How to write a web design brief

Crafting an Effective Web Design Brief: A Step-by-Step Guide

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You may be working on an exciting new web project, an existing website, or perhaps the next iteration of the website for your business or organisation you work with. Whichever position you find yourself in, you have realised that your project has a higher probability of success if you employ the services of a freelance web designer or agency.

My name is Paul Edwards, I am a Web Consultant and Frontend Developer and I’ve been working in the web industry since 2005.

In this blog post, I will pick apart the process of creating a design brief for your web project. We will look at what a brief is, what is should and shouldnt be, as well as the benefits a brief will bring you and how to easily create a document that will increase the chances of picking the best web designer to build or redesign your website.

If you have already started talking to prospective web designers or agencies about your project, you may already have received requests for a web design (or project) brief. If you have responded by saying that you don’t currently have a brief you may have been met with a lacklustre response. That is because a web design brief is much much more than a just a useful document.

Your web design project is unique, so if you feel that you have any unanswered questions I would be happy to steer you in the right direction. Call me today on 01903 527927.

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What to include in a web design brief

  1. Introduce yourself
  2. Introduce the end users
  3. Project goals
  4. Deadlines/timelines
  5. Project budgets
  6. Competitors
  7. Style and continuity
  8. Available assets
  9. Technical requirements
  10. Content generation
  11. Accessibility
  12. Ongoing management
  13. Conclusion

What a web design brief is

OK, I may have misled you into thinking that a brief maybe some kind of magical artifact. It isnt. But the reality is that a well written and structured brief holds more significance and value than the sum of the words within it.

A brief isn’t only a collection of words, figures or graphs, it is:

  • a sign that you, as a potential client, have thought about what your business and your clients need
  • an indicator that you are ready to employ a professional to move your project forward
  • signalling to your prospective web designer that all parties will know what success looks like
  • proof that you’re methodical and likely to be a person/organisation/company that can be worked with positively
  • most importantly, an opportunity for prospective web designers to test and feedback upon your stated requirements. Both parties will get to see how each other respond to queries and issues.

If you search for the term ‘what is a web design brief’ in your favorite search engine, you will likely be presented with this defintion provided by

A website design brief outlines the web design process, requirements, and timelines. Its purpose is to provide both parties with a clear understanding of what’s expected in terms of project workflow, deliverables, and post-launch services

What a web design brief is not

Over the last fifteen years, I am sure you can appreciate that I have read a lot of web design briefs. I am always heartened when a new client can provide a well-considered web design brief. To be blunt it makes the roles of client and designer just much easier when both sides know what goals are in place and how performance will be measured.

Unfortunately, sometimes a brief is created without structure or clear purpose and becomes a vehicle for little more than the expression of the personal goals and beliefs about the project that are held by the person who wrote the document.

Likely, the person writing the document is not the only stakeholder in the project if they are even a stakeholder at all. Just to be absolutely clear, this is a red flag to many web designers

When a document is written in this way, the goals become satisfying the person that wrote the document and not the goals of the company or organisation. The end-user is the person we are ultimately supposed to be creating a website for, to allow them to complete specific tasks, as efficiently and quickly as possible.

When briefs are written from the perspective of the person writing the document what often accompanies the personal nature of the writing is something we call ‘prescriptive direction’.

Normally a project brief will clearly outline the goals, important information such as branding, and any special considerations which need to be taken into account. However, the route to achieving the goals is often left open to discussion based upon the specific skills of the professional you have taken on board to deliver the project for you. The reason for this is that having gone through the process hundreds of times, your web designer is better placed to guide a project and suggest the method of implementation and the tools used to do it based upon the criteria in your brief, the budget and the timescale for delivery.

If you use a brief as a method of dictating how a problem is solved you wont benefit from the skills and experience gained by the team you are going to work with. The potential success of the project becomes limited by the knowledge and experience of the person writing the brief. What a waste!

