Establishing a well-prepared brief


A well-prepared brief minimises design changes, and so reduces the knock-on construction errors and the associated cost increases and delays which follow.

An effective brief defines project objectives and aspirations and should be supported by a vision statement. The person setting the brief must share all the relevant information they hold, whilst ensuring it remains a strategic document with only sufficient detail to address the key issues and objectives related to the scale and complexity of the project.

Why is it important?

The project brief should set out the client’s needs and expectations and inform the design team of the project requirements; in this regard it is the most crucial part of the project process. If the brief does not reflect these considerations then misunderstandings can lead to unnecessary design changes being made further down the line.

Even if the number of items overlooked or not clearly defined in a brief is minimal, these omissions can still lead to errors in the design, with much greater impact on cost and programme at the construction stage because they are often discovered late in the project.

The development and delivery of the brief needs to be appropriately planned, with sufficient time allowed for the client’s needs and expectations to be defined in collaboration with all relevant parties. The project team should ensure that the deliverables of the brief reflect, and can adhere to, corporate governance requirements.

What are the desired outcomes and how can you achieve them?

The brief should define project objectives and aspirations and be clearly communicated to the project team. The briefing process is fundamental in defining the needs and expectations of the client, and requires sufficient time to be completed in collaboration with all relevant parties.

Define the project requirements

The client brief is the question the project has to answer. It should clearly define the project requirements considering all aspects – including for example the use or uses of the project, sustainability goals, or futureproofing considerations – and not be limited to purely cost-focussed targets.

Clients need to accept that the brief will adapt and develop as the project progresses. The designer should assist in the development of the brief to help balance the competing objectives of cost and aspiration to deliver best value.

Agree who will lead the briefing process

On major projects with experienced clients, the client should initiate and lead the briefing process: in other cases the client should encourage the lead designer to do so. In the latter scenario the client will be assisted by the designer’s experience, and continuity will be maintained throughout the briefing and design stages.

It is also important at the early stage to define how the brief will be developed, which again will depend on the client organisation. Larger organisations may have a number of stakeholders, and hence require a longer consultation process. It is imperative that the requirements of all parties are recorded and their relevance assessed. Stakeholders need to be identified and engaged in the process of stakeholder management. It is equally important to determine the key individuals and identify who makes the decisions; these should be consistent throughout the briefing and design stages as far as possible. All stakeholders should record a commitment to the brief. (See stakeholder management).

Consider defining a vision statement

It can be useful to define a vision statement at the outset, clearly stating objectives and aspirations. This will ensure that everyone involved in the project understands its goals in culture and collaboration.

Develop the brief

There is a difference between briefing and the product of that process – the former is just as important as the latter, and should unite the client and design team, giving form and structure to what the client wants to achieve.

Unless there is a comprehensive evaluation of the client’s requirements – not just the project itself but also how it will subsequently operate – then the brief will not reflect client expectations. Therefore, it is vital that sufficient time is provided for briefing and the associated evaluation. Input from all parties can help to support a collaborative mindset and collective project ownership.

Do not rely on standard model forms – but use them for guidance

Standard model forms should be used as guidance for developing the brief documents, with a bespoke version created for each project. This reduces the risk that some aspects of the brief may be overlooked.

Regularly review the brief

The brief should be presented to the client at the end of each stage to avoid misinterpretation and make sure expectations are met. It is also an opportunity for the client to reassess their requirements. At the end of the process the client should present the brief back to the project team to ensure that the content is fully understood and correct. (See opening up and closing down).

Test designs against the brief

Design teams have a responsibility to regularly review their designs against the brief and provide constructive input to the briefing process as outlined above. A competent design consultant should have internal processes in place to independently review their understanding of the brief, service provided and value added to the project. If design teams regularly test and review themselves against these considerations, this can help to improve the quality of the work produced in accordance with the client’s expectations as well as reinforce relationships. Clients should seek evidence of these processes when selecting members of the design team.

Key goal

To establish a well-defined brief, and ensure the briefing process is carried out comprehensively, within an adequate timeframe and with the involvement of the key members of the project team.

Practical steps

Practical stepPurposeFurther information
Define the project requirements, and consider if a vision statement is necessaryTo ensure all aspects of the project have been considered and defined, including for example the future use of the project, sustainability goals, or futureproofing considerations – and not limiting the brief to cost-focussed targets.Culture
Agree who will lead the briefing process and the form it will take.To determine the key individuals in the project team and ensure decision-making is consistent throughout the briefing and design stages as far as possible.Collaboration
Develop the brief, using standard model forms for guidance as appropriateTo ensure that all requirements have been considered and described in the briefVision statement model form

Consultation meeting model form

Briefing contents model form
Regularly review the briefTo confirm that the client’s expectations are met and that the brief is clearly communicated and understood.Opening up and closing down
Test designs against the briefTo improve the quality of the work produced in accordance with the client’s expectations, and to strengthen project team relationships.Opening up and closing down
Guiding the design team

A well-defined brief and comprehensive briefing process are essential for every project. How these are established will be influenced by a number of factors, but the following example can be adapted for any type of project:

  1. Initial engagement: determine key individuals within client team and agree consultation process
  2. Develop strategic brief: define scope of project which should involve relevant members of the project team
  3. Initial project brief: consider and define spatial requirements, project outcomes, site information and budget
  4. Final project brief: revisit the brief during this stage of work, update as necessary and sign it off.
  5. Project brief update: there may be benefit in revisiting the brief after planning consent, as associated conditions may require changes to the scheme.