effective design brief

“We benchmark in/out of market, gather voice of the consumer (VOC) and intelligence to form a project brief that outlines goals and problem statements. Our clients sometimes provide the project brief”.

This quote, from the Discover Phase of our product development process, highlights the importance of a thorough and detailed design brief in early phase product development.

Our work over three decades with some of the world’s best companies has been challenging, rewarding and, admittedly sometimes a bit frustrating. Looking back at our diverse work, we have learned to ask the right questions during the development of a well-constructed design brief. We offer this brief essay to share our key lessons and help improve our work with clients and suppliers.

“Plan the work and work the plan”?

We come from a long line of entrepreneurs and business owners. Our Grandfather, Maury Fredricks, shared many stories and a lot of wisdom with us. This saying was one of his favorites and it speaks to the critical importance of a plan for all projects.

In the rush to hit aggressive deadlines, some teams will resist taking the time to ask the right questions and work together to identify weaknesses in the design brief before charging forward to get things done. These are a few key questions for any team to answer while developing a design brief?

Are we working on the right problems?

Our research includes the use of qualitative and quantitative methodologies to drill into unmet needs with consumers. Time in the field with users of existing products and services is key to building a deep understanding of their problems and desires for different solutions. We observe, listen and document our findings to inform the brief.

Most of our clients have deep and experienced marketing teams with mature processes and tools to conduct exhaustive research activities. Our role is to augment the client team, ask the right questions and help develop visual (sketches) stories for their internal communications and funding decisions.

In the big picture of new product development budgets, minimal capital is invested in early phase activities when compared to the capital to market, tool, manufacture, assemble, and ship new products. It’s key to ask tough questions in the discover phase before moving forward on any project.

What are the roles and responsibilities for the extended team?

The development of an effective design brief is a balancing act between flexibility and discipline. Resources are limited for all companies and it’s key to drive the team to deadlines, budgets and key dates for progress reviews.

All stakeholders with the client and extended team must have a voice in the design brief and a commitment to deliver on their assignments. Marketing, design, engineering and manufacturing (supply chain management) are just a few of the disciplines required for a high performing team.

We’ve found that if a team is not aligned and working together, the likelihood of success for the project is drastically reduced. The discover phase is the best time to check in with the team on how everyone is aligned and motivated to work together. Our role is usually as a facilitator to ask the right questions and push the team to explore and agree on the plan.

Roles and responsibilities must be assigned to each area of work to ensure elimination of confusion and slippage on key dates and deliverables.

What are the expected outcomes for the Discover Phase?

After the team is organized and aligned, we facilitate a workshop to explore and agree on a wide range of cross- functional assignments, resource requirements and deadlines for brief development. We are still in the “wide end of the funnel” and there are no bad ideas at this point. The purpose is to build team alignment and begin to nail down the design brief.

Key areas of responsibility and outcomes include:


  • Estimated market positioning including sell price and sales forecasts


  • A rough description of the aesthetics and design language for the intended product
  • In market and out of market inspiration


  • An initial description of the Technical and performance criteria for the intended product
  • Benchmarking of current competitive products


  • Rough cost targets and budgets for tooling and production
  • Supply Chain Strategy
  • Develop an initial strategy for make/buy components or sub-assemblies, domestic or off-shore, proven suppliers or new suppliers

A small team then organizes the information into a story for review with the extended client team. We’ve found that a visual story, supported with qualitative research findings and quantitative data, is an effective way of informing the extended client team to make the right decisions about next steps.

This all sounds neat and well organized. In practice, it’s messy and tricky business that requires the right mindset and talent on the team to drive through multiple iterations of the design brief via workshops to capture multiple ideas and construct a visual story to inform big decisions.

Wrap up?

All of this activity is moving quickly and the deliverables are not intended to be the absolute right answer for any of the questions. Our work in Discover Phase simply helps guide the team into early phase development with a flexible framework and inform key creative, technical, marketing and investment decisions along the way.

A world of thanks to all of our clients for our many lessons learned. We could not have written this piece without all of our shared experiences. We hope that you are able to apply our lessons to your future projects.

Written by Maury Fredricks with original artwork by Ben Fredricks

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