What to include in your web design brief, step by step

Enough waxing lyrical about the potential, good or bad, for a web design brief. You aren’t the kind of person to fall into the traps we have discussed. You know who your clients are, what they want and what you want to achieve with your new site, and you know to ask for help if you don’t have the specialist skills yourself.

Time to put all this information into a short and very useful document. A design brief will make your and your designers work so much easier.

With a design brief, you and your designer have a common goal. You both have a document to refer to, to stimulate discussion and which will enable your designer to provide you with a solution that meets your requirements.

If you have done all the leg work and understand your company and your customers then writing a design brief is a simple and quick way of not only recording your findings and goals but an effective way of reflecting upon them. The process of putting your goals into words is a great reality test and you will be able to grasp quickly if your goals are realistic.

1. Introduce yourself

You’ve spent lots of time researching which web designer to employ. Now its time to tell your web designer a bit about you. It’s really important to tell a bit of backstory and conjure up an accurate image of who you and your company is.

  • Explain who your company is and what its values are.
  • What does your company sell, products? Services? Write briefly about what your company produces.
  • How big is your company? Give some information about the size and structure of your company.
  • What markets does your company supply? Is your company UK based, Europe or perhaps Global?
  • What is your company’s history? How long have you been doing what you do? Give a brief timeline.
  • Try to describe your company in single words. Try and give approximately a dozen words.

2. Introduce your end users

Although it is important for your web designer to know a lot about your business, products and stakeholders, it is arguably even more important to gain a really solid understanding of who your end users are. End users are the people who will actually be using the website that collaboratively you and your designer will build. It has been commonplace for many years now for web designers to ask clients to complete ‘persona profiles’ for each of their customer types. Essentially this is a form that captures key information about each of your end user types such as salary, technical ability, age, needs, wants etc. Building a profile of your desired or typical customer helps both you and your designer to choose correct vocabulary, tone, and will influence colour choice, text size and much more.

The web design industry never sits still however and although persona profiles are very useful you may now hear people talk about empathy maps, user journey maps, and possibly other tools/methods too. I encourage you to spend some time in your favorite search engine to understand what these tools are and how they may work together to help you with your project.

Ultimately, you and your designer are going to be building or improving a website that helps these people. Understanding who they are, what motivates them and what they are trying to achieve will contribute hugely to the success of your project.

3. Goals of your new website

If you are to get the best out of your designer you need to be sure about what the goals of your new site are. In addition to this, you must outline the features you expect, the feel of the site and what role you see the site taking. This should be easily done by now as you will in an earlier guide worked out you’re your clients are, what they need and how it is to be delivered.

  • What is the goal of your site?
  • Why will it exist?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • Has your client changed or developed since the last site was built?
  • Describe who your client is so your designer can have them in mind when designing the site your customer will use.
  • What is the unique value position (UVP) of your company and/or the product/service they are selling?
  • What sites will yours be competing with? Provide some examples?
  • Are there any ‘must have’ features that your website must offer visitors. What tasks must users be able to carry out?

4. Deadlines

Simply put, when do you need/want your project to go live? Giving a reasonable expectation for the project to be delivered is incredibly important for your web designer as it will indicate to them whether:

  • They have the capacity to carry out the work for you
  • Whether they will need to involve more staff or sub-contract some elements of the project
  • Whether the budget will allow your projected timeline
  • How to manage the project and whether to split the project up into multiple elements

It is important to communicate if other things are dependent upon the delivery of this project. For example, that a marketing campaign is set to launch on particular date that uses the proposed website as a resource.

5. Project budget

My clients know that one of the first things I talk about with them is budget. Discussing budget is hugely important for the success of your project and allows you to find the right web designer for your project. Budget will dictate:

  • Who you can afford to work on your project
  • What solutions your chosen web designer will offer (software, hosting, maintenance)
  • Hold a mirror to your requested features and reveal whether they are deliverable as requested or whether they will need reconsidering
  • Allow you as an employer to have an even playing field for gathering quotations.

