The creative brief: Going beyond pro forma

I’m often handed a chart-filled PowerPoint deck with the expectation that I will vet, edit, and optimize the contents then hand back a set of inspired data visualizations. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot I can do with one or more charts in isolation. But lacking context, I can’t make some of the higher-level recommendations based on what deserves emphasis, what amount of complexity is desired, what type of language to use. I often want to know what the underlying goal of the piece is—whether it’s an article, an interactive, or some other form of communication—and who the target audience is.

These considerations all matter when shaping the language and format of a data vis. Even a simple dataset can offer more than one interesting takeaway. If each insight is given equal space and emphasis, none will stand out. That may be appropriate for a reference or research piece, but in many cases, a chart works best when it highlights a single message. How do you choose which message to emphasize? Well, a chart decision like this goes back to the original goal of the communication.

This is where a creative brief comes in.

One of the more satisfying projects I’ve worked on involved an interactive data visualization. The project launch consisted of a wide-open, explorative conversation among client, editor, designer, developer, and UI/UX specialist. This was unusual in my experience, as time pressures often place such conversations further upstream and limit attendees to the content originators. In our more diverse group discussion, we raised important questions that helped shape the piece; subtle shifts in UX details or language emerged in the process. For example, how should we measure success? Did we want our audience to fully explore the interactive itself, or did we consider the interactive a gateway to draw them into further engagement on the site? Each of these goals carried different implications for the design and layout of the interactive.

The varied points of view offered by the assembled team also made a difference in clarifying the message. Frequently, content originators labor under the curse of knowledge; they are so familiar with the content that they can’t see where it might be obtuse to their audience. A lively discussion with a diverse team can shine a light on arcane language or prompt a knowledge expert to add more explanatory information.

Essentially, we were developing a creative brief. While often associated with marketing or design agency work, creative briefs are applicable across a wide range of communications and product development. A well-conceived creative brief clarifies goals, creates efficiency and accountability, prevents scope creep, and helps to uncover incorrect assumptions. Even in the realm of user experience design, a creative brief can improve decision making. The exact shape of the brief may vary, but let’s consider what might be included in a short and a long version.

A short creative brief

The short one is a prompt for a collaborative discussion—a brainstorm—whether within a product team or between creatives and clients. This shorter list of questions fueled the fruitful kickoff meeting I just described.

What?: What is the proposition? What is the goal? What are we aiming to achieve? What problem are we trying to solve? What action do we want to inspire?

Who?: Who are we trying to reach? What do we know about who they are (whether described as the reader, target audience, user, or consumer)?

How?: How can we shape the piece or product to achieve our goal? How will we measure success? How will the audience move through the piece?

A long creative brief

The longer version of a creative brief includes the what, who, and how questions above, along with a laundry list of brand and style notes, channels, budget, timeline, and deliverables. And that list is essential for completing the project. Filling in the blanks in a long form is sufficient for some straightforward projects where the end product is a known entity. The problem with filling in a form for more complex projects is familiar to many. Instead of collaborative brainstorming, you may end up with a number of competing and confusing requirements. If you want to innovate—if you want to reach for excellence—why not give the higher-level questions room to breathe in an early substantive discussion of possibilities among a team of experts? Make time to save time!


As for me with my chart questions? For straightforward pieces, rest assured that a well-written article draft will answer most or all my questions around the appropriate message for the data vis. But with more complex or high-priority projects, I’d love to join a creative brief exploration, any time.

Mary Reddy

Before joining Leff as a senior adviser on data visualization, Mary spent more than 20 years as the data visualization editor for the McKinsey Quarterly, developing data stories for a wide range of industries and publication channels. She brought data insights, visual structure, and UI/UX considerations to static charts, interactives, infographics, multimedia, and conceptual frameworks. Mary studied visual communications at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has a B.A. in fine art from Loyola University, Chicago.

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