The perfect design brief – according to our packaging designer

2 min reading time

You’re launching a new brand, a new product for your brand, a temporary promotion ... How exciting! That also means you’ll need to develop new packaging and put together a designer brief. As a seasoned packaging designer, I’m here to tell you that’s more important than you might think.

Why? A brief is meant to inspire and give direction to the design team so they clearly know what to do. And to get them just as excited about the project as you are.

In my years as a packaging designer, I’ve seen lots and lots of briefs. Some good, some bad. Some just awful. And – occasionally – a really, really great one. Now, it’s time to confess.

So here’s everything you need to know about putting together the perfect design brief.

What’s obvious to you is not obvious to me

Of course, you know everything about your brand and what makes it unique. The way you quirkily use the spelling ‘shoppe’ instead of ‘shop’, for example. The fact that your customers come in for a great cup of coffee, but linger because of your fantastic magazine selection. That your CEO hates pink.

I don’t know these things. So, for me to get a feel for your brand, and start coming up with inspired ideas, you’ll need to tell me the whole story behind your project. Otherwise, we start with Robin Hood and end with Pinocchio, a wolf, and a wardrobe.

In my experience, if there’s an issue, it often comes down to either the challenge or the expected results being unclear. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at figuring out both. However, it’s a lot easier for me if you clearly know where you are and where you need to go. It’s a bit like Google Maps: to figure out the route to take, you need a point A as well as a point B.

What you want might not be what you need

Before I can start designing your packaging, I need to know what it’s for. If it’s packaging for a new product, what is it? A bicycle? A cookie? And how are you planning to market it? That means shelf context, as well: where does your brand need to perform? Where will it be placed and consumed? At the centre of the store or at the perimeter? At eye level, or below? Is it sold in supermarkets or small boutiques?

Are you looking for primary packaging – which needs to follow strict rules when it comes into direct contact with food – or secondary packaging? Will it be filled manually, meaning greater creative freedom, or are we talking automated packaging process?

If it’s a redesign, what is wrong with what you have now? If you can tell me what it is your customers aren’t responding to, I can do something about it. And maybe a minor tweak is all it takes, saving you time and money.

For me to create added value, I need a clearly defined purpose, rather than a vague description. Take this briefing: “We need playful packaging for this new cookie we’re launching.” Awesome! I love cookies, too! But what kind of cookie might this be? And who is your target audience? Is it a sugar free cookie for diabetics? Or an animal shaped one for kids? Those packaging designs will be very different, obviously.

A post-it, or a 100-page manual does not a good brief make

Yes, designers are creative people. And I do love an opportunity to stretch my mind. Even so, translating a one-liner on a Post-it into an entire vision for your product packaging is probably stretching it too far. In most cases, you might not end up where you had hoped.

If what you want is something completely unexpected, it might work. Keep in mind that developing innovative concepts takes time and effort. And that, in order to deliver great packaging when you need it, we’ll probably have to come back to you with additional questions anyway.

Not to be difficult, but the opposite also holds true. A leafy manual filled flow charts, statistics and enough information to drown a library also slows down the process. It’s a tricky balance, but a brief needs to be defined, concise and inspirational.

Oh, and designers are visually focused. So don’t forget to tell me the direction you want to go in in terms of style: modern or classic? Sober or showy?

Be sure to provide your brand’s logo’s and icons, as well as information about standard brand colours. Bonus points if you include a mood board with colour swatches, fonts that speak to you, images with examples from other brands that you like helps a lot.

And, last but not least: please tell me if you hate Helvetica ;)

Packaging designers are often either over- or underestimated

No, I can’t deliver results by tomorrow. Neither can I read your mind. You still need to tell me what you want, with what purpose, and by when.

On the other hand, if you don’t really know what you want, or you’re struggling with a number of issues, it’s a good idea to include a designer early on. As visual thinkers, we’re usually pretty good at solving creative problems and creating meaningful experiences.

There is also no substitute for directly talking to us – over Skype, or, even better: face to face. It’s the quickest way to clarify anything that might be unclear. Plus: a conversation might reveal certain anecdotes related to the project, or information that was relevant, but missing in the written brief.

Let me give you an example of a great brief. At one point, we received instructions for an e-com challenge. Context, restrictions, ambitions, deliverables – it was all clear in their minds. The brief was clear, structured, and realistic. The client knew exactly what the challenge was and what they wanted from us. “A pack that can be taken from the shelf in-store, be transformed (somehow) and sent directly to the customer through a courier.”

We almost jumped directly to ideation and prototyping and had them come in and take a look. What ensued was a co-creation process: we were asked to further develop the packaging based on the elements they knew fit their brief best. The result is an e-com pack concept that’s still helping them to develop their e-com strategy today.

3 absolute essentials for a great brief

The main thing you need to remember is that a great brief gets us excited … and that’s when great ideas happen.

To recap, 3 absolute essentials for a design brief that hits home:

  1. Context: basic product information and background. Where is the project coming from and what is it about?
  2. Challenge: a clearly defined purpose. What do you want to achieve?
  3. Deliverables: practical information and scope of the project. What output do you need from us?

Got your design brief ready?

Let’s get started on your new packaging. Get in touch.

Carlos Díaz
Carlos Díaz Concept Designer

About the expert

Carlos deals with packaging in several different levels, from running co-creation workshops with multidisciplinary groups, to developing packs that tackle today’s (and tomorrow’s) challenges. Sustainability, eCommerce, brand DNA, user experience, and shelf impact, are some of the fields that make his day to day design practice.