How to nail down a proper web development brief

Before you even think about designing a Web page, whether it is for yourself or for a client, there are some important questions that must first be addressed. I have always believed that, where design is concerned, getting the brief right is half the battle. You can't possibly solve problems when you don't know what they are! And when you have that blank sheet of paper or Photoshop window in front of you and are looking for inspiration to get started, knowing where you are heading is a great help.

Many clients are incapable of giving a proper brief. They have a rough idea of what they want, maybe they've seen something on another site and want something similar. Maybe they have no idea what they want and are looking for suggestions. In the majority of cases, I find that I have to write the brief myself and say, "Is this what you have in mind?" It usually is, or it's pretty darned close. Then we all know where we are heading, and it's down on paper and agreed.

Professional designers should have a doctor/patient relationship with their clients. If a patient goes into a doctor's surgery complaining of chest pains, the doctor knows what causes pains in the chest from training and experience and takes an appropriate course of action. If the patient offers a diagnosis, as they often do, the doctor ignores it and starts asking questions to find out what the problem really is.

Like patients, very few clients are experts when it comes to Web design. They may have a goal in mind but they are hiring you, the designer, to keep them straight and achieve that end. If you find that the client knows more about Web design than you do, you have big problems. If they think that they know more about Web design than you do, and you can't convince them otherwise in the first few minutes, you still have problems and this particular client is probably not right for you.

One of the worst situations in any design project is where the client, or the designer, has preconceived ideas of what the site should look like. This is like giving a prognosis without even knowing the symptoms and inevitably leads to a bad design solution. Clear all preconceptions from your mind. If you have already decided that because you have just learned to use Flash that you are going to use Flash, that is the wrong reason.

Step back.
First consider the problem, then decide the best way to solve it! Your doctor doesn't prescribe the latest designer drug without establishing what exactly is wrong with you and considering all the other options for treatment first.
That's professionalism!

Every design problem has its own set of peculiarities and requirements. Not only do you need to establish what these are but you have to prioritise them too. To hit the target, you can use a precision rifle or a scattergun - one spot-on solution or a number of solutions that are slightly differently focussed. Even doctors don't always know the exact way to treat an ailment, they may have to try a few alternatives - there's nothing wrong with that. But, some doctors are general practitioners and some are specialists. Their options and charges vary accordingly.

There is no magic formula for constructing a brief. As I said, every problem is uniquely different and needs to be treated as such, but here are a few basic guidelines to get you up and running.


Many clients have no idea what they should be paying for a Web site. They will get a huge spectrum of quotations from companies and individuals of many different levels of competence and won't really know what is the 'going rate', if indeed there is such a thing. If you can show them exactly what they will be getting for their money - in terms of end results - they will be more confident about hiring you and paying what you ask - provided, of course, they can afford it, which is another story!

I can't give any guidelines about specific amounts or even hourly rates, there are too many variables. You should know what you need to earn.
When someone asks me how much I charge for a simple Web site of maybe ten pages, as they often do, I just point out that Web page design is not sold by the yard like carpets. It is nothing to do with the number of pages whatsoever. A logo design, custom illustration or JavaScript routine can add hundreds or even thousands to a price. I insist on a basic list of requirements so that I can establish a fairly exact brief before attempting to work out how long it is going to take and therefore how much it's going to cost.

In the end, it is a design job. They are paying for design, both functional and aesthetic, not for HTML files. That design job requires a high degree of talent and you also have to own the correct tools - hardware and software. You might have a single Mac or PC, or a bank of different computers and monitors all needing different software licences - that's expensive.

You could work from your bedroom or from a plush office with a receptionist and conference room. All these factors are going to have an influence on how much you can credibly charge.

Again, I can't give anything but very general advice. I work in the UK. Formal contacts are almost unheard of here, I've never had one in my life. In the USA, contracts are virtually mandatory. Depending on where you live and work, you need to know about your legal rights, what you can and can't do and what your responsibilities are. Things get even more complicated if you are working for clients in other countries with different legal requirements. You should consider getting some professional indemnity insurance.

Establishing a fairly tight brief (and price) and agreeing it with the client before commencing work should make everything run more smoothly further on down the line. If it all needs to be drawn up as a formal contract, then that is what you should arrange, having taken appropriate professional advice.
For longer projects, it is best to opt for staged payments. Break the project down into concept, design, implementation, maintenance, or whatever, and bill each stage separately.

Sometimes an advance payment can be arranged on work you are about to do and is especially useful if you have to pay subcontractors - illustrators, programmers etc.

Think of the brief as the foundation of a design project. If it is built on sand, the whole thing could collapse with dire consequences for everyone. Building on a firm foundation will keep the project on good standing, and your reputation.

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