The most difficult conversation to have with a new client is often about money. To make matters more difficult, if your chosen web designer is doing her/his job, it is a conversation that happens early on in the relationship. There are practical reasons for discussing money so early on but also it allows your new designer to test the water. What do I mean by test the water? Asking a client “what budget is available to this project” allows us to get a very quick idea of how much thought has been put into the project by the client before we started our conversation.

Discussing budget early on in the design brief avoids putting time into relationships which arent well matched and is the best ‘reality check’ for the project requirements. If you want to read a much more in-depth blog discussing this issue, please have a look at this post ‘Why does my web designer want to know my budget?‘.

6. The competition

When I am talking with a prospective client, one of the things I always ask about is ‘the competition’. I like to know who the half dozen most significant competitors are to any business I work with. The purpose in seeking this information is to:

  • See how or if this prospective client differs and differentiates themselves from their competition
  • Get a better understanding of the marketplace by seeing what the competitors think is important in terms of content and search engine optimisation (SEO)
  • Use the competitors sites to generate questions about the industry and to deepen understanding of the prospective clients marketplace (is there anything they arent talking about, or are talking about a lot)
  • Identify any conventions in terms of visual identity, site layout or the way content is presented. Conventions exist for a reason and it isnt always wise to stray too far from convention
  • So I can present the websites of competition to the prospective client as a talking point. A lot can be revealed this way.
  • The competitors have likely done a lot of research, lets not waste that opportunity!

7. Style & continuity

Visitors to your web site must find something which is familiar. What I mean by this is that the web site should reflect the corporate style your company uses, familiar colours, logos, fonts etc. Any advertising, marketing material including the most basic items such as letterheads and business cards need to tie in with the style of your web site. Often a company will have a professionally produced set of brand guidelines and a style guide that incorporates web as well as print.

I absolutely love it when a client hands me a style guide. The presence of such a document largely reduces potential conflict and issues about look and feel and saves a lot of time. Sometimes though, a style guide simply isnt fit for use on a screen. Font types may be dictated which dont work well on screen or the brand may simply be very out of date. Where a brand/style isnt appropriate for a website it may be appropriate for some branding work to be completed prior to the project kicking off.

  • Have you seen other web sites which you like?
  • Where you have real-world examples of things you like its very helpful to be able to say to your designer, “ oh I like the catalogue system used by IKEA on their UK web site “ or “I love the minimalist design of the New Tate Modern web site”.
  • Try and give half a dozen examples of sites you like, remembering to explain what it is you like about each one in particular.
  • To assist the designer in this process it is so very useful to provide him/her with copies of your current marketing materials, business cards etc. Include them with this brief as a guide to how the web site should be styled.
  • Do you have any content which is ready to be put into the web site?
  • Are your intentions to use the text from your existing web site or to write new and vibrant copy for your new project?
  • If you don’t have the text already produced then do you have the staff or agency that can produce text for you?

It will help your designer greatly to receive a few pages of sample text. It is really important for the designer that he knows how word-heavy your site is going to be as this can greatly affect the structure of the site.

8. Analysis of your digital assets

So far you have introduced your company and given some background information. Your web designer now knows a little about you. Now its time to explain what your designer has to work with. Outline the assets your company has in place, don’t worry if you don’t have a site already, that’s just as important to explain.

  • Do you have a web site already? If so explain where it can be found.
  • What does your company like about the web site it already has? How has it succeeded?
  • In what way would your web site benefit from improvement, are there any specific areas of the site which have not worked or performed as desired?
  • How old is your site? Was it built in house, or did you employ someone to do it? Do you still have any details from that project which you could present?
  • Do people visit your site? If so present some of the statistics here, your designer will need that information as it will impact how the site is built.
  • Is your site used as a sales tool? If so how effective has it been? Has it become more or less effective. The use of web sales statistics would be helpful.
  • Who is responsible for updating the site? What are their skill levels etc?

Add any further details which will be of interest to the designer.  If you aren’t sure what assets you or your organisation already have, consider employing a web consultant to carry out a pre project digital asset audit for you.

