Designers can’t read? Designers won’t read?

“If I knew what I wanted, I would have done it myself.”

I chuckled knowingly.

An old friend who is now heading an international NGO’s marketing voiced his frustrations. “The agency wants a brief – what do I want to say, how do I want to present the content, what images do I want to use. How is that my job?”

There’s a running joke that designers can’t read and can’t process information. Sometimes this is not a funny joke – it is the reality for some designers.

Try placing yourself within an agency/studio and try eavesdropping on the typical conversations between the “creatives” vs the client-fronting people.

“If the client doesn’t give a proper brief, we won’t be able to start work.”

But they have given a brief.

“How is this a brief? XXX wants to launch YYY in August. Founded in 1968, XXX is today a USD10bill. group with diverse business interests. XXX is today recognized as the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of ZZZ. The requirement is to develop & execute a complete 360-degree launch plan for ZZZ. We want aesthetically pleasing designs to gain a higher share of the market from the consumers by increasing the range of YYY products adoption.”

But that’s THE brief. They have provided you with all the information they have and you are supposed to work it out.

 “What am I supposed to do with this brief? XXX wants to send a message that the company is focusing on being the Industry leading integrator of data networks transforming everyday living by delivering smarter networks and are certain that they will play a big role in building the future of the internet. All these attached reports and .xls files don’t help.”

But that’s THE brief for the website, and you are the designer.

“How am I supposed to create an infographic video based on all these PPTs? It’s a mess. We need to get a better brief. Can someone first sort this out?”

But that’s THE brief. You are supposed to be the designer – who are you expecting to step in to figure this out?

The creatives would then launch into some mad rant about servicing people not doing their job properly, or will start cursing clients for being stupid clients giving impossible briefs to answer. 

The usual agency’s solution? The servicing folks are transformed into the first line of scapegoats — they are tasked to ensure the briefs are comprehensive enough for the creatives to work on. The drawbacks? They drive clients mad, and in retaliation, clients start providing prescriptive, over-detailed briefs. The creatives will then groan and moan about creativity being restricted. “The client wants us to use Shutterstock illustrations only!” They must have forgotten that they asked the client to include “style of illustration” in the brief.

Some assign “writers” to sort out the briefs for designers – Distill the clients’ inputs into actionable content for designers – preferably in nicely typed out documents in which designers can copy-paste and start working. Specific job titles are created for these writers — such as content writers, content planners, and content directors.  

Because writers can process information. But why is content planning a writer’s job though?

Why do designers want everything served on a nice platter, so that they can get on with the job – is that called designing? Why are designers reluctant to dive deeper into a project — be it going through numerous MS Excel sheets or marketing reports or PPTs, reviewing tonnes of websites and competitors’ websites, or simply picking up the phone and conducting research to better understand the audience and the market, and hence gain a better understanding of what the client’s challenges are?

Have designers willingly reduced themselves to the role of a pair of hands to translate strategy and content to visuals? Then whose job is it to make life easier for the designers? Client servicing, writers, or if the company doesn’t have a client servicing person or a writer – just pass the ball back to the client?

A friend in marketing once told me one of the red flags in selecting an agency is “not coming back with questions/queries. That leads you to believe that they haven’t understood the depth of the brief, which will most likely lead to the cliche run-of-the-mill solutions/suggestions that are plug & play”. 

What is a good brief though? Because the designers will never be happy. The best version? Enough for them to design, and don’t overwhelm them with information which they have to process, because, always remember the joke — Designers can’t read.

Real briefs from real clients, slightly modified to keep them anonymous.

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