which is GREAT for most clients - as nice as PDFs are, they're too hard to work with for most people), and the questions are pretty easy to answer for a number of clients. Feel free to grab it and use it for your own clients, or take a look at the Resources Section at Creative Latitude and create your own brief.

About the Author
Dani Nordin is the founder of the zen kitchen, a graphic and web design studio in Somerville MA that helps businesses and non-profit organizations build a more consistent and effective image through eco-friendly print and standards-based web design. For more information, visit her website.

©2007 the zen kitchen/Dani Nordin
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