Stringent Client Brief Can Sabotage A Designer’s Creativity Or Is It The Other Way Round?

Stringent Client Brief Can Sabotage A Designer’s Creativity

“Is there room for self-expression in design? Is the designer’s voice an essential element? Or does the nature of design as given by the client demand that the hand of the designer be invisible, that the voice be purely empathetic? Also quote instances where your creativity was choked by a client’s brief.”

This was the topic of a discussion that I started a few weeks back in a LinkedIn community. The responses present three different point of views. I will be elaborating on those comments but before that let me explain why the need for this discussion.

The main purpose of this discussion is to come to an understanding with mutual inputs from designers and business owners about enhancing and improving the terms of client brief. It’s a general observation that a stringent client brief either silently kills the natural creativity of the designers or forces them to withdraw from the ordeal. What I intend to find is a middle path that both client and designer can take and understand each other’s point of view while doing so. What we basically need here is a standardized creative brief that addresses the challenges faced by designers in general and the shortfalls of the brief due to client’s limited knowledge of design.

This discussion can be segmented into 3 portions. Some comments were fairly tilted towards the topic, whereas, some designers rejected the idea that any brief can sabotage their creativity. However there is one thing that truly stands out from this discussion. The majority of the designers working in the mainstream graphic design industry prefer co-created/ design briefs.

In Favor

In the real world, designers are tied with stringent briefs that don’t leave much room for them to explore their creativity. In this discussion, some designers have proved with examples. One of them was Henk C. Meerhof who pointed out that the choice of projects should be smart. Not all clients know what they want.

Henk C. Meerhof

Mehreen, I once had a client where I discontinued the project. The man was electrician, owned a town shop and went out to do electrical installations.
His wish was something he had seen at a sew and textile shop, where the name was perfect to transform into a tread that was attached to a needle.
* This is not what the clients of an electrician expect.* His name was not suitable to play around with the letters to form something of his trade.* Covering his trade and the shop, which carried all kind of tings, not only electrics, was impossible with a single ‘icon’I made some sketches, but we could not find resonance in each others ideas…In general
No we designers should not be too arrogant to resolve all problems our ‘design’ way.
No we should either give in too all the customer wants.Would be disastrous if I went to my doctor and told him how to cure my pains, who is the doctor.
The same goes for design, we designers dedicated all our lives – more than the average 9 to 17hrs – to design. The best our customers can be is a talented amateur, but most of the time they are not.With time I became more critical on taking on projects. Like in many other trades, I want to be chosen for my work. If the client chose me by luck or lack of choice, I take serious time for getting to know each other, with the possibility to turn the request down and refer to someone else if I can.

Walter Walverman added to the notion mentioning that designers should be able to select a stance and prove it with their work. Sometimes the client prefers your creative designs over the ones that s/he asked for.

Walter Walraven

Walter WalravenThis is an interesting question. It has been my experience that the lack of a good brief can lead to disaster. When visiting with a potential client, I was given the distinct impression that I had to produce a very high quality catalogue which would in every respect complement the high quality catalogues that that this client had from Italy.After designing four different catalogues, none of them was what the client wanted. He said they were too regimental – what he really wanted was something quite chaotic and industrial looking. In this case a detailed brief would have been a huge advantage.I don’t think you need to feel cramped in regard to the design you come up with, even with a strict design brief. I always feel that improvements can be made and should be made. What I usually do, is produce exactly what the client asks for and then duplicate the work and make design modifications to it and then present both sets of proofs for the client. More often than not, it was my improved version which was the one selected.

Aleksandar also shared a thought-provoking idea. He believes that doing exactly what the client wants is impossible and absurd. He thinks that it should not be a client brief but a creative brief where the designer can also have some contribution.

Aleksandar Topolac

Mehreen Siddiqua, there is a rather old profession which is known for acting exactly according to what the client wants. Design is not that profession. Or at least I hope is still isn’t, considering the trend many designers are adopting nowadays. You know, the one in which the client spews his list of “I wants” (wrongly named “the brief”) and in which the designers are supposed to tailor their designs in whichever the way to cater that client’s taste.Contrary to popular belief, the creative brief is not set in stone, it is not the law. What it is – is set of guidelines. Especially if written by someone who do not exactly knows what he is talking about. We, the designers, are supposed to answer to what works, not to what client likes. Besides, design (proper one that is) is supposed to be result of adding our design knowledge and talent to the understanding of that client, his business, his target audience and so on, not some set of “I wants”. Based on that understanding we could just as well be the ones who would write creative brief even if the client is completely clueless. (Many if not all old school big name designers actually did write their own creative briefs and pitch it to the client.) Of course, that understanding implies Two Way communication between the client and the designer, not One Way shouting of orders.


Kim feels that the creativity of a designer can never be affected by a creative brief from the client. She quotes from her experience that it has always affected her in a positive way as she says here.

Kim Van Houten

Kim Van HoutenGiving the client what he/she wants IS the name of the game! But that doesn’t mean creativity is stifled. You work WITH your clients to come up with designs, taking into consideration what they say they want partnered with your own experienced input. Tell them not only what will or won’t work, but why so an informed decision can be made. I personally find it extremely helpful to first hear what the clients want to see in as much detail as they can offer and then let my own creativity flow after that. Much worse to do a design and then have the client this isn’t anything at all like he/she wanted, so you have to start completely from scratch. Keep in mind that you are the graphic designer creating a product for the client’s use, you are NOT creating fine art — at least that’s not the goal, if you do create something outstandingly artistic as a result, that’s a terrific side benefit. This is the number one reason why I insist on being called a graphic designer and not a graphic artist. I expect a graphic artist to have more “art for art’s sake” type of work, or where the goal is a piece of art not showcase of the client’s work, experience, qualifications, etc.It’s not fair to call out specific times where my creativity was stifled, but sure, it happens and I learned which clients I will need to dig for more information before working on another project with them.


Although this is the ideal situation, it doesn’t happen in the real world majority of the time. In some instances where co-creation of a clients’ brief does take place, it is either because the client is experienced or flexible or the designer knows that his/her knowledge is limited. This kind of implies that the “creative brief” (let me name it that way) is a tradeoff or a mutual compromise between the designer and the client. Let’s see what designers have to say about co-created creative briefs.

Michael Nieman

Michael NiemanIdeally, the brief should be co-created and is really part of the design process, not a set of parameters set by the client who probably doesn’t know what they need.


Terry Nicholls

Terry NichollsA brief needs to be created and discussed together so you both get what you need out of it. If a client hands my a brief they have written it’s usually toilet roll with very large holes in it.

Final word

So basically this is what designers had to say about client brief. I am still looking for opinions from clients who have good experiences working with designers as well as those who felt their business knowledge was disregarded. What’s your say on this issue?

Mehreen is a social media buff and design blogger, who keeps a keen eye on graphic design trends. She has a passion for experimenting with design ideas, and wouldn’t mind if it means going out of her way to find them in Timbuktu. Follow her on twitter for daily inspirations and findings.

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