9. Technical requirements

Do you have any special technical requirements?

This may sound a bit vague and perhaps unimportant, but there are going to be some fundamental things about your web site which fall into this category.

For example, is your web site going to be produced for use internally on a network (an intranet), or is your site going to be produced for consumption by the public (internet site)? If your company is producing a site designed as an intranet are there specific things that need to be communicated, ie. Does your company run a windows pc network or an alternative? Is there any specific technology/software which is to be integrated or accessed through the intranet site?

Conversely, if your site is to be an internet site, does your target market have any specific requirements or technical limitations. For example, is your target audience in a developing country which may use access the web primarily using smart phones or telephony enabled tablets?

Do you intend to remain with your current hosting company for your web site or start a new contract with an alternative? Do you have a preferred supplier for such services and if you do, do they run windows or Linux servers? Are you restricted to which languages can be used on your server?

10. Content & content generation

  • Who is responsible for generating and providing the content to be used in your website?
  • Are there any pages that your website must have?
  • Do you have a sitemap roughed out that your web designer can use?

You may already have content from an existing website or you may be planning on writing your content in-house or using a third party to provide content for you. This needs to be made clear to your web designer so they can factor this into the project timeline and available budget. It is worth pointing out that content creation has been the single most common cause of project delay on most projects I have worked on.

Having a robust plan and named individuals who have responsibility for content generation is incredibly important. Be aware that most web designers will prefer to have the copy for a page prior to designing it. Although it is possible to design a pretty box to put unknown content into, to really make a page effective and suited to its content, we need to know how much and what type of content needs to be displayed so we can create a suitable structure and layout.

11. Accessibility

It is fair to say that the web industry has been slow to give accessibility the attention it deserves. However, once you start working on projects that have a requirement to consider accessibility of its content, it is hard to imagine not thinking about it on every project from there on in.

As a company or organisation and depending upon your target audience or specific industry requirements you well may have a requirement to meet certain minimum accessibility levels. You can find out more about them at the W3C website.

It is commonplace for there to be a minimum requirement on a project to satisfy WCAG 2.1 AA level and ensures that many attributes such as contrast of text is readable to as wide an audience as possible. I recommend you check what requirements your organisation has either comitted to internally, or whether there are requirements imposed by you being linked to or a part of local government or being part of a group or association that has minimum standards for its members.

As well as there being legal requirements for accessibility your end users may have additional or very specific needs when using your website. If that is the case you should outline these needs in your brief.

12. Ongoing management & maintenance

Many people and indeed large companies tend to launch a new web site and then completely fail to support it after that point. A web site is organic in the sense that its success and its rankings in search engines depend heavily on the site being frequently updated.

Often a site isn’t updated for the simple reason that a company doesn’t have the staff to dedicate to providing small and frequent updates. The task gets set aside and ultimately forgotten until one day it is mentioned that the web site isn’t performing.

Who is going to be responsible for updating your web site? Do you have staff who will be providing content on an ongoing basis? It’s quite possible for example that you have plenty of content but you lack a staff member with sufficient IT skills to be able to update your site. This is in itself not a problem if it is addressed. You could for example use an external contractor like myself to make frequent updates to your site. This is a cost-effective way of keeping your site fresh and useful to your customers without the burden of having to employ, or re-task an existing employee to carry out the role.

13. Conclusion

At the end of your brief, you should conclude by summarizing the points you have made and outlined in detail what you expect of your designer.

  • What information do you need communicated back to yourself and when by?
  • What criteria will you be using to select a web designer?
  • When will you let the successful designer or agency know your decision?

It is typical for a designer to return a full proposal to you which will give you enough information to manage not only the time elements of your work but also the budget elements.

You should now be ready to write a design brief for your web designer, however, your situation and your project is unique. If you would like some help in creating your design brief please don’t hesitate to give me a call.

Call me today on 01903 527927. I look forward to talking with you soon.