Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design
What do sailboats, trash cans, a 1970s public affairs staffer, hand-drawn sketches, and suggestions of elitism have in common? They were all part of a recent soap opera that unfolded over a proposed logo update for the city of Minneapolis.
The new logo, created as part of an effort to standardize the city’s identity across numerous applications, was initially approved by two committees. Things got ugly when the matter went before the full City Council. The council first embraced, then rejected, then accepted the single-sailboat design over several weeks of contentious hearings.
The tale reads like a case study for discounting the importance of a creative brief.
Late objections from key stakeholders are surprisingly common, especially in the nonprofit world. So many people are emotionally invested in an organization’s mission.
We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. When an idea is presented for the first time, instinctively we try to understand where we fit in. Is it relevant? Does it support my goals? Who will it affect? We can’t help looking at it from a personal perspective.
Stories affirm who we are. So nothing is more troubling than being left out of the story. A good idea can fail when we miscalculate who needs to know about it – and when they need to be involved.
Once upon a time
My grandma had a sweet tooth. She started planning meals by figuring out the dessert and working backwards from there.
Similarly, Stephen Covey advises to begin with the end in mind. This is based on the principle that all things are created twice. First created in our minds, then created in physical form. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint.
Problems occur when we skip ahead to get to the good stuff without doing the necessary planning. It’s like taking a road trip without looking at a map, or painting a house without doing the prep work.
Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.
Many projects suffer from flipping that equation upside down.
Define the problem
If the assignment isn’t well defined, the work won’t be either. One of the smartest things you can do before starting a design project is to develop a creative brief. A creative brief outlines project goals and what success looks like. It establishes the context for the project, prioritizes audiences, and spells out deliverables.
More simply, a creative brief defines the playing field, the players, and the rules of the game.
It is essential that the people who have the power to alter a project’s direction review and sign off on the brief before beginning any design work. Securing approval is no guarantee that your project will proceed exactly as planned, but it’s the closest thing you’re going to get.
These are some of the things we consider when writing a creative brief:
- What problem(s) are we trying to solve?
– Why are we doing this now?
– By what measure(s) will the project be considered successful?
– What unique challenges do we face?
- Who are we trying to reach?
– Which audiences are most important?
– What do we already know about audience behavior?
– Is additional research necessary?
- Internally, who needs to be involved for this project to succeed?
– When do they need to provide input and feedback?
– What objections or concerns might we face?
- What are the expected deliverables for this project?
– What (if anything) has been done previously?
– What were the outcomes of any previous work?
– When do they need to be finished?
- What promise are we willing and able to make to our audience?
– Is it relevant? Is it compelling?
– How do we deliver on that promise?
- What is the current state of the organization?
– What are we known for?
– What misperceptions exist?
- What is the desired state?
– What do we want people to know, think, or feel?
– What do we want them to do?
Though the list of questions may seem daunting, the process is not aimed at perfection, but rather a common point of reference.
Story is about seeing possibilities. You, as the storyteller, want the audience to put things together – to participate. You don’t want to give them four. Give them 2 + 2. A well-organized absence of information draws people in.
The creative brief connects people to the thinking behind the solutions, encouraging discussions around project goals and audiences, and away from aesthetic judgments. And that shared understanding can make proposed solutions feel almost inevitable.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t like blue – or sailboats – if the proposed work is seen as a fitting ending to a story that needs to be told. Designers who use creative briefs place their work in context – framing the story to avoid that sinking feeling of a project sidetracked by late objections.
Minneapolis reverses course (again) on sailboat logo