How to work effectively with creatives

A Frecklist to save you time and money, and make creative teams like you


As self-described 'designers of intelligent communication,’ the team here at Freckle know that intelligent communication starts with the creative brief: a detailed chat with you about your project over coffee or Skype.

A good creative brief is clear and specific. But many of the biggest problems we are trying to solve in our professional lives tend to come with an evolving problem space or amorphous constraints: half of the solution is in successfully framing the problem (in designer speak we call these ‘wicked problems’).

So, how can we design an intelligent brief from the start, given the complex, and often abstract nature of Next Big Things?

This is an important challenge in our line of work. As a full-service agency, our journey with you is not only ‘brief to product’, but also ‘idea to brief’ (sometimes even ’strategy to idea’ or even ‘zero to strategy’). We pride ourselves as adept ‘brief whisperers’.

Design is a collaborative process, so what can you do on your end? In our experience over hundreds of projects, we found that certain simple approaches to the briefing process can translate into real savings in dollars and time for the client.

So, here are our seven heavenly virtues for how to work with creatives effectively and avoid brief Hell.

Have a system

Even for creative projects (arguably especially for creative projects), using strict systems and processes leads to better results. Again, the more organised you are with your brief; the more efficiently and effectively the creatives can work; and the more money, time and stress you’ll save! Does your team have a project brief template? Use it. It ensures you don’t miss any important information. Don’t have one? Maybe the creative team can help you out. Friend of Freckle Colleen Keith uses a handy template for graphic design projects, which you can find at the end of this article.

Got style?

Just like executives communicate in PowerPoint, designers communicate in style guides, aka brand books. Does your team have one? How about an online brand asset portal? Getting these to the creative team from the start can be a big timer saver if it exists and is accessible to you. Doesn’t exist? Consider adding a branding component to the project. A brand is an investment in future creative projects: if you start with one now, it will save you time and money in the future.

Channel your inner creative

A picture is worth a thousand words… even if that picture is scrawled on the back of a crumpled serviette in lipstick. Concepts in the early project stage certainly don’t need to be pretty, and they can be a valuable time saver. Roughly drawing something allows you to focus on the concept instead of the details (see below), and communicates an idea much faster than a long-winded email. As writer Dan Harmon said, making something crappy and then improving on it until it’s great, is much easier than making something great from nothing. So go ahead and get crafty. Sketch something out or make something simple in PowerPoint. Even making a video can work if that’s more your communication style. Find examples that are similar to what you want and share it: “make it look like this, but green." 

Be mean

An important part of the creative process is iterating on concepts to get from rough sketch on serviette (see above) to refined idea to finished product. In the course of this, a lot of versions get discarded. This is a bit different to some professions (in medical, for example), where things have to go right, the first time, every time. Course correction is part of the process and good designers remain detached from feedback about specific ideas. It’s important to be as clear as possible about what is working and what isn’t, so be direct in your feedback. It’s not mean, it’s design!

Understand these weird creative types

Designers are weird. I think you have to be a little weird to have a strong opinion about the best geometric sans-serif font (it’s Gilroy, for the record). Misunderstandings about differing work styles are common enough that Designer Jarrod Drysdale wrote a book about them (actually, two books: one for designers and one for non-designers — a truly non-partisan work of literature). If you work with creatives a lot and you want more advice like these, then I recommend his book(s), The Tiny Designer (a short, easy read).

Hate emails

Alright, hate is a strong word and emails aren’t all that bad because they create an e-trail of ongoing progress and agreements. But if you ‘hate’ them just a little bit more, then a few things will happen. First, you’ll put more thoughts and action items into each email so that you can send fewer emails (a great way of doing this is to have a single point of contact between the creative team and your team). Second, you’ll make each email very clear so that there is less back-and-forth.

Read before sending! Have you clearly delineated actionable items from general information or high-concept ideation (bullet points are good for this. Creatives really love bullet points)? Have you used full names and/or version numbers to make your comments painfully specific (instead of “can you change the picture of the guy”, “can you change the image of the guy in the suit in the October newsletter, page 4, version 2”)? Hate can be great.

Ask the dumb questions

The brief is the best time to ask all of your 'dumb questions’. They say ‘there are no dumb questions’ and this is especially true for creative briefs for several reasons. First, sometimes great ideas can come out of dumb questions. Second, questions that you think are dumb can often reveal assumptions of blind spots in the brief. And third, design is technical. It’s not your job to know why an EPS file is better than a JPG for print collateral and the creatives will be happy to talk you through this. In fact, knowing the technical constraints can occasionally blind us to bigger picture thinking. If in doubt, a good rule of thumb for briefs is to start less prescriptive, and more outcome-focused.

MVB (Minimum Viable Brief)

By Colleen Keith.

WHO / Who is involved? Main Contact, Team and Company (for new clients)

  • Who is the main contact for this project?
  • Are there other stakeholders or team members that need to be/will be involved?
  • BONUS: What is the estimated timeframe for sending feedback or making decisions? Teams often take longer to reach a consensus than a single person.

WHAT / What is needed? Project Deliverables

  • Project objectives, vision, goals and expectations
  • Specs from printer, supplier, web developer, manufacturer, social media sizing, etc.
  • Include all reference the Creative will need and info about usage/placement ie. BRAND STYLE GUIDELINE, logo(s), typography/fonts, print or web spec docs, FINAL edited copy, high res photos with licensing, reference material ("make it look like this”), supplier contact info, graphics, stats, etc.
  • TIP: Inform your Creative at the beginning what file format(s) you’ll need,and if there’s anything special required i.e. crops and bleed for print materials.

WHERE / Where will the deliverable(s) be used? Web/Print

  • Specify Print, Web, Outdoor, Product, Packaging, Internal, Presentation, etc.
  • How long will it be in use?
  • If it’s a physical piece, think of where it will go - e.g. Is it being hung up? At what height? Outdoors? Behind glass?
  • TIP: If it’s for social media, specify which platform & area so Creative can check the most current sizing specs and recommendations.

WHY / Why are you creating it? Who’s it for? Target Audience

  • What is the main message? Secondary message?
  • Who is the target audience? How will they engage with or act upon the project? CTA (call to action)?
  • What is the tone you want to communicate?
  • TIP: Providing demographics and history of the target audience, your competition and your brand can be helpful.

HOW / How to provide files and communicate

  • How will you be communicating with the Creative? Phone, video conference, email, project management platform, texts, messaging, etc.
  • How will files be shared or sent?
  • Who should they be sent to at each stage?
  • TIP: Set up calls or meetings ahead of time based on the timeline to keep the project moving.

WHEN / When is the product needed? Deadlines and Timeline

  • What is your final deadline? What is this deadline based on i.e. printing, online upload, etc.
  • What are the incremental deadlines? If you don’t have any, best to make some.
  • When are you available for feedback or discussion of issues?
  • TIP: The more information you can provide about the timeline, the more seriously your Creative will treat your deadlines.

HOW MUCH / How much can you spend? Quote and Budget

  • Do you have a budget for this project? What is it based on?
  • Need a quote? Ask up front.
  • TIP: This area will be based on your working/billing arrangement with your Creative. Do you or they prefer to work with set project fees, hourly rates or retainer agreements?

WHAT ELSE / Anything else important?

Anything else that you feel is important to mention that will help the Creative do their job more effectively? Even if it isn’t essential to their work, it can be helpful to give them as much information as possible. The more they know, the more they’re “in the project” with you.