How to interpret a Publisher’s design brief and turn it into something beautiful

A while back we asked our Twitter followers if there was anything that we do as a design agency that they wanted to find out more about. And the lovely ladies at ELT Teacher to Writer asked us “How do you go about interpreting a publisher’s brief and shape it into a book (or whatever)?” So here goes our explanation.

The first thing we do when we receive a brief is to read it through. This is then usually followed by a phone call, or a face to face meeting with our client.

We ask lots of questions (often to our client, but also between ourselves) as to who really is the target audience? What market requirements are there, where is this first edition going to be sold, will there be further editions into different markets that need to be considered in this design? How many components will make up the remainder of the course? What will these be like? Do we need to design with these in mind? Especially if there are digital elements. What features (structural, navigational and design) are there going to be? What is the global feel and style of the course? What individual level and component features can be introduced? What is the competition? What is already out there that you don’t/do want it to look and feel like?

Then we start to break the brief down even further. Such as; font size (appropriate for age range) and font policy; level of creative input, usually related to the budget; features to accommodate navigation and the general structure.

Once we’ve identified what we believe are the key elements, we research. We look for ideas and inspiration based around the key elements we’ve pulled out of the brief. For example if we’ve been asked to come up with a design concept for a new english course for the secondary market in latin america, we will go to this market (not physically unfortunately!). We’ll research current trends and themes for this target audience. We’ll look at materials that are already available – competing titles and popular culture. We start to build up a visual picture of who this user is, what kind of things they like to look at, are influenced by and aspire to be.

We’ll use sites like Pinterest to build confidential mood boards and use this as a space to keep ideas and visual influences.

Then we start to design. As we’re quite a large team we usually get a few designers to work from the brief (the supplied one, plus the additional elements we’ve been building up) independently of each other to get a few initial design concepts.

We then spend time looking at the designs we’ve come up with. Usually printing them all out and laying them out on a big table. We debate where each one fits the brief, where only particular elements of a design meet the brief. What works, what doesn’t? We often debate between designs that we think our client will like but will be forced down a route that the market wants.  We then go back and refine the designs, taking into account the discussions we’ve just had. From this we produce two or sometimes more solutions we think best fit the brief. With a difficult brief, we sometimes send a few selected designs to our client for their initial reaction and comment, before completing the first stage.

We’ll work with our client to tease out more from the brief and what they really want. Feedback can take days or even weeks if the client has to submit our designs to market or their distributors. Their response can be anything from a few tweaks to a complete re-think – particularly if key stakeholders haven’t been part of the initial design briefing stage.

Once we have honed down the feedback and assimilated more information we may re-visit some of the research stages. Then we’ll start the refining process. Tweaking images, working with different typefaces, colours, textures and graphics, whatever is required.

So we then sit down again and discuss which are the best concepts, which meet the brief in their entirety and which are the 3 or 4 versions we will select to present to our client. Our selection process tends to be two that nail the brief. One that’s a safe bet, which we know meets the market demands but possibly isn’t as inspiring. And one stand-out,  pushing the boundary one.

So to answer the original questions the process of interpreting a publishers brief is an iterative one. And a very collaborative one. We go through many small stages to get to the end result, honing down our focus and ticking off the criteria as we meet it.

Have you got any other hints and tips for interpreting a brief? Or other techniques and tools you use? We’d love to hear your thoughts and if you have any more questions comment below!

About emc design

emc design is a leading print & digital design agency for publishing.
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4 Responses to How to interpret a Publisher’s design brief and turn it into something beautiful

  1. Penny Hands says:

    Love this! Thanks for the peek behind the scenes, Sophie. One thing I always feel I could do with, as an editor, is a wider range of vocabulary for describing what I have in mind, or for saying what doesn’t feel quite right about a design or piece of a/w. But it sounds as if you are pretty expert at teasing out of people what they are looking for.

    • emc design says:

      Thanks Penny, glad this has given you a bit of an insight. We know it’s hard to give feedback on what is/isn’t working, especially when marking up. Probably the best bit of advice would be once you’ve made your comments and at handover stage get on the phone and have a chat with the lead designer, sometimes it’s easier to express what you mean that way. I don’t think there is enough face to face/voice to voice dialogue, we’re all so good at emails that it’s our default communication mode!

  2. Pingback: Pinterest: How and why do we use it? | emc design ltd

  3. Pingback: Where does a design agency fit into publishing? We explore this as part of the PA’s #workinpublishing week | emc design ltd

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